Monday, 20 December 2010

The collapse of religious life Part V: culture and traditions

I wanted to finish off the first half of this series on the collapse of religious life with a brief reflection on perhaps the most devastating of all of the forms of attack on the religious life, albeit one that goes beyond it into all aspects of catholic life, namely the attack on Catholic culture as a whole.

The past several decades has seen a dramatic failure in the transmission of the faith from one generation to the next. Though the number of nominal Catholics continues to grow in Australia, the number of young people who actually emerge from Catholic schools believing the truths of the faith and attending mass regularly remains scandalously low [1].

There are, of course, many contributing causes to this: poor catechesis; being subjected to unattractive liturgy; and poor parental example all immediately spring to mind [2]. But behind all of this, arguably, stands the systematic dismantling of the catholic sub-culture that existed prior to Vatican II [3]. The religious life, in many ways, was simply collateral damage in a much wider project. Still, I would argue that the collapse of religious life has been a significant contributing factor to the general collapse of Catholic life.

The destruction of the Catholic sub-culture

Prior to Vatican II the faith was passed on and supported by a vigorous web of institutions and practices: confraternities, professional guilds, schools, devotions, sacramentals and much more. Monasteries and religious orders were an integral part of this rich fabric of Catholic life. The faith, for most people, was learnt by absorption as much as explicit instruction or dialectical engagement: immersion in the culture creates ‘tacit knowledge’ which can be made more explicit through self-reflection [4]. But the 1960s and 70s saw most of this sub-culture deliberately dismantled, with dire consequences for the transmission of the faith.

The attack on the catholic sub-culture came from two directions.

The first I think is perhaps the one with which we are most familiar today: the idea that the Gospel should be preached independently of the cultural practices in which it has long been embedded since those cultural practices, or small ‘t’ traditions were in fact a positive barrier to evangelization [5].

The habits of religious, for example, rather than being in itself a form of witness, were thought to make potential converts uncomfortable, to separate the religious from ‘real people’. The axiom ‘lex orandi lex credendi’ (the way we pray affects and reflects what we believe) was discarded, and with it went important messages such as the reality of commitment to the faith; that the next life was worth sacrificing for; and that celibacy and virginity are worthy ideals for example.

The second direction of the attack though, and I think equally important, was an attack on the quality of Catholic institutions in the late 1950s. Russell Shaw has argued that in the case of institutions such as schools and Universities, the turning point was the publication of an article entitled “American Catholics and the intellectual life” by Monsignor John Tracy Ellis in 1955 [6]. The theme of the article, he says, was the intellectual mediocrity of American Catholicism in all its forms. Shaw argues that the analysis of a litany of catholic failure was badly out of date – if it had ever been true – by the time of its reception. But it was a critique that was nonetheless eagerly embraced and acted on.

There was, I think, a parallel diagnosis in the monasteries and active orders: despite the fact that noviciates were bursting at the seams and new monasteries being built to accommodate ever growing numbers, Vatican II encouraged people to bring out their laundry lists of practices and ideas they thought obsolete, but whose abolition proved in fact to have devastating effects [7]. Similarly one should not discount the impact of the embrace of Zen practices by perhaps the most famous monk of the time, Thomas Merton, in suddenly making the Western tradition seem old hat.

One Benedictine Abbot has described the early days of his community, founded in this heady period, thus:

“In my early years as a monk in this community, we experimented all the time…At one point we had only Buddhist cushions on the floor of the Church and not a single place to sit, except on the floor. We went through a phase when we sang only four part harmonies as in the Russian Orthodox tradition and we had icons everywhere… We went through a period of trying various practices of the Native Americans. At one time we did not even let the priest presiding at Holy Mass wear vestments...” [8]

Culture and evangelization

Of course all of this sent a message to the lay faithful. The point is that the importance of religious life to evangelization goes much deeper than either the works of the apostolate or providing an example to the laity. In particular, the current Pope has defended monasticism as the very source of authentic and enduring culture. In a series of speeches and homilies he has argued that the root of all authentic culture lies in listening to God in his Word [9]. In the case of the West, he argues, it is the monastic engagement with the Word of God that created European culture:

“At the time of the profound crisis of the ancient civilization, the monks, guided by the light of faith, chose the right pathway: the pathway of listening to the Word of God. Thus they were great scholars of the Sacred Scriptures and monasteries became schools of wisdom and "dominici servitii" school, "in the Lord's service", as St Benedict called them…In the search for God revealed to us in the Sacred Scriptures, the profane sciences, oriented to attaining a deeper knowledge of the secrets of languages, thus became important. Consequently, it was eruditio that developed in the monasteries which permitted the formation of culture.”[10]

Similarly, Dom Gerard Calvet, founder of the traditional monastery of Le Barroux, argued that the monastery is the inheritor of (a purified) Roman order and civilization: “For Saint Benedict, heir to Roman order, evangelizing and civilizing are one and the same. He considers the man knocking on the door to be more or less a barbarian, that is, one who has no memory, no past, no tradition. The characteristic of barbarism is its discontinuity.”[11]

No wonder than that the virtual abandonment of monasticism in its claims to memory and tradition; its witness to the priority of the contemplative over 'ordinary life'; the withdrawal of many orders from the active apostolate and the wholesale discarding of the visible signs and symbols of religious life, has had such a devastating effect on the health of the Church.

There is no substitute for religious life

There is hope however.

