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Rome and Religious Life

Rev. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The following is the text of a paper read by the Rev. John A. Hardon, S.J.,
on October 7th, 1970, at the Provincial House of the Notre Dame Sisters, Chardon, Ohio (U.S.A.).


Of all the possible subjects dealing with the religious life, the most unlikely would seem to be “Rome and the Religious Life”. Why talk about this especially today, when there are so many deep issues being voiced and so much turmoil and tension about the very meaning of a life under vows? Why this subject? Because in my estimation the relationship of Rome to the religious state is 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.

There are two ways of approaching our subject, and both are important.

  • One way is to examine the authority which the Holy See has over all the faithful, and therefore also religious; explore this authority, clarify it, and draw appropriate conclusions that are relevant to our present critical times.

  • Another way is to examine the principles of faith which underlie the religious life; see how basic to these principles is the Holy See, and draw appropriate conclusions again—but this time on the level of doctrine, and apply them to the modern scene.

I propose to follow the second method, on the safe assumption that if the principles are clear, the practice will be correspondingly clear—at least confusion will not haunt our steps as we wrestle with one of the thorniest questions facing Roman Catholicism today: what is the religious life in the post-conciliar age, or if you prefer, in the electronics age when the globe is—from one viewpoint, only a small elipsoid circling in space; and from another viewpoint, is fast becoming a tribal, communications society.

In order to cover as much ground as possible in as short a time as possible, I plan to deal, in sequence, with the following aspects of the topic:

  1. The religious state is a matter of revelation, calling for the response of faith.

  2. As such, it requires, by divine arrangement, the Church to preserve, interpret, and implement this part of revelation.

  3. Within the Church, again by divine arrangement, it belongs to Peter and his successors to insure that this custody, interpretation, and implementation be done according to the mind and will of God.

  4. What is the basic problem to which we should look to Rome for solution in this matter today?

  5. And finally, a brief epilogue.

Religious State as Revelation

In one simple sentence of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Church we have the revelation basis for the religious life. Says the Council: “The evangelica1 counsels of chastity dedicated to God, poverty, and obedience are based upon the words and examples of the Lord”. (Chapter VI, § 43).

In other words, not unlike the Trinity or the Incarnation, the necessity of Baptism and the Real Presence—when God became man, He also revealed to the world what had been hidden until then: that besides the priesthood and the sacramental state of marriage, there should be in Christianity men and women who would follow in His footsteps as celibates, as poor and obedient members of His Church—in a word that there would be religious. The moment we say that the religious state is not something accessible to mere reason, that it had to be revealed to be even known, we also say that it calls for supernatural faith to accept, and for the lights and strength of supernatural grace to grasp and carry into effect.

No doubt there are many phases of the religious life that are much like other forms of dedicated communal living, but in its essence this life partakes of mystery; its inner nature and deepest recesses are fully understood by God alone, What we do know, and it is considerable, has come to us only because God, in the person of Jesus Christ, has revealed it.

The Church as Custodian and Interpreter

With this as our basic premise, that the religious life is part of divine revelation, we take the next step in the form of a question: to whom has Christ committed the preservation, exploration and working out of this life? Not all Christians answer this question in the same way.

In the 16th century, when the Protestant Reformation divided Christendom, it was precisely over the answer to this question that several thousand convents and monasteries were emptied of their members—once the idea gained foothold that religious life was not part of divine revelation, Or, if the following of Christ as previously understood by monks and nuns was indeed part of the Gospel message—it was not the hierarchical Church which had a divine right to say what this following of Christ really means and whether a life of the counsels is in keeping with the teachings of Christ.

Not surprisingly, all the major confusion of the Protestant religion before the middle of the 17th century positively excluded communal celibacy, poverty and obedience as even consistent with Christianity let alone especially pleasing to God. But Catholicism, then as before and ever since, believes that since the life of the counsels belongs to God’s revelation in Christ, therefore the Church founded by Christ is alone authorized to protect this life from foreign encroachment, to clarify what this life essentially requires and stands for, and, if need be, legislate what conditions must be fulfilled to insure that the blessings promised to religious are actually received from God.

