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Chapter One:
The Crisis in Religious Life—A Crisis of Faith in the Church's Teaching Authority

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Anyone who speaks on the religious life nowadays is on the spot. People will listen only long enough to find out what stand he takes. Is he progressive or reactionary? If they decide he is primarily concerned about preserving what are considered by him essentials of the religious life—and the listeners are progressive, they “turn him off.” He is branded a reactionary and they look to someone else.

Or take the opposite case. If they hear him talk about change and adaptation, and the need for adjustment to modern times—and they are reactionary, he has lost them. He makes no more impression on them than if he were speaking Mandarin.

My purpose in the next few pages is to get just one idea across—a crucial one on which everything else depends: to show that religious life in the United States today is going through the most serious crisis in its history.

I am not ready to say the crisis is either good or bad. Only the future can tell. I am not even prepared to say what brought the crisis about. I am only sure that a crisis exists and that we ought to do something about it.

Why call it a crisis? Because the situation is critical in the elementary sense of that term:

  • It calls for clear judgment (crisis) and evaluation.

  • It demands strong decision and firm resolution.

  • It implies a transition point of forthcoming change.

  • It finally suggests a risk for everyone involved, with the eventual outcome precarious and known only to God.

What is the Crisis?

When people talk about crisis, they generally mean some sort of turning point in the life of a person, period or institution which may go either way—in sickness, either recovery or death; in business, either prosperity or liquidation.

Something like this obtains in religious life, as all the evidence seems to indicate.

Never, in anyone’s memory, have religious communities done more self-examination than in the past few years. Never have there been more drastic revisions in customs and regulations. Never have more committees met, or more conferences been held, or more monographs been written than today, on the religious life.

On the statistical side, most communities have more defections after last vows, and more shortage of entries, and more problem areas than ever before.

Yet all of this, as impressive as it seems, is only external. What shall I say about the interior struggles and trials, the hopes and frustrations in thousands of dedicated souls—in every form of community life and on every level of age and social maturity? “Where are we going? What are we doing? How are we ever to recover the balance and perspective that we so desperately need?”

Nothing would be simpler than to lapse into an academic dissertation on the beauties of the religious state, start analyzing the evangelical counsels, and leave the impression that things are no different now than they were ten or even five years ago. It would be easy to suggest that all we need is a few more books or a few more meetings and things will get back to normal again.

I do not think this is so. There is more work to be done than meets the eye, and deeper issues to be solved than deciding on the exact shade of a religious habit or the number of dollars a sister may carry in her purse!

The crisis in religious life is actually a crisis in modern, certainly in Western, society. And the sooner we catch on and admit that this is so, the better for religious life and, indeed, for Christianity.

It would be passing strange, if it were possible, for the world at large to be going through a profound revolution, and yet have men and women religious who are a part of this world remain unaffected. One might as well imagine a sailboat being quietly unmoved on a stormy sea, as suppose that that part of humanity, called a religious, could not be involved in the revolutionary changes going on in human society.

There are two ways of looking at these changes, and it makes a big difference which viewpoint we take. More accurately, the two viewpoints are not mutually exclusive but should be complementary. Taken separately and exclusively, they give a distorted vision on the modern world. Put together and properly balanced, they offer an accurate picture of reality and afford a sound basis for making valid judgments, whether about the religious life or any other important phase of human society.

From one viewpoint the world has changed immensely for the better. Progress in knowledge has been phenomenal. We know more about more things on the earth, under the earth, and above the earth than we’ve ever dreamed of—I don’t say a hundred years ago, but since the middle of the present century.

The knowledge explosion is not only taking place in physical sciences. It touches every sphere of intelligibility. The human intellect is broadening its dominion over time: over the past, by means of historical knowledge; over the future, by the art of projecting and planning. Social scientists can predict, for example, to within a few degrees, the percentage of people in certain professions, of crimes in a certain locality, of accidents in a certain industry and—believe it or not—of the sales potential of every color in a shipment of a thousand women’s dresses in a department store!

Advances in biology, psychology and medicine not only bring hopes of improved self-knowledge; combined with developments in technology, they are helping leaders of society exert great influence on the lives of others—of individuals and of whole nations.

