From Past to Present: Religious Life Before and After Vatican II

Author: Cardinal Franc Rodé, C.M.

From Past to Present: Religious Life Before and After Vatican II

Cardinal Franc Rodé, C.M.
Prefect, Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life

The Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life examines how discontinuity and rupture could lead to continuity and reform for religious in the United States

Consecrated Life within the Church and within civil society has never played a secondary or minor role. One can hardly overestimate the importance of consecrated life for the good of the Church and of humanity at large. From the birth of Christianity, some men and women were moved by the Spirit to devote their entire lives to imitating Christ more closely. Their consecration gradually took on the multiple forms we are familiar with today — rules and ways of life that at once express and give continuity to the charisms given by the Spirit.

Even a sketchy overview of history can show abundant evidence that, without the presence and activity of monks and nuns, religious women and men, despite their acknowledged cultural and historical limitations, the history of Western civilization and the evangelization of vast areas of the globe would be immensely poorer.

The history of the Church in the United States of America is rich with the contributions of consecrated men and women who have left an indelible mark on the culture: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, St. John Neumann, and Bl. Kateri Tekakwitha, who in 1679 made a vow of chastity as an expression of consecrated virginity.

Some of the most epic pages in the history of missions were written in this blessed land by the heroic French missionary Jesuits who were martyred in what is now New York State and Ontario, Canada, and by the Franciscans and other missionaries in the South and the West Coast of the United States.

In the last 40 years, the Church has undergone one of her greatest crises of all times. We all know that the dramatic situation of consecrated life has not been marginal in this state of affairs. In practically all Western countries, observers note that most religious communities are entering the endgame of a prolonged crisis whose outcome, they say, is already determined by the statistics.

In many of these Western countries, religious have lost hope. They are resigned to the loss of vitality, of significance, of joy, of attractiveness, of life. But America is different. The vitality, the creativity, the exuberance that marks the thriving culture of the United States is reflected in Christian life and also in consecrated life. Just think: Since the Second Vatican Council, more than a hundred new religious communities have sprung up in this fertile soil.

This is the country that Pope Benedict visited in April in order to bring the message of the hope of Christ. But when he returned to Rome, he said, "I discovered a tremendous vitality and a decisive will to live and to witness to the faith in Jesus". With great joy, he confessed that he himself "was confirmed in hope by American Catholics".1

The present state of religious life

Under the umbrella of "consecrated life" and behind the statistics there lies a variety of situations.

First, there are many new communities, some better known than others, many of which are thriving and whose individual statistics are the reverse of the general trends.

Second, we have older communities that have taken action to preserve and reform genuine religious life in their own charism; they are also in a growth mode, contrary to the general trend, and their median age is lower than the overall average for religious.

Third, there are those who accept the present situation of decline as, in their words, the sign of the Spirit on the Church, a sign of a new direction to be followed. Among this group there are those who have simply acquiesced to the disappearance of religious life or at least of their community, and seek to do so in the most peaceful manner possible, thanking God for past benefits.

Then, we must admit too, that there are those who have opted for ways that take them outside communion with Christ in the Catholic Church, although they themselves may have opted to "stay" in the Church physically. These may he individuals or groups in institutes that have a different view, or they may be entire communities.

Finally, I would distinguish those who fervently believe in their own personal vocation and the charism of their community, and are seeking ways to reverse the trend. In other words, how to achieve authentic renewal. These may be whole institutes, or individuals, pockets of individuals or even communities within institutes.

My talk today is directed principally toward this last group.

Indeed, the recent instruction from my Congregation on The Service of Authority and Obedience forcefully states: "Persons in authority are called to keep the charism of their own religious family alive. The exercise of authority also includes putting oneself at the service of the proper charism of the institute to which one belongs, keeping it carefully and making it real in the local community and in the province or the entire institute".

To that end, it will he helpful to examine the roots of the crisis, and here we come face-to-face with a necessary and brutal question: Wasn't "renewal" precisely what we did after the Council? Wasn't this going to bring us into a new era? And was it not precisely this "renewal" that has landed us where we are today?

As Cardinal Avery Dulles wrote in an insightful essay five years ago, "to reform is to give new and better form to a pre-existent reality, while preserving the essentials.... The goal is to make persons or institutions more faithful to an ideal already accepted".2

Reform, therefore, entails identifying three basic elements: 1) something essential to preserve; 2) some way of dealing with what is essential that has gone wrong and needs to be corrected, 3) a new way of dealing with what is essential that has to be implemented.

The hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture

The Council, in fact, offered clear and abundant guidelines for the needed reform of Consecrated Life. How were those guidelines interpreted and applied? Overall, the Council was interpreted and applied in two very different, opposing ways that we must look at more closely if we are to understand what has happened and map out a course to follow toward the future.

"Why has the implementation of the Council, in large parts of the Church and concretely in religious life, been so difficult and the source of so much turmoil?" asked Pope Benedict in an important speech three years ago.3

The answer he offers is deep and crystal-clear. "It all depends on the correct interpretation of the Council or — as we would say today — on its proper hermeneutics, the correct key to its interpretation and application". He continues, "The problems in its implementation arose from the fact that two contrary hermeneutics came face to face and clashed. One caused confusion; the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and continues to bear fruit.

"On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call 'a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture'; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the 'hermeneutic of reform', of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us".

1. The 'hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture' described

In the Holy Father's analysis, "The hermeneutic of discontinuity" is based upon a false concept of the Church and hence of the Council, as if the former were from man alone and the latter a sort of Constituent Assembly. The call to change would be the true "spirit of the Council", to such a degree that whatever in its documents reconfirms the past can be safely said to be the fruit of compromise and therefore to he legitimately forsaken in favor of the Council's spirit.

This spirit that all is new and has to he made new gives rise to the fervid excitement of the explorer, the prospect of stepping courageously beyond the letter of the Council. But the call is so vague that one is immediately left anchorless, a victim of his every whim and rejecting all correction. It is idealistic in so far as it underestimates the frailty of human nature, and it is simplistic in thinking that a "Yes" to the modern era will solve all tension and create harmony.4

Given these premises, and given also the best of intentions, what calming influence could there be on experimentation, and what principle was there to moderate the tendency to incorporate into religious life the fads and patterns of modern culture?

2. This hermeneutics of rupture has dominated the attempts at renewal of religious life

There is a fine balance in the Council's documents, but at the time, given that the mandate was for up-dating, it was easier to justify change than to defend continuity.

Paragraph 2 of Perfectae caritatis reads, "The adaptation and renewal of religious life includes both the constant return to the sources of all Christian life and to the original spirit of the institutes and their adaptation to the changed conditions of our time". Read with the hermeneutics of rupture and discontinuity, the "return to the sources of all Christian life and to the original spirit of the institutes" tended to be interpreted in light of "adaptation to the changed conditions of our time" rather than the other way around.

The following paragraphs of the same document contain phrases quite familiar to us, and only with difficulty do we remember the rest of what the Council said:

"...Let constitutions, directories, custom books, books of prayers and ceremonies and such like be suitably reedited and, obsolete laws being suppressed, be adapted to the decrees of this sacred synod" (n. 3). " make allowance for adequate and prudent experimentation.... But superiors should take counsel in an appropriate way and hear the members of the order in those things which concern the future well-being of the whole institute" (n. 4).

As we continue reading Perfectaecaritatis, the numbers that follow spell out beautifully the true nature of religious life and are worthy of meditation, but despite their length and density and their appeal to spirituality, prayer, obedience, love, and so on, their fate is sealed once they are read with the hermeneutics of change.

Thus rupture and discontinuity as a point of departure become a self-fulfilling prophecy, producing, precisely, rupture and discontinuity.

3. Religious life was not an isolated battle-ground

"Aggiornamento" was the term in vogue, and meaning "up-dating", it presupposed something to be brought up to date: It presupposed continuity. What took place was a "pseudo-aggiornamento" that was unrecognizable in Catholic terms.

Operating at the root of this "pseudo-aggiornamento" was what can best be described as "naturalism". It supposed the radical centering of man on himself, the rejection of the supernatural, and operated in a climate of radical subjectivism.

It showed itself in multiple ways: In talk about holiness that is totally divorced from fulfillment of Christ's law and the concept of grace. In minimizing sin. In the acceptance of the world as it is, with no need of conversion. In taking the world as the criterion according to which the Church ought to he reformed. In a notion of apostolate or ministry that consists in being at ease in the world rather than changing it. In rejection of authority, and especially divinely constituted authority, hence the rejection of the Magisterium and all canonical and disciplinary ordering in the Church.

