What's wrong with Religious Orders in America?

The Apostolic Visitation to American female religious orders - begun under Benedict XVI - has just been wrapped up with the issuance of a Vatican document. The tone of the document leaves one wondering what the problem was to begin with. All of the original problems identified under the Benedictine pontificate (pantheism, paganism, spiritualized environmentalist earth worship, rampant lesbianism, dissent, etc) are simply omitted in the new document, which almost goes as far as to apologize to the nuns for bothering them for the past few years. Nothing to see here folks, move along. To those who love our Church's monastic-religious tradition, this is obviously a huge disappointment. The Vatican has chosen to ignore the real problems in American religious life, which really are the same problems endemic throughout the west. Since the Vatican has failed to act, we present our own assessment of what is wrong with religious life in America and what ought to be done about it.

Special thanks to friend and fellow blogger Kevin Tierney for the substance of the following commentary.

What's the problem with religious life in America? It's mostly the same problem with the overwhelming majority of Catholic life in America: it isn't really Catholic.

That doesn't mean it's "bad" per se. A lot of religious orders do a lot of great charitable work, and a lot of contemporary Churches do a lot of good social ministry (pro-life stuff, food banks, etc.) Yet there's no distinctly religious character about it; it is not ordered to any supernatural end. This makes it no different than any other charitable NGO. But why devote your life to a religious order that is so characterized? When a religious order becomes essentially just an NGO, there are better places to put your skills to use. Sometimes you might get paid more, you might get better benefits, social stature, etc. doing the same thing for another organization. The Catholic Church can't offer a competitive benefits package that most secular do-gooders can. So if we try to make ourself just another secular do-gooder, we aren't going to get a lot of people.

Another problem is there doesn't seem to be any discernible mission to religious life nowadays. It's mostly "Do holy stuff. Do charity." The Church has always mandated charity; there was a time when this kind of work was mostly understood as the work of the religious. But the religious mission was always more specific. All are called to do Holy Stuff and charity is not optional. So understanding the religious vocation simply in terms of "doing charity" leaves one wondering in what way the religious mission is particularly different from the mission of any Catholic lay person serious about their faith. What is the particular mission of Catholic religious as distinct from the laity? The NGO approach obviously makes it impossible to answer this question.

Finally there is an attitude that views monastic life a waste of time, even amongst the religious. It's viewed as "retreating from the world" and meditating, rather than doing social action. While all religious orders have suffered decline, the monastic orders have suffered the worst devastation. Monks are much more of a rarity than nuns. If history teaches us anything, you can't rebuild religious life as a whole without a proper understanding and embracing of the monastic life by the Church.

What to do? That is a policy for the Vatican decide. We are no experts here. But we do know what we should believe, and it honestly seems a lot of religious communities in the Church DON'T believe the following:

1.) Only the Catholic Church can provide true social justice because only the Catholic Church understands the soul.

2.) The mission of religious orders is the conversion of souls. Works of charity is a means toward that end. Through works of charity, you help make sure the material needs of someone are met (food, education, shelter) as a way of preparing them for the Gospel. Even if they aren't going to be receptive towards the Gospel at this particular point, that is the framework you need to operate within. I really think this needs to be developed further. Religious orders really should be the field operatives for the Social Doctrine of the Church. The problem is too often the material services meant as a preparatio evaneglica
end up displacing and then replacing the evangelica.

3.) To support and complement these individuals, we need a renewal of monastic life, for those who spend their lives in prayer and reparation for the sins of the world, or those who spend their lives in prayer and reflection preparing the world, in their own way, for the Messiah's reign extending into their midst. These individuals are needed more than ever, and their emergence will coincide with a return to some of the earliest principles of Eastern monasticism, which actually isn't Eastern, but simply the founding principles of monasticism: the retreat from the world is so you can better understand and carry out your mission of evangelizing. Like Elijah, his retreat to the mountain of God was TEMPORARY. Once he had an encounter with Christ, he was back in the thick of things.

This is where the traditionalist movement has a distinct advantage, and it will begin to play a greater and greater role as time goes on: there's been a silent monastic renewal spearheaded by some traditionalist communities. A lot of religious orders have popped up centered around the monastic life, but also living that life out through the traditional liturgical calendar and custom, which is actually built pretty well for the purpose of the monastic life.

Does our Holy Father understand this? We may surmise that Pope Francis understands a lot of the things mentioned here, and he has spoken at length on why they are problems, but it is doubtful whether he has any concrete ideas how to address any of this. He might be as clueless as the rest of us, because this tends to be an issue that is solved over generations, seldom by insight from one man -especially this one (Betting that Pope Francis is the next St. Francis, Benedict or Dominic is likely to end in disappointment, no matter how much you like him).

Does our current pontiff appreciate just how important a rigid discipline is to the religious life? Discipline is what made his Jesuit tradition so great; their organization was military order with a disciplined rule of prayer) and is one reason why the Jesuit tradition he represents today is 95% awful. Honestly, there are probably 100 worthy Jesuits left in the order worldwide. That original Jesuit discipline isn't just cruel austerity, but a realization that, if we cannot have order on things small, how will we be able to handle larger things? That's part of what the religious habit is about. The habit identifies one with something other than yourself. It's identifying yourself to a life that is not meant for creature comfort. Most importantly, it's a visible sign to the world you represent Christ, and everything they are doing, including for you, is geared towards bringing you to an encounter with him. That might not lead to your conversion, that's up to you; but darn it, we're going to bring Him to you.

The bulk of this article was written by Kevin Tierney, with minor edits by Boniface. Kevin blogs at Catholic Lane and Catholic Exchange.