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Analysis of the Problems in Religious Life Today
and Some Proposed Solutions

Rev. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The following study is in response to the letter of Archbishop Mayer, Secretary of the Sacred Congregation for Religious, in which he proposed these questions:

  1. According to you, which are the problems in the Religious Life today that need most to be studied, and why? What solutions would you propose?

  2. What order of priority should be followed in approaching these problems?


In making this analysis, it seemed best to first set forth the dominant problems, along with an explanation of why they are problems. Then some solutions will be offered to each set of problems. And finally, the problems and their hopeful solutions will be arranged in the order of what is considered their priority on the practical level. Each problem area will be given a title to help focus attention on its basic features.

I. Intrusion of Alien Ideas

Somewhere near the center of the crisis in Religious Life in countries like the United States is the entrance of alien ideas into the stream of Catholic thought.

These ideas are alien to historic Catholicism in matters of faith and doctrine, morals and spirituality, worship and the ministry. They cover the spectrum of the Church's teaching and practice, and they are becoming daily more imbedded in the minds of still nominal Catholics. They have affected not only the rank and file religious, but the leaders and major superiors of national and international communities.

These ideas are being put into practice on a wide scale. They are implemented in the juridical documents of communities where they take on the force of law. They are carried into effect in the apostolates in which individuals and groups engage. And they are now supported by a mounting variety of writings in books, magazines and position papers from local, regional and national organizations -- all claiming to speak for religious and to religious in the modern world.

Among these ideas some are fundamentally opposed to the whole of Catholic Christianity and, in fact, to all revealed religion. Others are more directly contrary to a life of Christian perfection. Among the former are such theories as process theology which postulates a finite god, or moral relativism which denies all absolutes as normative of human conduct, or dogmatic (and not merely theological) pluralism which gives equal validity to orthodox and heterodox positions in Christianity.

The present study will assume the intrusion of many ideas that are at variance with Catholicism as a whole and, therefore, also at variance with the principles of sound religious life. But these will not be treated explicitly. They are, in many ways, the substratum of secularization which has also affected a life of the evangelical counsels. Our focus will be on problems that are specially present and prevalent in religious institutes, which means certain ideas that have created problems.

1. Regarding Poverty

Not a few are saying that actual poverty in following Christ is no longer feasible, if it was ever defensible, in the religious life. Whatever else it is, poverty does not mean deprivation. It is said to be essentially a subjective disposition which ranges all the way from "being concerned for the poor" to "being open to the Spirit" in the changing circumstances of the times.

This new concept of poverty has led religious institutes to write into their updated juridical structures such provisions as demands for salaries corresponding to lay persons engaged in the same work, living accommodations that have emptied hundred of convents and religious houses in favor of elegant private apartments, dress and apparel that has discarded the religious and clerical garb in favor of secular clothes with accumulating wardrobes.

2. Regarding Chastity

Complete celibacy in following the chaste Christ is widely held to be passe. It is said to be either psychologically harmful or sociologically unproductive and emotionally unhealthy. Terms like "sexless" celibacy and "unfulfilled" men and women under vows are commonplace.

The resulting impact on religious institutes has struck like a hurricane. Some communities have opened the way for what they call "associate members" of both sexes, cloister for many is an archaism, dating is widespread, and the numbers who are involved in sensual and sexual relations with persons of the opposite sex are known best by those who are living in certain countries like the United States. Reports in the public press about the marriages of "priests and nuns" are simply the end result of sometimes years-long liaisons that are no longer considered sinful for religious. Articles on "Cana for Celibates" in Sisters' magazines assume the propriety of heterosexual relations, short of actual intercourse.

3. Regarding Obedience

The prevalent attitude toward ecclesiastical authority has more than its counterpart in many spokesmen for the religious life. Some theological writers disclaim any evidence for evangelical obedience in Christian Revelation. Others reduce obedience to a pragmatic tool "for the sake of good order" as in a purely commercial or business enterprise.

Abuses of authority in the recent past are repeated and paraded in order to discredit the very idea that mature men or women should be "subjects" to others who are their "superiors" is labeled "infantilism" and religious communities, in which superiors are still recognized as somehow representing the will of God, are derided as "asylums" or "nurseries."

