Friday, 10 December 2010

The collapse of religious life Part II: the selfishness of salvation?

Continuing my series on the causes of the collapse of religious life, I said in my last post that the external attack focused I think on three ideas, namely that:

• religious life provides a safer, surer path to holiness;

• that religious life, by virtue of the evangelical counsels, represents an objectively higher state of life that has a special value in the Church; and

• that religious and religious life provides useful reference points for the laity.

Today I want to look at these a little more closely.

The objective superiority of religious life

No one has ever claimed that every person is capable of religious life in practice. Nonetheless, the traditional view is that religious life, particularly in its contemplative form, is a higher state of life than the married, single state or even clerical state.

Why? First because it involves taking a vow, and anything good undertaken by solemn vow recognized has intrinsically more merit than the same thing done without a vow. Secondly, because of the adoption of the evangelical counsels, including poverty and obedience, in their most radical form. Thirdly, and above all, by the choice of ‘celibacy for the sake of the kingdom’.

And, at least in its traditional form, religious life was structured to help one achieve that aim through aids like daily mass and Office, spiritual exercises, asceticism, strict controls over sources of temptation, and above all the support of a community engaged in a life solely focused on God without any distractions.

Now in reality of course there are always temptations and distractions: and anyone, no matter what state of life can fall into sin if they are determined to do so. Still, the basic framework of the life was intended to provide a safer, surer way.

Religious life and the ‘self-aggrandizement of salvation’

One of the most obvious reasons to become a religious is the desire to get to heaven. Spirit of Vatican IIism changed all that. As Romano Amerio pointed out in his classic book Iota Unum, one of the key elements of the hermeneutic of rupture is the view that the pursuit of personal salvation is inherently selfish, a kind of theological utilitarianism [1].

The Church’s teaching, of course, has always been that by pursuing holiness and saving oneself, one in turn helps others: through example, the merits of one’s prayers and spiritual offerings, and through the fervent charity of words and acts that convert. It starts from the Gospel injunction to “Seek therefore first the kingdom of God”.

Modern liberals such as Sister Joan Chittester, seizing on Gaudium et Spes’ message of the need for a greater focus on social justice here and now, decry this as “the self-aggrandizement of salvation”, seeing traditional forms of religious life as favoring a selfish, elitist objective over service of others and the transformation of the world.[2] Similarly, Gerald Arbuckle, has argued that the pursuit of individual holiness was always a diversion from the real purpose of religious life: “Most religious congregations founded since the thirteenth century were formed for prophetic ministry to a world in change...”, he claims. [3] No wonder then that other Australian religious, such as Sr Carmel Pilcher discussed in yesterday’s post on religious life, have also adopted this line.

But what is the Gospel foundation for this view? It relies on radical interpretations repeatedly rejected by the Magisterium, and grounded in a theology of rupture:

"Nowadays the kingdom is much spoken of, but not always in a way consonant with the thinking of the Church. In fact, there are ideas about salvation and mission which can be called "anthropocentric" in the reductive sense of the word, inasmuch as they are focused on man's earthly needs…The kingdom of God, however, "is not of this not from the world" (Jn 18:36) [4].

The objective superiority of religious life

A second thrust of the assault on the value of religious life was on the idea of the objective superiority of the life.

Lumen Gentium, some claim, affirmed the universal call to holiness, thus overturning longstanding doctrine in favour of the radical equality of all of the baptized [5]. Proponents of the new ‘theology of the laity’ argue that by claiming an objective superiority for monastic life, the implicit message is that anyone who does not become a priest or religious is not serious about seeking holiness [6]. And if everyone is called to holiness, how can some few be said to be called to a “state of perfection”? [7]

Traditionally of course a distinction was made between the “state of perfection” and actually being perfect. Nonetheless, the idea that the Church is hierarchical both in its organization and in its holiness is an ecclesiology which is difficult for some to swallow.

Of course, if one actually reads Lumen Gentium closely, and in a spirit of continuity rather than rupture, the traditional doctrine on the nature of holiness and its pursuit is actually set out there (as some, such as Gerald Arbuckle, have actually lamented)[8]. But the traditional view has been largely suppressed from view in public presentations of the documents.

