For over fifteen hundred years, religious orders have been the driving force in the renewal and mission of the Catholic Church. Throughout their history, the orders have sought to maintain high levels of commitment to their cause. That began to change in the 1960’s when the orders sought to enter the modern age following the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
The Council document Lumen Gentium proclaimed the equality of all members of the Church in their calling. By clear implication, members of the religious orders were no longer uniquely set apart from other Catholics. Following the Council, various reforms were introduced. In the women’s orders, name changes were no longer required of new members. Habits did not have to be worn. Vows were reinterpreted. “Poverty” was reinterpreted as “moderation.” “Obedience” was forsaken for democratic governance and individual discretion. Communal living was less widely practiced. The various orders were encouraged to minimise their various distinctives and adopt a more centralized approach. The fundamental nature of religious life began to alter. Women were encouraged to choose their own occupation and by implication, their own mission. Orders scrambled to revise their mission statements to accommodate diversity
All of these changes appear completely reasonable and appropriate, even necessary in order to enable the religious orders to enter the modern era and attract a new generation of participants. What were the outcomes? How have the women’s religious orders fared since these modernizations were introduced? Have the changes led to a new generation of women joining the religious orders? The figures speak for themselves.
In 1965, the year in which the Council concluded its deliberations 4,110 women entered religious orders in the United States while 491 sought dispensations to leave their order. By 1970, new entrants had shrunk to 662 with 2,456 women exiting orders. Overall membership in women’s orders fell suddenly between 1966 and 1975 (181, 421 to 135,204). For almost four decades the decline has continued to the point where the viability of religious orders is now in question. The impact of the Vatican II reforms had been a disaster. The reforms designed to make religious life attractive to a new generation actually decreased the appeal. Why?
1. The Vatican II pronouncements undermined the ideological framework that gave meaning to religious vocation. By acknowledging all callings as equal the Council nullified the basic ideological foundation of eighteen centuries of Roman Catholic religious life’.
2. By allowing individuals to choose their own missions and by accommodating the subsequent diversity by revising corporate mission statement, the orders lost any sense of a clear, unified purpose.
3. By lowering the demands placed on members, the orders unintentionally reduced the rewards obtained through membership. Demanding membership is not sought as a goal in itself. But when imposed, it can result in significant spiritual and social rewards that are valued by those who join orders.
4. The orders that abandoned communal living found that faith was harder to sustain unless it is supported by significant relationships, members found it easier to question their faith and to leave their vocation when their significant relationships were outside of their order.
The changes introduced by Vatican II reduced the level of commitment required of members of religious orders. In doing so it reduced even more the appeal of religious life to those who were looking for a spiritual cause to live for. Religious life became like more like other vocations. Members left for other professions. Religious life became less appealing to candidates. The Catholic Church lost the services of its most dedicated members and is suffering dearly for it today.
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Roger Finke, “An Orderly Return to Tradition: Explaining Recruitment of Members into Catholic Orders”. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Mar. 1997, 36:2, pp218-230.
Patricia Wittberg, The Rise and Fall of Catholic Religious Orders: A Social Movement Perspective (Suny Series in Religion, Culture, and Society)