Friday, 17 December 2010

The Collapse of Religious Life Part IV: Detachment from the world, work and contemplation

In the last two parts of this series I’ve touched on the argument that the higher status of religious life, and its commitment to vowed chastity, somehow denigrated lay life in general, and married life in particular.

Today I want to look at claims that monasticism’s attitudes to work and the world are similarly damaging to the laity.

The anti-monastic view of lay spirituality

 Fr Jordan Aumann OP’s still popular book On the Front Lines: The Lay Person in the Church After Vatican II, for example, claimed that a lay spirituality is:
  • ‘incarnational rather than eschatological’;
  • ‘secular rather than monastic’;
  • ‘one of involvement rather than withdrawal’ (He goes as far as to suggest that: “However much an individual may be drawn to the contemplative state of life, this is not a path that leads to holiness for the laity”);
  • ‘community oriented rather than individualistic’;
  • ‘apostolic rather than contemplative’ [1].
They are a reasonable summation of the threads that run through much of the contemporary literature on the laity, and not just of the more liberal elements of the Church. And none of the above, I think would be seen as problematic by the more conservative ‘ecclesial movements’ such as Opus Dei.

 Flight from the world or care for its salvation?

 One of the most damaging attacks on the value of monastic life, I think, has been the claim that ‘contemptus mundi’ – literally contempt for the world, but actually meaning detachment from it, "in this world, but not of this world"– has, in the past encouraged the laity to disengage from their role in changing society here and now.
Much of this debate rests on the proper interpretation of Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes. Russell Shaw for example argues that Gaudium et Spes effectively introduced a new concept of “consecratio mundi” to replace the old contemptus mundi [2].

Yet it is worth pointing out that another key Vatican II document, Lumen Gentium, actually reaffirmed that monasticism serves to remind the Christian that “For the People of God has here no lasting city but seeks the city which is to come....”[3] And as historian and Catholic commentator Robert Royal, for example, has noted that:

 “In both ancient and medieval thought, the world had a severely limited importance because of what it truly is for us: a brief interlude between two eternities in which all things are passing. This realization did not lead Dante any more than it did the major pagan thinkers to neglect very real worldly duties; it merely put them in a different perspective.” [4]

I’ve already alluded in this series to Pope John Paul II’s warnings of too large a focus on this world rather than the next. In his encyclical Spe Salvi Pope Benedict XVI similarly rejects the idea that the monastic life reflects a flight from the world, citing the example of the Cistercian Bernard of Clairvaux:

  “It was commonly thought that monasteries were places of flight from the world (contemptus mundi) and of withdrawal from responsibility for the world, in search of private salvation. Bernard of Clairvaux, who inspired a multitude of young people to enter the monasteries of his reformed Order, had quite a different perspective on this. In his view, monks perform a task for the whole Church and hence also for the world. He uses many images to illustrate the responsibility that monks have towards the entire body of the Church, and indeed towards humanity; he applies to them the words of pseudo-Rufinus: “The human race lives thanks to a few; were it not for them, the world would perish ...”[5]

Contemplation, action and work

 The point that the Pope is making is that contemplation is just as important for the future of us all as action. Yet even in recent times there continue to be a lot of Marthas, sneering at religious who adopt a “life of prayer and Eucharistic adoration”, painting this as somehow in contrast to, rather than a different form of, service [6].

Tracey Rowland has pointed out that though there is nothing new (since the Reformation) in this mentality, it is difficult to see it as anything other than the victory of the Lutheran rejection of the value of monastic life, a project aimed at affirming the value of ordinary life over doxology and contemplation” [7]. She believes that moving away from this conception must inevitably lead to the phenomenon of persons being "‘Catholic in faith, but Protestant in practice’, or, more precisely, in denominational allegiance, but Protestant in both theory and practice.”[8]

 In reality, as Rowland has pointed out, far from denigrating work, the concept of the sanctification of labor which received endorsement at Vatican II was the “transference of the Benedictine idea of the sanctification of labour from the specifically monastic sphere to the world at large.”[9] Indeed, the Father of Western Monasticism, St. Benedict himself, started from the proposition that “Idleness is the enemy of the soul”, and his monasteries down the centuries have (until recently at least!) generally reflected this ethos [10].

 The sensus fidei?

Yet even as this attack has gained ground in the Church and been actively promoted, even as this ideology has been internalized by religious themselves and led to their withdrawal from the apostolate and decline in numbers, there has also been an exponential growth of interest in monasticism on the part of the laity.

Even as the number of monks, nuns, brothers and sisters has declined, the numbers of lay associates of monasteries and religious orders has increased dramatically. The increase in business in monastic guesthouses has proved the financial salvation of many an order. Hundreds of books and courses that purport to teach contemplative prayer. Similarly, the ‘how to be a monk in your own home’ genre is filled with titles. And the web is alive with groups aiming to help in this regard: indeed, in what seems almost a contradiction in terms, there is even an online group assisting in the formation of “lay Carthusians”.

 Now I’m not personally much of a fan of the ‘monastic theme park’ response to this interest, and I agree with those who argue that much of this literature and activity is positively dangerous. It reflects, in many cases, an overreaction to and overcompensation for what has happened.