4. Regarding Prayer

Prayer as a "cultic" worship of God, through invocation for divine assistance and especially through the liturgy as sacrament and sacrifice which are means of grace is being re-interpreted in theory and practice. Instead of invocation religious are told they should practice reflection, and so-called "transcendential meditation" in which God is not invoked but the ego is studied is not uncommon.

At the same time, volitional human effort is said to have been neglected in favor of ritual, with the result that religious paid more attention to the worship of God than to the needs of their neighbor. So service is substituted for formal prayer, and the vague aphorisms in revised constitutions about prayer and mass, penance and self-denial are a faint indication of how many religious do not assist at the Eucharist daily and do not engage in private or communal prayer.

The strong counter-movement for Houses of Prayer, Shared Prayer, and paraliturgical experiences merely illustrates the practical neglect of regular prayer by more religious than is commonly supposed.

Here as in other problematic areas, it is immaterial whether the new ideas about prayer influenced conduct, or whether the practical neglect of communion with God produced the new ideas. The situation of prayerlessness, defended in learned writing and speaking -- for example, in a keynote speech given to the national convention of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious -- is a critical problem that calls for solution.

While there are notable exceptions, there is a remarkable correlation between involvement by religious in socio-political activism and their neglect of prayer. Work is prayer, they are told, and they best find God in working for others, not in ritual invocations or devotional acts of piety.

5. Regarding Community Life

Community life as historically understood by the Church is challenged as outmoded on several counts:

  • We have now discovered a new worth of the individual as a person, which makes communal living antiquated.

  • For the same reason, community life by people of the same sex is said to bebased on an archaic notion of what a group is.

  • Certainly large communities are intolerable. They are a relic of former days

  • when poverty and patience were mistakenly canonized as virtues.

There is not only a new stress on personal liberty but a re-interpretation of what this means which deeply affects the meaning of religious life in community. One way of expressing the radical change in thought is to say that in the new approach, if there must be some form of community, it is not a good in itself. Communities are for individuals, as means to serve the person; they are not intrinsically worthwhile, to which the individual is somehow subordinate. If he or she finds that living with others helps him as a person, toward personal fulfillment, then he may join a group, but even then it should be regularly a small group of like-minded peers. It should not be a community in which, as we formerly believed, a premium is placed on self-denial. The motto now is self-expression.

6. Corporate Apostolate

Consistent with the new attitude toward community life is the downgrading of a corporate apostolate in which members of the same community cooperatively engage.

Here, too, it is irrelevant which came first, the idea or the practice. What has happened is a matter of record. There is no comparable abandonment of community-sponsored apostolates in the Church's history. Literally thousands of religious have abandoned their corporate apostolates in less than ten years. Hundreds of schools have been closed, welfare institutions sold to the state or left empty, publications given up.

Facile explanations about lack of money or absence of continued need are beside the point. The underlying cause is the loss of commitment to their respective community apostolates. Such facts as the loss of over 400 Sisters to the Catholic schools in a single diocese, during the first five years of an administration that promotes "open placement" as a matter of principle, are not coincidental.

It is in this context, therefore, that open placement should be seen. It is a euphemism on two counts, since it is not placement but personal choice; and it is not an open but a closed issue once the policy is voted in.

This policy contradicts the Gospel teaching about mission, since no one (except by an inversion of language) sends himself. This policy also makes apostolic community life next to impossible, except as a dormitory situation where persons are uniquely and exclusively engaged in enterprises of their own choice.

This policy makes the exercise of authority practically dispensable in religious institutes engaged in active labors, since it places the religious under the direction and authority of those in charge of the enterprise. By supposition these are not the person's own religious superiors. The latter become superiors only in name, without juridical authority, and are soon reduced to the status of spiritual counselors or advisors, who may be approached but who can also be quietly ignored.

II.Confusion About Authentic Religious Life

Is it any wonder that so many are confused about what is authentic religious life? The confusion arises from a number of sources:

  1. Contradiction between presumably established principles and practice. Those who opt for the ideas (one or more of them) look on other religious as "pre-conciliar," as "out-dated" and consider them a drag on the development of religious life in our times. Those who have made numerous and significant accommodations, but insist that religious life has not essentially changed, consider the others as secularized.