With development in knowledge had come improvement in human living conditions: more and better food for more people, better health, and the highest longevity rates in recorded history.

Life expectancy in America, for men, rose each decade since 1900 from 48 to 67, and for women from 44 to 75. Thanks to the advances of science, some 25 years have been added to the life of each of the 200 million Americans alive today, to give an aggregate of five billion additional life-years since the turn of the century. If this is not progress, then words have lost their meaning.

Part of this growth in knowledge was growth in the communication of this knowledge—rapidly, widely, colorfully, and persuasively. When St. Peter preached his first homily on Pentecost Sunday, a mere few thousand could hear him; and then, we are told, the communication had to be helped miraculously. When Pope Paul VI addressed the United Nations, an estimated 100 million heard him and understood what he was saying.

With increased knowledge and its ready, widespread communication has come a drastic change in the exercise of human emotions and desires, which depend on knowledge as the body depends on food. As people know more, they want more; and as they want more, what used to be luxurious or superfluous just a short time ago becomes—for many people—sheer necessity. It makes little difference that these newly-acquired “needs,” are mainly psychological. Of course they are. But most human needs are psychological. This is precisely the difference between animals and persons. The basic physical needs are all that an animal wants. But a person’s desires reach far beyond what he physically needs. After all, his heart is made for infinity.

Part of this increase in human desires is an increase in the desire for more knowledge. People want to know—just plain know—more than they have ever hungered for before. You name it, and there are recesses of man’s spirit that crave to understand it. Every new law of physics or chemistry opens a Pandora’s box of a thousand questions that demand answers. Every new insight into the human psyche or the operations of society is an incentive to learn more and still more; the mind is never satisfied. The billions of dollars spent in atomic research and in successful flights to the moon are only symbolic of this quest for knowledge which has become, in my opinion, the most powerful drive in the human race today.

Books have been written, just summarizing the first and most obvious estimate of the revolutionary changes going on in the modern world. They spell progress, and they mean for millions of Americans increased wealth, greater access to people and all the joys of interpersonal relationships, and a heightened sense of freedom born of education and constantly expanding horizons in every kind of knowledge.

But there is another aspect to these changes that is just as real as progress. Here is where the crisis enters in.

Revolutionary progress in every phase of human existence has created a problem. The problem is over the reaction to all this new availability of so many, frankly desirable, experiences. Man’s genius is opening up for us fantastic opportunities for pleasures of the body and joys of the spirit. Now what?

Common sense would intimate that access to possession or prospect of enjoyment are no guarantee that possession or enjoyment would be truly good. If I am a struggling bookkeeper and my boss is a careless millionaire, it is not good for me to steal some of his money no matter how available it may be. Or, although another man’s wife is willing, it would be bad for me to encourage these feelings, no matter how pleasant her embraces might be.

Objectively everything that God has created is good, and everything we call progress can be really progressive—provided it is used in the right way.

The problem is to know the right way. Put in more prosaic terms: to know what experiences that modern life is offering is in such abundance are good, and not only pleasant and available; when they should be sought; how I should enjoy them; for how long; under what circumstances; where; in whose company; and above all, why I should seek them out or at least take complete satisfaction in them when they come my way.

It is of small value to keep repeating that technology and the social sciences are making the world day by day a better and better place to live in. All of this is progress on only one condition, that we also solve the problem—each one for himself—of when, where, how and why these marvelous opportunities are to be rightly used to good advantage. They can also be used for self-destruction.

The same nuclear power that promises to furnish man with unlimited energy for peaceful production can also become a mushroom cloud that leaves behind it a cemetery of unburied dead.

This, as I see it, is the crisis that faces today’s society, whether secular or sacred, whether in the Church, among the laity, or in the religious life. What is the crisis? It is the pressing series of questions, the problem, if you will, that modern progress demands that we answer: when, where, how and why should we use the material and cultural blessings that the cumulative genius of modern man is offering in such profusion?

As we get closer to the hub of the issue, we see immediately that different answers are offered for these questions. Let us be sure of one thing, however; no one in his right mind would say that it makes no difference whether we answer them, or how they are answered.