 But I do think this deep interest in monastic spirituality does reflect what many laypeople instinctively know: monasticism is not an entirely separate condition, but rather simply a realization of the Gospel and can and should act as a reference point for all the baptized. It is not something whose time has passed by, but, as Pope John Paul II repeatedly affirmed, something that has been part of the Church since its very beginnings, and something of enduring value to it:

 “In the light of that teaching [of Vatican II] it has been recognized that the profession of the evangelical counsels indisputably belongs to the life and holiness of the Church. This means that the consecrated life, present in the Church since the beginning, can never fail to be one of her essential characteristic elements, for it expresses her very nature…The idea of a Church made up only of sacred ministers and lay people does not therefore conform to the intentions of her divine Founder…”[11]

 Monasticism is the baptismal vocation writ large

 St Benedict concludes his Rule for monks by noting that it is but a beginning, and that his monks should look to the teachings of the holy Fathers in order to achieve perfection. “For what page or utterance of the divinely inspired books of the Old and New Testament,” he says, “is not a most unerring rule of human life?” [12]

 This reflects the constant teachig of the Church.  Pope John Paul II, for example, noted with approval the Eastern tradition that:

  “monasticism was not seen merely as a separate condition, proper to a precise category of Christians, but rather as a reference point for all the baptized, according to the gifts offered to each by the Lord; it was presented as a symbolic synthesis of Christianity. When God's call is total, as it is in the monastic life, then the person can reach the highest point that sensitivity, culture and spirituality are able to express.”[13]

And Pope Benedict XVI has echoed this line of teaching, saying for example:

 “But if we look a little closer, we see that the monastic life is only a great symbol of baptismal life, of Christian life. It shows, so to speak, in capital letters what we write day after day in small letters. It is a prophetic symbol that reveals what the life of the baptized person is, in communion with Christ, with his death and Resurrection…”[14]

 And coming next…

 But the value of monastic life goes beyond either the works of the apostolate or acting as an example to the laity, but also in its crucial role in the creation, protection and transmission of Catholic culture down the generations. The attack on the value of what have been characterised as "anachronistic cultural accretions" of course goes far beyond monasticism [15].  But monasticism is crucial to it, as we shall see in the next part.
Then next year, in the second half of this series, I’ll look at some of the internal forces within religious orders that have also contributed to the collapse, so vividly painted in the recent report on the numbers of religious in Australia.

[1] Fr. Jordan Aumann OP, On the Front Lines: The Lay Person in the Church After Vatican II (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2000, previously published 1990), 167-9
[2] Russell Shaw, To Hunt to Shoot, To Entertain: Clericalism and the Catholic Laity. (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 1993), 161.
[3] Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium (LG), 21 November 1964, 44
[4] Robert Royal, The God Who Did Not Fail (New York: Encounter Books: 2006), 135.
[5] Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi, 30 November 2007, 15.
[6] Sr Carmel Pilcher, “Nuns Veiled and Unveiled”, Cathblog, 8 July 2010,
[7] Tracey Rowland, Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II (London: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2003),91.
[8] Ibid
[9] Ibid, 86-7.
[10] J McCann (trans and ed), The Rule of St Benedict in English and Latin, Roman Catholic Books, Chapter 48.
[11] Pope John Paul II. Post Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Vita Consecrata, On the Consecrated Life and its Mission in the Church and in the World, 25 March 199, 29.
[12] Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 73.
[13] Apostolic Letter, Orientale Lumen, to mark the centenary of Orientalium Dignitas of Pope Leo XIII, 1995, 9.
[14] General Audience, 11 February 2009.
[15] Shaw, To Hunt to Shoot, To Entertain, 86-87.


Anonymous said...

Jordan Aumann was a Dominican

Terra said...

You are absolutely right anon, must have had Jesuits on the mind when I put that sentence in. I had it right in the footnote too! But now fixed...

Anonymous said...

Monasticism is not the baptismal vocation writ large. It began in heresy. It has value when it is restricted to those who are truly called to it, not held up as some sort of ideal for all to strive towards.

Do you think that God would seriously propose monasticism as the "baptismal vocation writ large" when He told Adam and Eve to go forth and multiply? Attempts to monasticise the entire clergy/church inevitably end in tears (or even bloodshed). Romantic ascetics never seem to learn, do they?

+ Wolsey.

P.S. Note that consecrated vowed celibacy, objectively a highter calling than marriage, is not co-extensive with monasticism.

Father Mark, O.S.B. said...

Yes, Father Jordan Aumann was a Dominican, but the sort of thinking is described flourished in S.J. circles and, from there, flowed into religious institutes of women.

Terra said...

Fr Mark - Agreed.


1.Monasticism began in heresy? Please cite some basis for this absolutely absurd claim.

2.Our Lord and Our Lady are, Scripture tells us the New Adam and the New Eve, and thus establish a new idea of virginity for the New Covenant, as Pope John Paul II was hardly the first to point out (see Part II of this series I think).

3.I don’t think Pope Benedict XVI was quite endorsing the idea of the ‘universal vocation’ (although of course that was the traditional idea – that all of us have a latent vocation to the religious life, but in practice most of us either have obligations that prevent it being realized or are in practice psychologically unfit for it). What he is pointing to is the idea that we are all bound by the evangelical counsels in a way consistent with our state of life, but that religious life represents the pinnacle to this, a benchmark for us all, as the response to Our Lord’s instruction to the rich young man – If ye would be perfect…, makes clear.

4.So I’m not suggesting ‘monasticising’ the whole Church, just suggesting that it does have value in various ways to the whole Church, properly adapted to each person’s state of life. It doesn’t mean for example that secular priests should say the monastic office – but does suggest that they should say some form of Office suited to their needs. It doesn’t mean that the laity need say any Office at all, indeed the rosary was always seen as a substitute for it for those who couldn’t manage options like the Little Office of Our Lady (though clearly it is a good thing for the laity to say some Office, as the Church encourages them to do).

5.Whatever do you mean by ‘romantic ascetics’? Are you suggesting that some degree of asceticism isn’t appropriate to all?