  2. Contradiction between the ideas expressed by "name theologians" and "experts" supporting each concept of religious life.

  3. Contradiction between what the Church ostensibly wants religious to be, for example as spelled out in Lumen Gentium and Perfectae Caritatis, and what the Church (through the Bishops and the Congregation for Religious) allows.

III. Uncontrolled Experimentation

All the documentary information available, for example from the secretary of the conciliar commission on religious life at the Second Vatican Council, indicates that the council did not intend religious institutes to completely change their constitutions. Even Ecclesiae Sanctae, which legitimized the past experimentation up to 1966, legislated that, whatever experiments are undertaken, they may not contradict the nature, character and purpose of a given institute, not to say of religious life as understood in the Catholic Church.

But what happened? In the name of experimentation, the most extreme and bizarre practices have not only been here and there introduced, but the whole fabric of religious life in not a few institutes has been torn to shreds.

What makes it hard for the Congregation of Religious to judge accurately about the situation is the studied effort of those who are directing a complete reversion of religious life to avoid two things:

  • Open and direct confrontation with the Holy See, since they insist that they are engaged in an on-going dialogue with ecclesiastical authorities.

  • Clear and unambiguous language about what is actually being done, for example in "Interim Constitutions" and in correspondence with Rome.

IV. Abuse of Authority by Chapters and Major Superiors

Since religious are supposed to be docile to those in authority in their institutes, inevitably this has led to an abuse of the trust placed in them on the part of those who had imbibed more or less of the secularized ideology identified at the beginning of this analysis.

Canon law never envisioned chapters and major superiors ignoring or over-riding some of the most sacred prescriptions of religious life. A single fact like Pope Paul VI's insistence on superiors in religious communities typifies how deep and widespread has been the erosion in fundamentals.

In not a few institutes, those vested with authority (as chapters and major superiors) have in effect substituted power for the moral right to govern. They have managed to get delegates to chapters through careful politicized strategy. They have managed to get superiors general and provincials elected through well-organized caucus. They have succeeded in getting provisions removed from existing constitutions, and other provisions introduced into juridically uncertain "guidelines" for the institute, through every conceivable stratagem. And all the while, if any of the members complain or express concern, they are told this is "only experimental," or "options are available," or "no constitutions are definitive anyway. "

Religious communities, whose present administration wants to maintain basic continuity, are hard pressed to "hold the line" among their own members, when so many other institutes claim to be not only authentic but better -- even where the latter are patently at variance with the Church's explicit teaching on religious life.

There is a corresponding problem in countries like the United States where the national conferences of major superiors come under the planned control of persons dedicated to the reversal of historic religious life. Years of careful programming finally produces an organization that is characterized by certain features:

  1. Great caution not to precipitate an open defiance of Rome.

  2. Strategic indoctrination of the superiors, through lengthy national conventions, numerous releases through the mails, and regular regional meetings.

  3. Growing power over the Bishops, by threatening to withdraw their members from a diocese -- and carrying out the threat -- unless the Bishops accede to the administration's demands, negatively in such issues as secular dress, and positively in such critical matters as exorbitant salaries from the diocese.

  4. Shrewd playing of both sides of ecclesiastical authority warning Bishops that pontifical institutes are exempt from episcopal control, and using Bishops (often through their Vicars for Religious) to side with them against the supposed tyranny of Rome.

For people who know what is happening, one of the greatest scandals in religious life is the brazen indifference to repeated directives and prescriptions of the Holy See by general chapters and major superiors -- alongside the most complete disregard of the canonical (and even natural) rights of those members who are unsympathetic with the secularization process that is consciously encouraged by the administrators.

V.Loss of Freedom to Live Out One's Vowed Commitment

As a consequence of the abuse of their authority, whether designed or through neglect, administrators in secularizing institutes deprive their members of the freedom to live out their vowed commitment. This deprivation takes on various forms:

  1. Freedom is curtailed by not having access to necessary knowledge of what the Church wants religious to be. This includes not only the suppression of formal directives, say from the Congregation for Religious, but the constant re-interpretation of the Church's teaching in numerous conferences, monographs, and counter-directives from administrators.