4. The results of the hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture in religious life

We must begin here by acknowledging that there certainly was much to correct in religious life, much to be improved in the formation of religious. We must also admit that society proposed challenges for which many religious were not prepared. In some cases, routine and crusts of outdated customs needed to be shaken off. In this sense we must affirm categorically that not only was the Council not mistaken in its thrust to renew religious life, it was truly inspired by the Holy Spirit in doing so.

Pope Benedict, speaking to superiors general, said: "In these last years, consecrated life has been re-examined with a more evangelical, ecclesial and apostolic spirit; but we cannot ignore that some concrete choices have not offered to the world the authentic and vivifying face of Christ. In fact, the secularized culture has penetrated the mind and heart of not a few consecrated persons, who understand it as a way to enter modernity and a modality of approach to the contemporary world. As a result, in addition to an undoubted thrust of generosity capable of witness and of total giving, consecrated life today knows the temptation to mediocrity, bourgeois ways and a consumerist mentality".

Religious life, being a gift from the Holy Spirit to the individual religious and the Church, depends especially on fidelity to its origins, fidelity to the founder, fidelity to the particular charism. Fidelity to that charism is essential, for God blesses fidelity while he "opposes the proud".6 The complete rupture of some with the past, then, goes against the nature of a religious congregation, and essentially it provokes God's rejection.

As soon as naturalism was accepted as the new way, obedience was an early casualty, for obedience without faith and trust cannot survive. Prayer, especially community prayer, and the sacramental liturgy were minimized or abandoned. Penance, asceticism and what was referred to as "negative spirituality" became a thing of the past. Many religious were uncomfortable with wearing the habit. Social and political agitation became for them the acme of apostolic action. The New Theology shaped the understanding and the dilution of the faith. Everything became a problem for discussion. Rejecting traditional prayer, the genuine spiritual aspirations of religious sought out other more esoteric forms.

The results came swiftly in the form of an exodus of members. As a consequence, apostolates and ministries that were essential for the life of the Catholic community and its charitable outreach quickly disappeared — schools especially. Vocations quickly dried up. Even as the results began to speak for themselves, there were still those who said that things were bad because there hadn't been enough change, the project was not complete. And so the damage was further compounded.

It must further be noted that many of those responsible for the disastrous decisions and actions of those post-conciliar years, later left religious life themselves. Many of you now here are the ones who have remained faithful. With immense courage, you are shouldering the burden of reversing the damage and rebuilding your religious families. My heart and my prayers go out to you.

The hermeneutics of continuity and reform

1. The hermeneutic of continuity and reform described

The true "spirit of the Council" was described at its inauguration by Pope John XXIII when he said that the Council wishes "to transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion". And he continues: "Our duty is not only to guard this precious treasure, as if we were concerned only with antiquity, but to dedicate ourselves with an earnest will and without fear to that work which our era demands of us. It is necessary that adherence to all the teaching of the Church in its entirety and preciseness be presented in faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine, which, however, should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought. The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another".

These words give rise to a very different way of interpreting the Council from what has been described in the previous sections. We have here in essence, the hermeneutics of continuity and reform.

2. The application and fruits of the hermeneutic of continuity and reform

Today we can look with gratitude at the Second Vatican Council, which provided clear guidelines to distinguish between the substance of the deposit of the faith and its circumstantial manifestations. Continuity with what is essential in religious life does not stifle but rather encourages reform of what is outdated, accidental and perfectible. This is evident when we read the finely balanced criteria and guidelines for renewal in Perfectae caritatis, numbers 2-18 that we referred to when we spoke about rupture and discontinuity.

When these same numbers are interpreted in terms of continuity, the changes asked for are never disassociated from their roots. Those seeking continuity in renewal will notice that the Council called for a renewal that is eminently a renewal of the spirit, emphasizing the centrality of Christ as he is found in the Gospels, following him on the path envisaged by the founder through the vows (n. 2).

Renewal is to be sought in the more faithful observance of the rule and constitutions (n. 4).

It calls for a religious consecration that means not only dying to sin (baptismal vocation) but renouncing the world and living for God alone, service of the Church and fostering of all the virtues, especially humility and obedience, seeking God alone, joining contemplation to action (n. 5).

The priority of loving God and nourishing one's life on Scripture and the Eucharist (n. 6).

The Council sees no dichotomy between contemplation and action; the latter springs from the former (n. 7).

The priority of spiritual training if members of secular institutes are to be leaven in the world (n. 11).

Chastity, Poverty, Obedience (nn. 12, 13, 14), are all cast in an eminently supernatural light, based on faith, hope and love. The radicality of their implications is clearly laid out.

