Religious orders after Vatican II

Religious life, it is said, is in crisis. And, some say, it’s Vatican II that caused all the trouble! Let’s analyse this statement, as dispassionately as possible, given that your author is himself a member of a religious order, the Jesuits, that has seen its membership drop from 35000 in 1965 to about 19500 today.

Nuns look on as Pope Benedict leads the Angelus at the Vatican. (Photo: Max Rossi, Reuters/CNS)

Before Vatican II we saw a proliferation of orders of priests, brothers and sisters, all dressed in their habits, living in large communities, going about their prayer and work like well-oiled machines.

Leaving aside the fact that the end of World War II saw a dramatic spike of entries to religious life, creating an unusually (some might say unnaturally) high number of professed men and women by 1962, we might say that all was well—give or take the occasional oddball or spiritually abusive superior.

After Vatican II we see religious out of habits, moving into smaller communities (and some living alone), doing a variety of works uncharacteristic of what they’d done before. We also see a swathe of departures from religious life—religious who felt unable to cope with the reforms the Council brought, or feeling that there had not been enough reform, or simply because they felt what they were doing was irrelevant.

Today the only orders that seem to be growing are “traditional” ones—full habits, monastic lifestyles, strict rules of common life.

Did the Council create a crisis in religious life? Is the Council to blame? Yes and no.

The central theme of Vatican II was renewal of the Church, including the renewal of religious life. Perfectae Caritatis (1965), the Decree on the Renewal of Religious Life, made this explicit: for religious orders to be truly a witness to the world they had to renew themselves.

The Council did not abolish religious life in any form or shape; indeed it emphasised that the proper living out of the evangelical counsels—the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience that all religious make, and in the case of monastic men and women, stability (remaining in one’s community) —were central to what is was to be a religious and crucial witness value to the Church and the world.

What changed at Vatican II was the call to religious to renew themselves by returning to their original charism. This meant returning to those elements in each order or congregation, monastery or convent, that made their lives distinctive, modelled on the vision of their founders.

That Vatican II had to make this call is indicative of how far religious life had changed. Members of orders founded to be missionaries had become resident parish priests, teaching orders created to educate the poor were teaching the rich, and some contemplatives had become parish priests.

Among women religious this had been particularly acute: Mary Ward had founded the Loreto Sisters in 1609 to be apostolic missionaries in lay dress among women, but had been forced by the Church to become habited, virtually enclosed semi-contemplatives running girls’ schools.

To their credit, the religious men and women of the Church not only accepted but rapidly started to implement the call of the Council to renew religious life, come what may. Though it was often painful they looked at the vision of their founders and foundresses and implemented the needed changes.

Teaching brothers closed wealthy schools and moved to educating the poor. Contemplative orders reviewed their lifestyles, often opting for greater simplicity in line with original charisms. Other orders, noting that their original reasons for existence no longer existed, tried to remake themselves according to what they discerned their founders’ original intentions might have been had they lived in modern times.

The result was often painful and sometimes exciting. “Chaos, utter chaos!” was how one religious formed in the late 1960s and early 1970s once remarked to me.

As religious orders underwent renewal, many members felt that all the security they once had was pulled from under them. Some left, unable to cope with change; others responded to the fluidity of their lives with such enthusiasm that they literally renewed themselves out of religious life.

The growing importance of lay women in professions and public life since the 1960s offered, too, opportunities to women religious they had never considered: where religious life had once been the only space available for “independent women”, other roles beckoned where they felt they could better serve God as women.

Those who remained, those who helped to reshape religious life, developed a new kind of spirituality: one that stressed serenity and closeness to God in the midst of turbulence. It was a practice that kept them focused on God amidst the confusion of daily life, a sense of calm at the centre of the hurricane of change that swept, and arguably continues to sweep, through the Church and World.

Today, fifty years after Vatican II, the tensions thrown up by the renewal of religious life remain. Faced with the priest shortage, some missionary orders have—contrary to their charism—been more or less dragooned into being “diocesan” priests. Apostolic sisters’ congregations who see their mission as one of accompaniment of contemporary women are frequently libelled as feminists and unorthodox for their views. Such hostility is I believe misplaced, for these women—and men—are moving in areas the mainstream Church often cannot reach.

It is not surprising however that the more “traditional” orders attract vocations today. There is a safety in certainty, in regularity, in the life of contemplation particularly for those hurt by the cruelty and cynicism of the contemporary world. And, certainly, those who join “renewed” orders need the kind of tough spirituality of their ’70s forebears to survive in difficult times.

  • Calvin James Montgomery

    Reverend and Dear Father

    A short response to your article

    ” By their fruits you shall know them”

    I have read, and re-read your article and surprisingly find it hard to disagree with, simply from an observational standpoint. This is a first for me perhaps, thank you!

    Firstly I agree with you, the traditional orders are growing (Thank God), but why?

    Allow me to offer my perspective

    1) Young people like myself who have been raised sometime in the last 50 years which have followed the council, have been raised in a world which is completely indifferent and even hostile to Christ and his Church. The traditional orders, with thier habbited monks and nuns have proved to be living witnesses in this ‘post modern era ‘ to those same evangelical councils which the council called for in ‘PERFECTAE CARITATIS’ and firmly ahearant to the magisterium of the church over the past two melennia. They are neither ultra conservative, nor ultra Liberal, they understand the council in light of the past, not in separation from it.

    2) The Chruch did not begin when the council started, and the vast majority of the older dying orders behaved in such a scandelous way in the last 50 years that made unfortunately everything from the time of pentecost to the opening of theseem irrelevant and obsolete, this situation has been mentioned by the Holy Father himself many times specifically as to how we should interpret the council, in the light of Tradition, and that the Faith has not changed, that Vat II is not a super dogma.

    i.e. They became ultra Liberal (ie; have fallen into mortal sin)

    3) The Traditional Orders understand and indeed live the the Truth of our Faith which can never change. However many of the older dying orders have tried to manipulate the deposit of the faith, and unfortunately have lead not a few baptised Catholics into perdition by their rejecting the magisterium of the Chruch and the Authority of the sucessor of St. Peter. The LWCR is a prime example

    Just a few reasons off the top of my head

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