  2. In not a few dioceses, Vicars for Religious have become, in effect, the actual superiors of communities. Most Vicars for Religious in the United States, for instance, are strongly well disposed to institutes that are more secularized. In some dioceses they are positively ill-disposed to communities that do not have open placement, wear the religious habit and, in general, follow a more regular way of life.

  3. Open placement and the lack of local superiors have nurtured many coercions on the members, even when the coercion is not directly practiced by the administration. "Finding a paying job," or being alone among others who believe in personal fulfillment, or being subject to countless pressures to conformity, or having to look for financial security from one's blood relatives, or watching less qualified persons preferred because they are willing to compromise -- are only a sample of the sort of injustice which so many religious experience. Many others have by now either left their institutes or decided to go along with the trend.

VI.Loss of Respect for the Religious Vocation

Inevitably, given the image of religious life in certain countries, vocations have dropped immensely. A recent widely circulated book in the United States pictures Sisters, as a class, to be the vanguard of the Women's Liberation movement -- privileged by reason of their relationship to the Church, not dependent upon the economic and social demands of other women, preoccupied with self, and giving lay women the incentive to be emancipated from male chauvinism, typified by the male-dominated organization of Catholicism.

Women religious are the recognized promoters of ordination of women to the priesthood, as the present writer can testify after several months of research for a paper on the subject for the convention of the Canon Law Society in America.

The media, especially television, is depicting religious as discontented with the demands of their vows, as radicals and even revolutionaries, and as finally breaking through the shackles of an outmoded Church-controlled concept of community and religious life.

The departure from religion, often after years in a community, of so many has created the image of uncertainty and insecurity which no amount of vocation-promotion can neutralize. No one argues with statistics. In the United States, candidates for the religious priesthood from 1966-67 to 1973-74 have dropped over 50 per cent; candidates for women's religious communities from 1965 to 1972 have dropped 87 per cent. A net loss of over 40,000 Sisters in ten years cannot be explained away as a passing phenomenon, certainly not to the average American girl who would like to enter religious life. In a recent interview this writer had with a college coed in California, inquiring about entering the convent, her first question was, "Can you recommend one active community in the United States that you are sure will still be in existence ten years from now?" On being assured there were such, she has since applied for admission to a community in the East, 3,000 miles away.

Both men's and women's institutes report a startling contrast between the numbers entering in affluent countries and those entering in Afro-Asia and (where possible) in countries behind the Iron Curtain. Logic argues to a causal relationship. It further intimates that vocations to the religious life (as graces from God) are not wanting where young people have still flourishing communities to which they can turn. Even in affluent societies, there is a marked correlation between the spiritual vigor of a community and its appeal to the young. The largest net decrease and the least number of entries are among communities which, on analysis, have compromised on the Church's expectations for sacrifice of those in religious life.


Certain qualifications are called for regarding the foregoing problems. They are important in order to better appreciate the solutions to be offered.

  1. When saying that alien ideas have intruded into religious life, this is meant objectively. No implication is here made about subjective culpability, which only God can judge.

  2. When speaking of confusion about authentic religious, this is meant subjectively or psychologically. No implication is thereby made about the objective clarity and certitude which the Church has, in its historical and (most recently) conciliar teaching, about the religious life.

  3. When speaking of uncontrolled experimentation, there is no intention to minimize the need for accommodation to places, cultures and the times. What is meant by "uncontrolled" is the failure by not a few institutes to observe the norms of Ecclesiae Sanctae in their capitular action. One result has been that even otherwise stable communities are insecure, living as some say, "from chapter to chapter," not knowing what new experiments in addition to present ones will still further erode the essential continuity of religious life.

Proposed Solutions

In offering solutions to the crisis in religious life in some countries, it seems wiser to recommend different approaches which are technically distinct, although in practice they necessarily overlap.