The need for common life lived in prayer, charity, and mutual support as highlighted in number 15.

Papal cloister should be maintained by nuns dedicated exclusively to the contemplative life (n. 16).

The habit should be adapted, implying it should remain (n. 17).

Seeking renewal at this juncture in history

If rupture and confusion are what characterize the recent difficulties in religious life, then the way forward has to he a greater seeking of continuity and clarity. Like the scribe who has been instructed in the Kingdom of Heaven, we should bring from our storeroom both the new and the old.7

1. Continuity with the essentials, first of all of our Catholic faith

It would seem superfluous to make this remark, for one would imagine there is no discussion on this point. However, we have all, sadly, experienced the presence of groups or individuals who, by their own admission, have "moved beyond the Church", yet remain externally "in" the Church. Surely, such an ambivalent existence cannot bring forth fruits of joy and peace,8 neither for themselves nor for the Church. We pray that the Holy Spirit will give them the light to see the path to true peace and freedom, and the courage to follow it.

2. Continuity with the concept of religious life as understood by the Church

According to the Council, "Church authority has the duty, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, of interpreting these evangelical counsels, of regulating their practice and finally to build on them stable forms of living".9

Both Church authority and the tradition of the Church throughout the centuries have spelled out what the substance of consecrated life is. Pope Benedict put it this way: "Belonging to the Lord: this is the mission of the men and women who have chosen to follow Christ — chaste, poor and obedient. — so that the world may believe and be saved".10

3. Continuity with the charism of the founder

This is of capital importance, and a key to renew and revitalize our congregations, attract vocations and fulfill our obligations toward the young people who eventually enter our religious families. The Council insists on this. We must ensure that life in our congregations is both fully Catholic and fully in line with the charism of the founder or foundress.

However, some religious superiors have found that this is not enough. They are making great efforts to revive the figure and centrality of their founder; they are renewing religious observance and life in their communities; but they say the vocations are still not coming. There are two further, very important elements to take into consideration.

4. The formation of the new generations and the formation program

In the present circumstances, offering an adequate, faithful formation program is a particularly significant challenge.... This is probably the single most important element that affects the long-term renewal of our congregations and our ability to attract new vocations. Therefore it is essential that it be addressed by all those who desire to see their institutes flourish once more.

I offer some considerations in this regard:

a. It is worth any sacrifice to dedicate to formation the most outstanding of your members. They must be fully in communion with the Church. They must be prudent, eminently spiritual and practical. They must love their congregation and identify with the founder's charism, have a spiritual love for their charges, be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of young people today, and have the complete support of their major superiors.

b. Postulancy and novitiate programs are easier to cater for, but the challenge is greater as regards the study of philosophy and theology, or other college careers necessary for the apostolate of the members. When it is necessary to have religious study in centers of learning outside the congregation's own, these must be chosen prudently so that the doctrine the young religious receive will be sure and in depth, and the external circumstances will allow them to live an authentic community and religious life, continuing to cultivate all areas of their formation, including the spiritual, the sacramental and the human.

c. The new vocations should be educated in the light of the rich contributions of John Paul II and Benedict XVI as regards understanding the dignity of the human person, the nature of freedom, the nature of the religious dimension of our lives, the need for human formation.

d. They should be imbued with love for their own founder, history, traditions, contributions, and a healthy ambition to serve souls.

e. Fidelity to the spirit of religious life and of one's institute should not be depersonalized or static. It should rather be creative, capable of finding innovative ways to develop and apply the charism and of reaching out to the new generation of Catholics and to potential members to the institute.

5. Active promotion of vocations

Vocations are a gift from God, the initiative is completely his. Nevertheless, as is his custom, he normally uses secondary causes and he depends on our collaboration to carry out his plans.

I distinguish two different and complementary ways to promote vocations: One I will call indirect and the other direct. I think that what I call indirect promotion is actually the more important of the two because without it the direct promotion of vocations remains mostly sterile.

"Indirect" promotion is everything that builds up the life of Christ in the Church, and it can be summarized in three dimensions of life: spirituality, catechesis, and apostolate or ministry. And we have to focus these three dimensions to Christian life on the two places that most affect the vocation to consecration: on the family and on the heart, mind and soul of the individual young person.

Today we are engaged in and worried about many things, like Martha.11 Committees, conferences, social justice issues, press releases, and the like, clog our calendar. But there is one thing and one thing alone that will ultimately change the world, and that is the inner transformation of the human person through contact with the grace of Christ.