To the consternation of many in the Church, a dynamic group of traditionalist and conservative monasteries and religious orders are attracting vocations and lay support. Rebel monks such as Dom Gerard Calvet of Le Barroux have been vindicated in the success of their foundations.  The monasteries that actively resisted the pressure to conform to the maximum extent possible, such as the Benedictine monasteries of Fontgombault (men ) and Jouques (women) have not only thrived, but have in turn made several new foundations in recent decades. New monasteries and orders, often re imagining older charisms, have sprung up and are attracting vocations.

And reform is possible from within. The German Trappist monastery of Mariawald, for example has famously reverted in recent years, to older forms of its constitutions in a bid to turn the tide on falling numbers.

One of the more compelling stories though for me at least is of the Benedictine monastery I mentioned earlier, that went through every new age experiment possible, because it has since completely turned around. Abbot Lawrence of Christ in the Desert has commented:

“Out of all of that experimentation, slowly our community took shape. We began to make choices that put us into the heart of the Church instead of always on the fringes. For some, those choices made us appear much more traditional and perhaps more rigid.” [12]

The monastery eventually adopted traditional habits, rediscovered Gregorian chant and Latin, returned to the use of the full weekly psalter in the Office, and made other changes toward recovery of the tradition. The monastery now has four dependent houses and another four monasteries that it assists.

This is not to suggest that such change is easy. It requires conscious effort, not just vague aspirations: the adage to work as if everything depends on you, but know that everything depends on God surely applies here. And any change will continue to encounter resistance from within and without.

In the end, though, just as there can be no substitute for the sacramental priesthood in the life of the Church, neither can there be any substitute for the eschatological and sacrificial sign offered by religious life.

And the proposal that, reading ‘the signs of the times’, religious life should just be allowed to die out, must be resisted at all costs.


[1] Some figures from a recent survey, for example, suggest only 4% of Catholic 15-19 year olds and 5% of 20-24 year olds regularly attend Sunday Mass:
[2] See for example the ongoing work by Br Marcellin Flynn, reported in AD 2000:
[3] Tracey Rowland, Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II. (London: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2003), 11-29.
[4] Ibid, 130-132.
[5] See for example Russell Shaw, To Hunt to Shoot, To Entertain: Clericalism and the Catholic Laity. (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 1993), 94-5.
[6] Russell Shaw, Ministry or Apostolate? What should catholic laity be doing?, Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 2002, 52-53.
[7] Terrence G. Kardong OSB, “Thoughts on the Future of Western Monasticism,” in A Monastic Vision for the 21st Century: Where do we go from here? Monastic Wisdom Series: Number Eight, ed. Patrick Hart OCSO (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 2006), 59.
[8] Abbot Philip Lawrence OSB, Abbot’s Newsletter, Christ in the Desert Monastery, 13 May 2009.
[9] Address at Collège Des Bernardins, 12 September 2008; Address to Participants in the International Benedictine Abbots' Conference, 20 September 2008; Address at Cistercian Monastery of Heiligenkreuz, Austria, 9 September 2007; Homily given at Cassino, Piazza Miranda, Sunday, 24 May 2009
[10] General Audience, 17 September 2008.
[11] Dom Gerard Calvet, translated by Raymond Lévesque and Peter Vere as Tomorrow Christendom (Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse, 2004), 92
[12] Abbots Newsletter, op cit.

This series draws heavily on my 2009 Masters thesis for the Catholic Distance University, and I would like to particularly thank my excellent supervisor, Dr D Prudlo for his indispensable assistance in that process.  All responsibility for the ideas, errors and omissions remains of course with me.


Schütz said...

Excellent stuf, Terra. I didn't know you were doing post-grad studies. What is the Catholic Distance University?

Terra said...

Thanks. Actually finished over a year ago and graduated Magna cum laude for what its worth. Its just taken me this long to recover and put it into blog post form!

The Catholic Distance University is a US institution accredited in Virginia, Federally and with the Vatican. In practice it is a virtual institution, able to draw its academic staff from all over North America with good result!

I chose it because of its strong commitment to orthodoxy (a brief foray with the Australian Catholic University convinced me that I'd never survive it. You would have thought Latin would be safe, but...) and the breadth of its offerings.

I'm looking particularly looking forward to the Ordinariate as one of my fellow Australian students doing the Masters at the same time I was is now a TAC priest!

The course structure and faculty listing has changed quite a lot since I started, but its website can be found here:

Antipodes said...

This is an excellent series which, inter alia, quite correctly highlights the collapse of the Catholic sub-culture as a major but largely overlooked factor in the collapse of the religious life and of Catholicism more generally in the West.

It is a significant trait of all revolutions to attack and destroy the prevailing culture and, sadly, the events in the Church stemming from the '60s are little different.

There was, I think, another factor at least in the general demise of traditional Catholic sub-culture in Australia which pre-dated Vatican 2, and that was the advent of television in the late 1950s. Most guilds, etc. such as the Holy Name Society, the Sacred Heart Sodality, the Children of Mary and so on, held their meetings and devotions including Benediction on Sunday evenings. I noticed in my parish that the demise of this sub-culture correlated precisely with families glued to the telly on Sunday nights.

Anonymous said...

This all makes perfect sense to me. This is an excellent blog. As a generation Xer, born in the 70s, I can visualise the inspiration that religious would provide the laity in daily life, for all the reasons you outline in this series. It would be comforting to know that there were religious in your community doing the spiritual hard yards for the whole community and we could support them as best we could in our roles as lay married people. Like I said, I can visualise it but will I ever see it in reality? This ideal seems so far from what I see on the ground in my home town. A massive turn around would be needed. Thankyou for opening my eyes to a part of New Evangelisation that I had not considered. I will pray for more religious vocations in Australia.