It is useful, in this context, to recall how indispensable over the centuries has been the Church’s role as guardian and interpreter of such mysteries of revelation as

  • Christ’s divine nature, defended at Nicea

  • Mary’s divine motherhood defined at Ephesus

  • the sacramental system declared by Trent, and to place in the same category, as repeating the Church’s tradition since apostolic times, the teachings of Vatican II in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, relative to the religious life. Never in all its history has the Church spoken at greater length, with more lucidity, and with more unambiguity about the religious life than in the latest ecumenical council, notably in the sixth chapter of Lumen Gentium.

Peter and His Successors

It is the Catholic Church about which we are speaking. Consequently when we say that

  • religious life belongs to revelation, that

  • by the will of Christ only the Church has the right to determine this revelation, and decide (as needed) on its meaning and implications,

  • we also say that, within the Church, it is ultimately on the successor of Peter on whom, by the same will of Christ, rests the responsibility for assuring that the Church’s determination and decisions are what Christ wants them to be.

Any other estimate is un-Catholic in the fundamental sense of being alien to what the Roman Catholic Church has always believed and professed: that the Vicar of Christ has final judgment in matters of faith and morals, and, in this case, of faith in the existence and meaning of the religious life: of morals, as to how this life of the counsels should be—better, must be, lived if it is to square with the will of God and the people of God.

The Basic Problem

So far the issue is clear enough and, except for those who question or deny the Roman Primacy, there is no problem in principle, though there may be practical difficulties in always accepting the teachings of the Holy See. But the issue we are exploring is, for many people, by no means clear. There are some basic problems of principle, and not only of practice. Among these problems I would isolate the one that I consider most basic. It concerns the question of collegiality,

I feel secure in saying that where, as in some places, religious life is in grave crisis—not a small part of the reason is the misunderstanding or a misapplication of the doctrine of episcopal collegiality. Whether intentionally or not, religious men (and especially religious women) have been caught in the tragic dilemma of choosing between Rome and the local ordinary or, more technically, between papal and episcopal authority.

By now enough papers have been written and lectures given on the need of religious to emancipate themselves from Roman bureaucracy and become what they should be—American religious, or German religious, or Dutch, or French, or Canadian religious that we can simply take for granted that these people mean what they are saying. They are, in effect, pitting one authority against the other; Rome’s against that of the local bishop or of a group of bishops, and frankly concluding, I quote, that “the role of Rome is not to tell us what we are to be as religious; it is only to counsel and suggest. We are to decide, with the collegial guidance of our own hierarchy”.

At the risk of going into theological lore, I feel it is at least useful, and may be necessary to explain just what episcopal collegiality is—since it is in the name of “collegiality” that some grievous harm is being done to religious life in Europe and America. What is collegiality? Though treated at length in the Second Vatican Council, it is as old as the Church. Taken comprehensively it is the community of the Church’s episcopate, living and acting in consort with each other and with the bishop of Rome as successors of the apostles and visible representatives of Christ in the Christian world.

The Rise of Col1egiality

With the rise of the Modern State the concept of collegiality took on a new dimension that was only implicit in former times. There has always been a built-in tension between the rights of bishops and the rights of Rome. Already in Jerusalem Paul withstood Peter to his face when he felt that Cephas lacked the courage of his convictions and seemed to say one thing and do something else. Over the centuries the dialectic has not changed. Stephen and Cyprian, Nestorius and Celestine, Nicholas and Photius are examples of how difficult it has always been to reconcile the two authorities in the Church, episcopal on the local level and papal for all the people of God.

As the nations of Europe and Afro-Asia became divided and nationalism took root in political life, the normal tension was aggravated. It is, in fact, the one fact of history most responsible for the divisions in Christianity that have since become crystallized into churches that rival and challenge the authority of Rome. It is no coincidence that Eastern Orthodoxy has been identified for nine hundred years with Eastern political power; nor that Lutheranism has been the state religion of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and, until recently large sections of Germany; nor that England should have developed its own form of Protestantism which is still called Anglican.

When the question of collegiality was discussed at the Council of Treat, the issue was shelved mainly because of this spirit of nationalism which threatened the solidarity of a united, supra-national Catholicism.

