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(Book Review)

Religious Life: A Prophetic Vision

Rev. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Diarmuid O’Murchu’s Religious Life: A Prophetic Vision is a revolutionary book. As expressed by the author in his introduction, “We are emerging from a protracted era of cultural and spiritual suffocation that has all but smothered the prophetic and global ambience of the vowed life, not merely in Christianity but in the other religions as well.”

O’Murchu is a social psychologist whose published writings reveal a radical mind. He claims that what Catholics still call the religious life can no longer be contained within the framework of Christianity. Otherwise, in his own words, the vowed life is doomed to stagnation and death.

He devotes over two hundred and fifty pages to outline the revolution that must take place in consecrated life in the Catholic Church.

My plan in this analysis is to identify the main ideas on which O’Murchu bases his thesis. After each presentation, I will evaluate these ideas from the perspective of authentic Catholic doctrine.

Learning from Non-Christian Cultures

After his introduction, O’Murchu presents what may be called his fundamental premise. It deserves to be quoted at length.

The tendency to study Christianity in exclusive context is the fruit of a restrictive consciousness. It has dominated reflection for much of the post-Reformation era. It began to disintegrate in the 1960s, when an ecumenical consciousness encouraged us to transcend traditional denominational boundaries. Meanwhile, with expanding travel and telecommunications, the East-West encounter opened up new vistas and we began to realize how constricted our Western vision had been.
The interfaith exchange is still in its infancy. It is not surprising, therefore, that most books on religious life ignore the non-Christian aspects, but it is a gap that is no longer justified. With the parallels in all the major world religions, it is culturally and spiritually stultifying to ignore or dismiss kindred spirits. We are dealing with a global reservoir of vision, wisdom, and inspiration. [1]

The foregoing premises would mark the end of true consecrated life as understood by Christianity. Throughout the book, the author refers to what he considers the marvelous monastic life among the Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims. What he ignores is the rock foundation of religious life in the Catholic Church. This foundation is faith in the existence of one, true God, Creator of the universe; and faith in the Incarnation of the Son of God in the person of Jesus Christ.

There can be no consecrated life worthy of the name, unless it is based on belief in the infinite God who created the world by His loving omnipotence. The philosophical bases of both Hinduism and Buddhism do not profess unqualified monotheism. Moreover, the three main “religions” from which Christian religious are to learn, do not believe in the Incarnation, nor redemption, nor the life of the counsels as practiced by Jesus Christ and to be imitated by those who profess to live a consecrated life.

The Fluidity of Hindu Monasticism

O’Murchu frankly admits that so-called religious life among the Hindus is neither necessarily celibate nor stable. In fact, he is honest enough to prefer calling the non-Christian “religious life” monastic. His preoccupation is not with the quality of religious life, but what we may call its universality.

Today, there is an estimated one million monastics in India alone. It is believed that the number of monks living communally (in either ashrams or mathas) slightly outnumbers those who live alone. Since there is a great deal of fluidity and mobility, the situation can vary greatly from one year to the next. Since the Indian ashram is much more flexible and open-ended than the Christian monastery or community, there tends to be a continual flow of spiritual seekers, single and married, some of whom may stay only a few days but many of whom remain for six or twelve months. [2]

It is simply unthinkable that religious life by Christian standards should not be a life of consecrated chastity, which means the sacrifice of marriage. It is equally unthinkable to speak of religious life as being a short-time vacation from the pressures of living in the world. We know there are such things as retreats, lasting even a month or longer. But this is not consecrated life.

Ignorance of Non-Christian Monasticism

The value of an author’s writing is mainly determined by his knowledge of what he is writing about. O’Murchu honestly confesses he has at best only superficial information about the oriental world which he is telling Catholic religious to imitate. He is all but unconscious that the great works of spiritual and corporal works of mercy owe their world origin to Christianity.

Flight from the world is an important aspect of Hindu monastic teaching. Rarely has the theory been matched by practice. Like the early Christian ascetics in the desert, Hindu devotees often attracted several hundred seekers until the places of quiet refuge became cities. There is also a trend for Hindu monastics to be involved in education, hospitalization, and care for refugees, but how extensive these practices are (or have been) is very difficult to establish. [3]

It is incredible for the author to admit that he does not know how extensive the practice of what we would call Christian charity either is or has been. In fact, he even admits it is very difficult to find out. Yet, he does not hesitate to urge Catholic religious to imitate what he does not have provable evidence really exists.

Petrified Orthodoxy of Catholic Communities

Our author is outspokenly critical of what he calls the petrified orthodoxy in once-flourishing Catholic religious institutes. They are gradually emancipating themselves from this legalism. In his judgment, religious life in the Catholic Church will survive only as it frees itself from this institutional domination.