Spirituality is centered not on a vague religious feeling of being right with God and neighbor and having nice experiences in prayer. Its essence is continual conversion, nourished on the sacraments, and the fulfillment of God's plan for one's life. It has an objective dimension.

Catechesis is not limited to initial instruction, but is the continued deepening in the riches of our Catholic faith that alone among all religions and all versions of Christianity provides solid and completely satisfying nourishment for the intellect as well as the soul. It is essential that catechesis go hand-in-hand with spirituality, and to be able to give a reason for one's hope, as Peter said.12 Witness Pope Benedict.

The third dimension is action, the external living of Christ's charity that takes one beyond the boundary of his own comfort. For the individual, this is a new experience of Christ. In prayer and the sacraments you are transformed by your contact with Christ, in catechesis your mind is nourished, but it takes the practice of Gospel charity to enter fully into the charity of Christ who didn't hold onto what he was,13 but came among us to serve.14 In doing apostolate you walk as it were "in Jesus' sandals".

"Direct" promotion of vocations is when we set out to find and encourage those young people God is calling to our own community.

We do direct promotion in many ways: We advertize, we speak in schools and colleges, we write, we invite, we offer retreats and "Come and See" programs, and so forth. This must and should continue and increase if possible, using all the means we have at our disposal today.

I believe three elements contribute to making this direct promotion effective:

First, the indirect preparation mentioned above.

Second: What we offer must be genuine. In other words, the community life and formation I invite this young person to, must reflect the particular charism of my religious family and be in full, joyful communion with the Church.

Lastly, the vocations promoter must be equipped humanly, intellectually and spiritually for his or her delicate task.


It should not surprise us that the road ahead is fraught with challenges and difficulties. Be sure of my complete support for any honest effort to renew individual religious families along the lines of fidelity to the Church and to the founder. Much honesty, humility, courage, open-mindedness, dialogue, sacrifice, perseverance and prayer will be needed.

You are justly proud of the religious and civic heritage of North America, and you are aware of the impact that life here has on the world at large. And the renewal of the Church in this great country, and her ability to serve, necessarily passes through the renewal of religious life.

One of the sources of my hope is the experience I had of the power of communion with the Holy Father. In communist Slovenia, people were afraid to speak out against the regime, for fear of reprisals. One month after the election of John Paul II, I was giving a speech in the theology faculty of Ljubljana University before a crowd of 1,200 people. The theme was "Christianity in Slovenia Yesterday and Today". I surprised myself by making a radical critique of the communist regime and demanding the rights of Christians. The speech ended in a thunder of applause such as had not been heard in Slovenia for 40 years.

The communist ideology commission called a hasty meeting to discuss how anybody could dare to speak out in such a way. They concluded that it must be the effect of the new Pope. And they were right. John Paul had given us courage. I knew that from then on, despite the consequences, I would never he afraid to speak the truth. This incident taught me the spiritual, psychological and pastoral value of fidelity to the Holy Father. That is why I am convinced that if we adhere to what John Paul II taught us yesterday and what Benedict is teaching us today, we will emerge from the crisis of consecrated life into a new springtime of renewal in consecrated life in America.


1 Benedict XVI Regina Caeli Address, 27 April 2008.

2 Cardinal Avery Dulles, True and False Reform. First Things 135 (August/September 2003) p. 15.

3 Benedict XVI, Christmas Greetings to the Members of the Roman Curia and Prelature, 22 December 2005.

4 "The hermeneutic of discontinuity" risks ending in a split between the pre-counciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church. It. asserts that. the texts of the Council as such do not yet express the true spirit of the Council. It claims that they are the result of compromises in which, to reach unanimity, it was found necessary to keep and reconfirm many old things that are now pointless. However, the true spirit of the Council is not to be found in these compromises but instead in the impulses toward the new that are contained in the texts.

5 Benedict XVI, Address to Superiors General of the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, 22 May 2006.

6 James 4:6.

7 Cf. Matthew 13:52.

8 Cf. Galatians 5:22.

9 Second Vatican Council, Lumen gentium, n. 42.

10 Benedict  XVI, Address to Superiors General of the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, 22 May 2006.

11 Cf. Luke 10:41.

12 Cf. I Peter 3:15.

13 Cf. Philippians 2:6-7.

14 Cf. Mark 10:45.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
28 January 2009, page 8

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