Implicit in each of the solutions is the fact of massive polarization on every level of religious life in countries where the crisis has risen. The polarization is between different institutes, between provinces or regions of the same institute, between local communities of the same province or region, and between members in the same community. It is worth stressing this fact of polarization both because it is symptomatic of the situation and because one of the unacceptable solutions would be to try to remedy the crisis by merely removing the symptom. Merely to homogenize what is now polarized is not the answer. Everything depends on what basis, i.e., what principles, polarization is to be removed or even reduced. Will these principles be those lived out for centuries in the Catholic Church and most recently enunciated by the Second Vatican Council? If not, then a worse crisis is in store for religious institutes wherever unprincipled homogenization takes place.

I.Continued Co-Existence and Planned Dialogue

What may be called a solution and what seems to be the unspoken mind of Church authorities is to permit the polarized segments of religious life to co-exist, while encouraging all parties to engage in interpersonal communication in dialogue.

In spite of the apparent sterility of this approach so far, it has merit that deserves attention.

On its positive side, such co-existence and dialogue:

  1. Shows respect for different ideas and opinions in the Catholic Church.

  2. Spares ecclesiastical authorities further confrontation from those who charge the hierarchy and the Holy See with being authoritarian.

  3. Spares ecclesiastical authorities the embarrassment of "correcting" what had previously been tolerated.

  4. Gives both "sides" the opportunity to exchange ideas and share their respective convictions.

  5. Offers some chance of mutual benefit through the interchange, certainly in their practice of charity.

On its negative side, however, continued co-existence and dialogue:

  1. Perpetuates the impression that in the Catholic Church there are possible and permissible mutually exclusive concepts of religious life.

  2. Gives credence to the idea that the historic teaching of the Church on religiouslife is being phased out of existence.

  3. Works havoc on those institutes which still profess to believe in and follow the principles and directives of Lumen Gentium and Perfectae Caritatis. Why should religious who prefer the "new approach" to poverty, chastity and obedience remain in communities that insist on what the Second Vatican Council teaches, if they can have nominally religious life which is independent of this conciliar teaching?

  4. Implies that the underlying issues which polarize religious are merely external, accidental and not deeply internal and essential to the very substance of a life totally dedicated to the following of Christ in the practice of the evangelical counsels.

II.Executive Action and Juridical Legislation

Another solution would be the exercise, by appropriate ecclesiastical authorities, of such judgment as is within its competence to decide and (as necessary) decree certain things like the following:

  1. That the experimentation permitted by Ecclesiae Sanctae has, for many communities, gone beyond prescribed and reasonable limits; that after a certain date it may not continue.

  2. That in a given diocese, religious will be permitted to exercise the apostolate only if they observe certain minimum essentials of religious; that otherwise they are not the witnesses to sanctity which the Church expects of her religious.

  3. That exemption does not mean the right to ignore certain requirements of a life of the counsels.

  4. That major superiors of pontifical institutes are such really and not only in name, with a clear and concise indication of the principal areas in which they are assured of effective support in their pontifical status by the Holy See.

  5. That the provisions of Pope Paul VI's Evangelica Testificatio be implemented with certain directives, along with definite consequences if the directives are not followed.

Such evidence as is available to this writer indicates that efforts in the aforementioned direction have been made. The California I.H.M. case is nationally known, and more recently individual groups of religious have been allowed to form a separate entity -- within certain limits and with certain protective provisions. But large scale plans -- so it is said -- along juridical lines, have not been implemented because of strong representation by major superiors' conferences, who in turn persuaded certain bishops to forestall such implementation.

The fear of schism in certain regions if juridical action were taken is well founded. At the same time, it can justly be said that there is de facto schism in some institutes whose administrations consciously ignore explicit directives of ecclesiastical authorities. This is illustrated by the fact that some bishops in the United States are seeking legal counsel (before the civil law) to protect Church property from appropriation by the administrators of religious institutes in their dioceses.

Another concern about taking juridical action is that many religious would be caught in the middle, torn between their loyalty to the institute to which they belong and to ecclesiastical authorities in the diocese or the Holy See.

III. Concerted Education and Spiritual Formation

This solution to the problems facing religious life is based on the premises of the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul's Apostolic Exhortation to Religious.

It has two main postulates:

  • That a great deal of the crisis in religious communities in certain countries is due to lack of sound education, adequate information or factual knowledge of religious life (in principle and practice) not only on the part of religious, but of bishops, priests, and the laity in dealing with religious or in their attitude and expectations of religious.

