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:
- 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?
- What order of priority should be followed in approaching
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
- 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.
- Contradiction between the ideas expressed by "name
theologians" and "experts" supporting each concept of religious life.
- 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)
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
- Great caution not to precipitate an open defiance of Rome.
- Strategic indoctrination of the superiors, through
lengthy national conventions, numerous releases through the mails, and regular regional
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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 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:
- Shows respect for different ideas and opinions in the Catholic Church.
- Spares ecclesiastical authorities further confrontation
from those who charge the hierarchy and the Holy See with being authoritarian.
- Spares ecclesiastical authorities the embarrassment
of "correcting" what had previously been tolerated.
- Gives both "sides" the opportunity to exchange
ideas and share their respective convictions.
- 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:
- Perpetuates the impression that in the Catholic Church
there are possible and permissible mutually exclusive concepts of religious life.
- Gives credence to the idea that the historic teaching
of the Church on religiouslife is being phased out of existence.
- 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?
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- That exemption does not mean the right to ignore
certain requirements of a life of the counsels.
- 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.
- 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
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
- 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.
- 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
- 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,
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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
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:
- 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.
- 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