In Catholicism…we are emerging from individualistic, and institutionally-dominated parochialism….The entire Christian church suffered from this petrified orthodoxy. The swing to “community,” therefore, was, and continues to be both a reaction to an oppressive leadership and a rediscovery and a restatement of a fundamental dimension of the Christian faith. [4]

Behind this critical judgment of the institutionally-dominated parochial system in Catholic religious institutes is the widespread rebellion against ecclesiastical authority. The so-called swing to the “community,” without Church authority, is almost a restatement of the revolution of the sixteenth century, when whole nations broke with the Roman Catholic Church. Not coincidentally, wherever the “Reformers” separated from Rome, religious life disappeared. To give just one example. The Augustinian monastery at Wittenberg, where Martin Luther had been superior, became a condominium for ex-religious who abandoned their vows and lived as men and women liberated from their petrified orthodoxy.

More Feminism Needed Among Religious

There is no question where the author stands on radical feminism. The Marxist dream of liberating women from male domination is something which O’Murchu praises very highly. Not only does he recommend Catholic religious women to imitate the non-Christian way of life. He is pleased to see that non-Christian monasticism is following the lead of feminist women in the West.

At an international conference of 150 Buddhist nuns held in India in 1987, a vociferous and enlightened group of wisdom displayed a fierce determination to uplift their religious status. In many ways this gathering is reminiscent of the courageous and visionary stance adopted by sisters of Christian tradition—especially in the U.S.A.—in recent times. [5]

The above statement alone should make it clear where O’Murchu stands. Institutes of consecrated life in the Catholic Church are to follow the lead of the Marxian revolutionaries who are all but destroying religious institutes in one Western country after another. Building on the fabricated theory that progress in society depends on competition between women and men, the author is promoting what he calls progress among religious by fostering conflict between consecrated women and the “male-dominated” Catholic hierarchy.

The Meaning of Values in Religious Life

Among the leaders in psychology whom O’Marchu admires is Carl Jung. No doubt there are ideas in Jung which are praiseworthy. But Jung believed that the revelations which come to any founder of a religion flow up from the collective unconscious. Thus, the deity is a mythical deity, and God becomes a psychological function of man.

According to Jungian theory, the collective unconscious is mediated to us through archetypes, predominant ways of thinking and feeling which all humans share, leading to universally shared forms of behavior and ritual. “I have often been asked where the archetypes or primordial images come from. It seems to me,” writes Jung, “that their origin can only be explained by assuming them to be deposits of the constantly repeated experiences of humanity.” [6]

We get some idea of what Carl Jung believed from one of his favorite quotations. It comes in a two-verse passage that all followers of Jung believe is a summary of Jungian belief.

I know that without me
God can no moment live.
Were I to die, then He
No longer would survive.

I am God’s child, His son,
And He too is my child;
We are the two in one
Both son and father mild.

And this is the philosopher whom the author of Religious Life: A Prophetic Vision recommends as the “Hope and Promise for Tomorrow” of Catholic religious throughout the world.

Similarity of Religious Life in Every Culture

Consistent with his principles, the author sees no essential difference in what he calls religious life in every culture.

Religious life is intended to be a tangible realization of some of the deepest cultural values of humanity. This, I believe, is the main reason why religious life exists in every human culture with very similar characteristics in virtually all religious systems. [7]

It is simply not true to say that religious life exists in every human culture with very similar characteristics. As was mentioned before, religious life in the Catholic Church essentially means following Jesus Christ, the eternal God who became man. Without faith in the Incarnation, we may speak about “religious life” but we are using the same words to describe essentially contrary realities.

The New Age Movement

We get some idea how radical is O’Murchu’s thinking when we read what he says about the New Age movement.

Religious life in both East and West has lost a great deal of its vitality and appeal. It has become excessively institutionalized, choked and stifled amid a plethora of archaic legalism, insipid spiritualism, and, especially in the West, excessive activism. Many religious-life values are now more clearly expressed and more creatively embodied in ‘new age’ movements, communal experiments, some cults, and in other liminal groups. [8]

The variety of doctrines and practices of the New Age movement are beyond counting. Among others, Mahayana Buddhism, Gnosticism, Theosophy, Taoism, Kabbalism and Zen are only samples of what the New Age philosophy includes. An underlining premise in all of New Age writing is some form of Pantheism. There are literally hundreds of books in English alone published by promoters of the New Age. For our author to say that religious-life values are creatively embodied in New Age movements is to openly contradict the very foundations of consecrated life in Catholic Christianity.

Religious Life Without the Church

O’Murchu is not ambiguous. The prophetic vision that he foresees for consecrated life is a life that is independent of ecclesiastical authority. In context, this means independence of the authority established by Christ in the successors of the Apostles under the Bishop of Rome.