  • That no crisis of the present magnitude can be resolved without supernatural means. These means can be synthesized under the general term "spiritual formation." It is meant to refer, again, not only to religious but to bishops, priests and the laity, whose spiritual condition of soul has great bearing on their relationship to persons consecrated to a life of the counsels

Thus we may distinguish two parts to this solution, each directed to a somewhat different end and yet closely connected with each other.

A. Concerted Education

  1. The plan here is to organize a dedicated group (whose nucleus would be small) of bishops, major superiors, priests, religious and outstanding laity. As envisioned for the United States, it would be called the Institute on Religious Life, and will have at least these levels of structure:

    • A board of directors (up to 20) who will be the policy-making body of the Institute. They will meet periodically each year, while being kept constantly informed about activities and developments.

    • A staff of paid personnel (along with volunteer help) who will do the work of the Institute, according to policy determined by the board of directors.

    • A variable number of associates who will cooperate with the Institute in implementing its policies, though not necessarily under the official sponsorship of the Institute.

  2. The scope of the Institute's activity is to be essentially educative, i.e., to educate bishops, priests, religious administrators, individual religious, lay leaders, and the youth -- in the meaning, dignity and importance of religious life in the Catholic Church. This religious life will be presented as the pursuit of sanctity in the imitation of Christ, and the practice of a corporate apostolate in cooperation with the hierarchy and in loyalty to the Holy See.

  3. The areas of its educative activity will be such functions as research (history, theology, canon law, liturgy), information (documentary, personal experience, statistics, data), communication (through the media), instruction (schools, conferences, symposia), and publication (books, articles, reports).

  4. The role of the laity in the Institute is to be intrinsic to its membership and responsibility, both because they belong essentially to the Church and because they have a vested interest in the preservation and progress of religious life.

  5. This Institute is not merely in its planning stage, since the nucleus for the organization has already been started and months of cooperative effort have already gone into its structure.

  6. It is intended to be of service to any person or group that wants to avail itself of the Institute's facilities.

B. Spiritual Formation

Intimately tied in with concerted education is the proposed spiritual formation.

The Institute on Religious Life is, therefore, also to foster growth in the spirit, mainly through prayer and sacrifice, of religious themselves and of those who affect religious life.

However, the spiritual formation here foreseen has a larger focus as well. It assumes that since the root of the problems in religious life are in the spiritual order, the remedy or solution must be in the same order.

Hence the transcendent importance of encouraging the faithful (including religious) to pray, make reparation, offer sacrifices, participate in the Eucharistic Liturgy, and beg God for the graces He wants to give to religious and for their apostolates.

The means available to arouse the faithful to deep concern for religious life in many countries are manifold. Not the least is the need for the people to know just how serious the crisis is, and to impress them with the importance of preserving religious life for the present and future welfare of the Church.

Looking to that future in religious institutes, guidelines should be made available for the wiser choice of candidates to the postulancy and novitiate; for the deeper faith-commitment through the training of young religious; and for the on-going, lifelong formation of religious men and women in the practice of prayer, the love of the Cross, and the alert service of others while maintaining a close and constant union with God.


A concluding observation on priorities in the above solutions proposed, can be simply made.

In the writer's judgment, first priority belongs to concerted education (or re-education) and spiritual formation, for two reasons:

  1. Unless the mind is properly informed, the will cannot be rightly motivated. Education here is seen as directed to the mind in order to motivate the will to appropriate action.

  2. Unless divine grace is received, through the proper dispositions of will (especially prayer), it is useless to talk about solutions of the problems of religious life.

Second priority should be given to some executive action by the Holy See and the bishops. Not a small part of the difficulty here is the delicate and sometimes tense relationship of bishops to Rome, and vice versa. Speaking of the United States, the bishops on the liaison commission for dealing with religious women have indicated their willingness to do whatever they can to cooperate with the Sacred Congregation for Religious. Some juridical action by ecclesiastical authorities is earnestly desired by many knowledgeable persons, to help resolve some of the problems affecting religious life.

Final priority is given to continued co-existence and planned dialogue. This does not minimize its inherent value, but places it last as a realistic solution to the crisis in religious institutes, notably in the Western world.

Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica

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