Religious life as a reference point for the laity

The assault with perhaps the most far-reaching consequence in terms of the apostolates of religious though, has been the argument that monastic spirituality denigrates the secular aspects of life that are the particular domain of the laity such as marriage, work and the world.

According to the actual words of Lumen Gentium, religious life “… constitutes a closer imitation and reenactment in the Church of the form of life which the Son of God made his own when he came into the world”. [9] Religious life is meant to help and support the laity by providing an exemplar of holiness that inspires imitation by providing a ‘visible representation of the human life of Christ who was chaste, poor, and obedient.’ [10] Yet in the 70s and 80s, even otherwise conservative writers such as Fr. Jordan Aumann SJ argued that monastic spirituality was positively dangerous to the laity, and that ‘the exaltation of the celibate and contemplative life resulted in marriage and the active life being held in contempt and low esteem’[11].

And as a result of this ideology, religious were ‘encouraged’ to vacate the active roles that put them in close contact with the laity, such as in the schools and hospitals, in favour of the laity.

I’ll explore the basis for this exclusion, in misinterpretations of monastic renunciation of the world, fundamental misinterpretations of the monastic theology of work, and misconceptions of the nature of virtue and the relevance of the monastic ideal in the next part of the series.

[1] Romano Amerio, Iota Unum. A Study of Changes in the Catholic Church in the XXth Century, trans. from the Second Italian Edition by John P. Parsons (Kansas City, MO: Sarto House, 1996), pp 322.

[2] Sister Joan Chittester OSB, “Old Vision for a New Age,” in A Monastic Vision for the 21st Century: Where Do We Go From Here? Monastic Wisdom Series: Number Eight. Edited by Patrick Hart OCSO (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 2006): 91.

[3] Gerald A. Arbuckle SM, From Chaos to Mission: Refounding Religious Life Formation (Sydney: St Pauls, 1996), 1.

[4 ] See for example John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Redemptoris Missio. On the Permanent Validity of the Church's Missionary Mandate, 7 December, 1990, 17.

[5] Russell Shaw, To Hunt to Shoot, To Entertain: Clericalism and the Catholic Laity. (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 1993), 166-168.

[6] Shaw, ibid, pp 49.

[7] Donna Orsuto, “The Spirituality of the Laity,” in Compendium of Spirituality. Volume Two. Compiled by Emeterio de Cea OP, translated and adapted by Jordan Aumann OP ( New York: Alba House, 1996), 32. See also Rodney Stark and Roger Finke “Catholic Religious Vocations: Decline and Renewal,” Review of Religious Research 42 No.2, (December 2000): 125-145. M. Prudence Allen RSM and M. Judith O’Brien, RSM, “The Decree on the Appropriate Renewal of Religious Life, Perfectae Caritatis,” in Matthew L. Lamb & Matthew Levering, eds., Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition (Oxford: University Press, 2008), 254.

[8] Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, 21 November 1964, 44; Arbuckle, From Chaos to Mission, 30. 

[9] Lumen Gentium, 42.

[10] John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Vita Consecrata, On the Consecrated Life and its mission in the Church and in the World, 1996, 42.

[11] 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), 167-8.

*This post draws on a Masters thesis by the author for the Catholic Distance University.


Anonymous said...

‘the exaltation of the celibate and contemplative life resulted in marriage and the active life being held in contempt and low esteem’

There is some truth in that. But, far from being irrelevant to married life, the Rukles of St Andict and St Augustine have much to teach any married couple or family about life in community.

Terra said...

Actually I think there is no truth in that proposition whatsoever, as I'll explain in more detail in the next part of my series.

But to put it simply, it is a modern phobia to say that becuase one thing is considered better or best, another thing is thereby denigrated. It is not.

Did Our Lord's unmarried state denigrate marriage?

Did his comments on becoming eunichs for the sake of the kingdom somehow discourage families?

I think not.

Joshua said...

I am delighted by this ongoing series of yours, Terra!

Terra said...

Thanks Joshua. Sad really that it has taken me a year to recover from the theis process and be able to put this stuff in perspective!