A perennial challenge facing religious life throughout the world is the need to explore an alternative context for its life and mission. Religious, in many cases, are far too closely aligned to ecclesiastical structures to be able to serve humanity in a liminal, prophetic capacity. [9]

Again the author of Religious Life: A Prophetic Vision is not ambiguous. What he foresees and promotes is an alleged religious life in the Catholic Church which is independent of the authority established by the Incarnate God. His ideas already permeated scores of once flourishing religious institutes. Unless these institutes return to the acceptance of ecclesiastical authority, they will simply disappear from religious history.

Consecrated Life With No Prescribed Structure

Needless to say our author is very clear. He wants to make sure that religious life in the future will not be a structured institution.

The renewal of religious life today has a very precise agenda: it is desperately trying to break out of the imprisonment of traditional institutional religiosity. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s it did quite well in that task; then came a period of clampdown (at least in the Catholic church), but that will not last. Historically, there is nothing to verify its timeliness, and, sociologically, it can be understood as a classic, institutional defense-mechanism. It will cause further pain and havoc within religious life, but for those who can look beyond the institutional tendency toward self-perpetuation, who can imbibe something of the hope and vision which history bequeaths us, then it is but a temporary crisis. [10]

All of this is perfectly consistent with O’Murchu’s vision of religious life in the Catholic Church. In one sentence, it is a religious life which rejects the foundations of consecrated life as established by the Founder of Christianity. The above quoted paragraph is preceded by an appeal to Marxism. At the heart of Marxism is the Hegelian philosophy which claims there can be no progress without conflict. Our author is promoting conflict between the religious life which Christ established and the pseudo-religious life promoted by those who are hostile to the foundations of the true faith.

Celibacy Without Chastity

As O’Murchu comes toward the end of his revolutionary ideas on religious life, he redefines celibacy. After giving lip service to prayer and meditation, he recommends such bodily intimacy among religious as common sense tells us is incompatible with consecrated chastity.

The spiritual dimension, the loving relationship with God in prayer, meditation, and discernment, is of central importance but it must not become a substitute for the human dimension, as often happened in the past. It remains one of the supreme challenges of the celibate call to discover appropriate ways to exchange love and intimacy within communities. There is an emotional capacity in human beings which can only be nurtured by warmth, friendship, and tactility (touching, stroking, kissing); it is precisely when this dimension is neglected that sexual problems surface, that the need for genital gratification becomes inflated, in celibates and married people alike. A celibacy that denies basic human needs belies the incarnational dignity of human life, the supreme human and spiritual challenge of trinitarian (kingdom) love, and turns celibacy into an ascetical monstrosity. [11]

It is understandable that O’Murchu should write so blatantly about what he still has the nerve to call religious celibacy. Anyone who knows anything about human nature understands that sexual tactility is the privilege of married spouses between themselves. In plain language, it is brazenly untrue to say that consecrated chastity denies the “basic human needs” of sexual intimacy. Consecrated chastity in religious life is the voluntary sacrifice of the privileges of sexual intimacy between married spouses. Any other estimate of celibacy is neither Christian nor rational.

Creation-Centered Spirituality

As O’Murchu comes to the end of his “Prophetic Vision” of religious life, he urges those living a consecrated life to learn from the creation-centered spirituality of Matthew Fox.

Fox explores the immense potential of creation-centered spirituality for a rediscovery and revitalization of personal and communal faith. People who become immersed in ecological matters cannot escape the mystery of the universe. [12]

Anyone who understands creation-centered spirituality has no illusions about its real meaning. As the Catholic Church understands faith as a virtue, it is the assent of the intellect to everything which God has revealed. In creation-centered spirituality, it is rather that faith presides in the imagination. Once you say that, then you can say anything and expect others to believe you. Throughout his lengthy volume on Religious Life: A Prophetic Vision, O’Murchu draws on his imagination with no regard for the truth. Instead of sharing with his readers what the Christian faith knows to be the truth revealed by the Incarnate God, he indulges his desire to fantasize. The tragedy is that so many believing Catholics may be seduced by this fantasy into believing it is a prophetic vision.

[1] Diarmuid O’Murchu, M.S.C. Religious Life: A Prophetic Vision, (Notre Dame, Indiana: 1991), p. 14.

[2] Ibid., p. 16.

[3] Ibid., pp. 16-17.

[4] Ibid., pp. 28-29.

[5] Ibid., pp. 30-31.

[6] Ibid., p. 43.

[7] Ibid., p. 44.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., p. 54.

[10] Ibid., p. 115.

[11] Ibid., pp. 132-133.

[12] Ibid., p. 216.

Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica

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