There are those—and their number is legion—who claim we are to find such answers as we can from ourselves, individually and collectively. The same intellectual powers that produced atomic fission and television are able to know how they are to be used. To say anything less would be to raise the question that they consider should never be asked: Is there any limit to man’s capacity—not alone but working with others—to resolve the problems of human existence?

I call this latter-day Pelagianism. It has advocates in every branch of society, and its spokesmen are intelligent, persuasive, and convincing.

Others think differently. They are quick to admit to all the developments of science and culture that characterize the modern world. But they insist that without God and His revelation, without Christ and His Church, progress can turn into pathos because men are not able, without divine light and direction, to use the potentially good things that, under God’s providence, have become so prominent a part of today’s history.

The Christian believer maintains that progress is not only a problem, but an insoluble mystery, which may turn into tragedy, unless God helps us understand what He wants us to do with the gifts He is lavishing on His people nowadays.

To better focus the contrast between these two philosophies of life, let me quote from two sources: John Dewey, the dean of American rationalism; and the Second Vatican Council.

First the dean of American philosophers, for whom religion is not the acceptance of a supermundane deity but man’s own pursuit of his own ideals and the use of his own independent energies:

“Men have never fully used the powers they possess to advance the good life, because they have waited upon some power external to themselves and to nature to do the work they are responsible for doing. Dependence upon an external power is the counterpart of surrender of human endeavor.
“Nor is emphasis on exercising our own powers an egotistical or a sentimentally optimistic course. It is not the first, for it does not isolate men, either individually or collectively, from nature. It is not the second, because it makes no assumption beyond that of the need and responsibility for human endeavor …It involves no expectation of a millennium of good.”

Now another view from the Vatican Council:

“Through his labors and his native endowments man has ceaselessly striven to better his life. Today, however, especially with the help of science and technology, he has extended his mastery over nearly the whole of nature and continues to do so ….

In the face of these immense efforts which already preoccupy the whole human race, men agitate numerous questions among themselves. How should all these things be used? To the achievement of what goal are the strivings of individuals and societies heading?

“The Church guards the heritage of God’s word and draws from it moral and religious principles, without always having at hand the solution to particular problems. As such, she desires to add the light of revealed truth to mankind’s store of experience, so that the path which humanity has taken in recent times will be a dark one.”

This claim of Christianity is not a lazy excuse for letting the Church do our thinking for us. When specific questions are raised and particular problems are faced, we still have to use our minds and labor mightily through hours of dreary planning and cooperative reflection. But, as Christians and Catholics, we believe what those who do not share this faith do not believe: that we terribly and constantly need the divine assistance promised us by Christ through His Church’s teaching authority, to make sense of all the progress that surrounds us and to know how to use these gifts of God wisely.

The Crisis in Religious Life

We turn to the original question we posed: Is there a crisis in religious life, and what it is?

There is a crisis, the same as confronts the whole people of God, only more acutely as persons—like religious—are more attuned to the promptings of grace and more concerned to do God’s will, not in the first century or thirty years ago, but today. The crisis is the conflict that so many Catholics, and therefore religious, are facing as they are torn between two competing philosophies of life: one that tells them the answers in today’s revolutionary world are found uniquely in themselves and in the collective experience and intelligence of their peers; and another that says, no, that is not enough, we must have the ready guidance of Christ speaking through His authorized teachers in the Church.

I am not repeating a platitude. This is no aphorism about listening to the voice of the Savior who dwells in the depths of my soul. Of course, I should hear His voice and listen to His words, and no Christian here should have any doubts.

What is not aphoristic, and what many people who call themselves Christians do not go on to say, is that the voice of Christ has been speaking for centuries since the Ascension in the history of the Church’s teaching and experience, and can even now be heard in the words of a Yankee bishop or the language of an Italian Pope.

There are all sorts of pseudo-crises that can be mistaken for the real thing. Some would have it that the conflict is between the young and the old—the generation gap. Some would say the conflict is between the progressives and the conservatives—the attitude gap. Some would say it is between the hierarchy and the people of God—the clerical gap. Some would say the conflict is between European ways and the American way of life—the culture gap. Some would say the conflict is between segregation from the world and involvement in people’s lives—the secularity gap. Finally some would say the conflict is between freedom to be oneself and submission to a thousand regulations—the personality gap.