By the time of the Second Vatican Council a new ethos had entered political and religious thought. The stress now was on internationalism and, consequently, the dangers inherent in an uninhibited collegiality were considered minimal. In plain words it was felt there was not the same risk of national churches sprouting into existence wherever the national pride was unwilling to take orders from an alien Rome. So collegiality became part of the Council’s Constitution on the Church and promises to be its single most significant contribution to the cause of religion in modern times.

Yet just because of the great potential for good which collegiality implies, it has to be seen in relation to the primacy, without which it cannot be conceived. The bishops who worked on drafting the document recall that no one question was more on their mind than this: how to express their faith in the episcopal community without infringing on the rights of papal authority. By actual count the Roman primacy is explicitly mentioned thirty-three times in the single chapter on the episcopate, and ten times in one paragraph where collegiality is described.

Clarifying Relationships

Not satisfied with this precaution the Constitution is unique in having an appendix officially added “under higher authority” to clarify the delicate relationship of the episcopal college to the Holy See.

What is this relationship? First of all, it is not a mere juridical dependence on the bishop of Rome and, less still, an authoritarian tyranny that Rome holds over the bishops. It is a relationship created by Christ himself and therefore independent of the whims of man.

When the bishop is consecrated, he receives, in virtue of the consecration, the fullness of the sacrament of orders. He receives that fullness of power which is called the high priesthood. But consecration alone does not make him a member of that community which succeeds the Apostles. He must also be received as confrere by the other members of the Catholic episcopate. While his consecration makes him bishop, it must be supplemented with acceptance by the episcopate under its head to incorporate him into the episcopal college. Of course, he must also intend to accept his fellow bishops under the pope.

A careful distinction should be made among the three powers inherent in the Catholic episcopate. The first is the power of administering the sacraments, including the consecration of other men as bishops. The second is the office of teaching authoritatively and sharing in the Church’s divine guidance of communicating revealed truth. The third is the right to govern and direct the people of God according to norms of conduct that are binding on the consciences of the faithful.

The first of these three prerogatives comes to a bishop in virtue of his consecration. It is intrinsic to him as a man who has received the fullness of Christ’s priesthood. He should not exercise these powers except with the approval of the bishop of Rome. But if he does, he acts validity and the sacraments he confers (including episcopal consecration) take their effect ex opere operato.

It is quite otherwise as regards teaching authority and pastoral government. Certainly they are rooted in the sacramental consecration of a bishop. But this consecration confers only the virtual capacity, not its actual realization.

As stated in the Constitution on the Church, episcopal consecration does indeed confer the fullness of priestly orders which includes “the office of teaching and of governing”. But this office “of its very nature, can be exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head and the members of the college”.

It is immediately seen, therefore, that episcopal collegiality becomes operative only if a bishop (or a group of bishops) is in actual communion with Rome and the rest of the hierarchy united with the pope. In terms of what has been said above, this is centripetal collegiality. Without it any other collegial action has no assurance of divine approval, no matter how many prelates may agree among themselves on a course of action independent of Rome and the bishops in obedience to the Holy See.

What is the implication for religious life? It is obvious. No bishop or group of bishops are assured divine light to know what the religious life is, or divine authorization to govern men and women in the religious life except in so far as they are in agreement with the See of Peter. The bishop of Rome is normative for them, not they for him.

An Epilogue

I do not believe the confusion and turmoil in religious communities today is due to malice or ill will. Nor do I believe that bishops are hungry for power and wish to resist the papacy. But I do believe that religious have Christ’s avowed guarantee, in the person of his Vicar and through those channels he uses to direct the Church: they have in the Holy See the surest, safest, and by now most explicit understanding of what dedication to community life under vows is supposed to be.

All other voices on the subject than that of the Holy See are to be heard only if they agree with his; all directives have validity before God, if they conform to his. Any other interpretation of the religious life is to build on sand, as the last five years’ experience has already shown.

But with the guidance of Peter, the religious life of the next decade, and the next century will be more glorious than ever before. It should be. This is the price we are being asked to pay for trusting Christ’s words when He said “on this rock” and no other. “I will build my Church”. Within the structure of the Church, men and women who wish to follow Christ, the first religious, as perfectly as possible will, with His grace, be able to do so.

L'Osservatore Romano
Vol. 139 - #48, November 26, 1970, pp. 9-11

Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica

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