All of these and many more that could be added are not trivial, and we may not ignore them. But they are not the fundamental issue at stake.

The crucial and vexing question for which there should be only one answer—and we are given a hundred—is: Did Christ mean to be taken literally when He told His apostles, “He that hears you hears me, and he that despises you despises me” (Lk. 10:16)? Or again, when He said, “I am with you always, to the end of time” (Mt. 28:20)?

Religious life, as part of the Church or, for that matter, as part of human society, must share in the renewal and adaptation that are always useful and sometimes very necessary. Good will and pious intentions are not enough. If this renewal is not to become a fiasco, and what should be adjustment not end in disaster, there must be norms to follow and principles to adhere to. These norms and principles are the cumulative wisdom of the Catholic Church since the time of Christ—as seen in the forms and practices of religious institutes approved by the Church, in the saintly men and women whom the Church has raised to the honors of the altar, in the guidelines being set down by the Church through her authorized spokesmen and, conversely, in the cautions which the Church wisely provides to help (and not hinder) the life and apostolate of religious for the future. In my estimation, the real relationship of the religious life to Rome and the whole question of collegiality are at the heart of the present turmoil, and on the proper understanding of this relationship depends, in large measure, the future well-being of men and women religious in the Catholic Church.

As we read through the mounting volume of the Church’s current documentation on religious life, we find it is written from a distinctive perspective. This perspective is the spiritual heritage received from Christ and lived out by the Church in its history up to the present day.

I call this historical side of renewal in religious life. It is that substantive element which must undergird an adjustment worthy of the name. Disloyalty here would change the renewal into a revolution, or better, into rebellion, and subvert the essence of community life according to the evangelical counsels.

This side will be treated along with a cultural appraisal for each area considered. More exactly, what are some of the changes that seem to be called for by contemporary needs? Inflexibility here would reduce the renewal to a mere juggling of incidentals, without getting to the heart of the matter.

Running as a theme in the Church’s modern appraisal of religious life is a careful distinction between adaptation and renewal for the institute and for the individual religious. Moreover, the Church’s interest centers on the individual, though without neglecting the need for institutional renewal. More accurately, the focus is on the individual as the best single means for an authentic renovation of a community.

Christ Himself has assured deep satisfaction to those who follow Him faithfully: “If you keep my commandments, you will dwell in my love . . . . I have spoken thus to you that my joy may be in you and your joy complete . . . . Peace is my gift to you, my own peace, such as the world cannot give” (Jn. 14:15).

Whatever personality development means, it must mean growth in that personal sense of achievement which is objectively determined by Christ’s will for me as a religious, and subjectively as experienced by those who respond to this will generously.

For some years now I have dealt intimately with religious men and women. My own experience has convinced me that religious can be happy, very happy in their vocation, and satisfied to a degree that not many in other walks of life can experience.

Yet I have also dealt with enough unhappy religious, dissatisfied with themselves and their community.

My belief is that happiness here is in direct proportion to living the religious life as God wants a particular person to live it. Failure to do so may be due to ignorance or apathy or indifference, but the net effect is the same. It produces a malaise that cannot be described, but can only be experienced or seen.

Before concluding, I want to make sure that this, at least, will be plain. Before God, whether we are in positions of authority or not, our main contribution to adaptation and renewal is what we ourselves achieve in our own personal lives. Over this, with divine grace, we have sovereign mastery.

If each religious, in his or her own life, effects the kind of renovation God expects of him, the combined result on religious life in the Church will be monumental. How de we make this divinely-desired renovation? Ultimately by doing the will of Christ in our regard. But that is just the question: What is the will of Christ? The will of Christ is the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.

Of course it takes faith to take this answer simply and live it out in childlike humility. But what else is religious life if not a lifetime consecration in faith to following in the footsteps, sometimes bloody footsteps, of the first Master of the religious life, who is Jesus Christ?

Copyright © 2000 by Inter Mirifica

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