Saturday, October 3, 2009
Thanks to Michael Perry for thinking of me and bringing to the attention of the Mirror of Justice community the recent America essay by Sr. Ilia Delio, O.S.F. As one member of a religious order to another, I would like to respond to Sr. Ilia’s essay and the points she makes or implies about religious life. In particular, I suggest that when all is said and done the “communio” versus “concilium” distinction is untenable in any effort to be authentic to the Second Vatican Council’s aspirations, suggestions, and mandates. The fundamental justification for my position is that the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Appropriate Renewal of the Religious Life, Perfectae Caritatis, must be understood and applied in its entirety, not selectively. After having read Sr. Ilia’s interesting essay, I see that she chooses to follow some but not all of the Decree’s provisions. This is a mistake.
Before I offer a brief examination of the Decree that is essential to our understanding that one must subscribe to both “communio” and “concilium” if one wishes to be faithful to the Council, I have a few observations regarding some of Sr. Ilia’s claims. I do not disagree with the position she presents at the outset of her article: that women’s religious life is undergoing “a massive revolutionary change” which she describes as cataclysmic. But at the same time, Sr. Ilia does not offer a reason or theory why new communities that are more traditional are doing well, even prospering, with new vocations. Those who belong to many of the traditional orders have not had this experience of rejuvenation but are, from what Sr. Ileia states and others have demonstrated, suffering the cataclysm, a decline, and death. Could it be that those orders which are experiencing growth or rebirth are doing precisely what the Decree mandates but those which are in decline are choosing a path in which some of the Decree’s elements are followed but others ignored or dismissed?
Sr. Ilia speaks of the “spirit of Vatican II.” One often hears of the “spirit of Vatican II.” Well, the spirit is not some nebulous, self-manufactured hope; it is, rather, a reality that any of us can access should we choose to read and comprehend objectively the texts of the Council in their entirety. This is resourcement; this is what constitutes authentic aggiornamento. She also wonders if some women religious have misinterpreted the documents of the Council. The Spirit and the spirit of the Council are in the texts, and they are clear. So, I do not think it is so much a matter of misinterpretation as I think it is a matter of ignoring. And this is why it is essential to the task of “the spirit of Vatican II” to comprehend in its entirety what the Council had to say about religious life—both in men’s and women’s institutes—so that the Spirit can be followed, the spirit of the Council can be known, and the intent of the Council can be honored and observed. The Radcliffian thesis of “one or the other” that emerges from the “communio/concilium” distinction neglects what the Council intended as evidenced by the Decree’s text.
At the outset, the Council reminds one and all that to be in religious life—be it a male or a female order—one puts on Christ in an additional way (we all put on Christ at our baptism) through the evangelical counsels, i.e., poverty, chastity, and obedience. These counsels are not optional; they are constitutive of religious life. The Council acknowledged that the members of the religious institutes and the institutes themselves reflect a variety of gifts, and it asserted that each member and each institute lives “more and more for Christ and for His body which is the Church.” The greater the personal gift from the women and men religious, “the richer the life of the Church becomes and the more lively and successful its apostolate.” This is a “magis” that necessitates not only “concilium” but, simultaneously “communio.”
The Council was quick to point out the non-negotiable requirement that both adaptation and renewal of religious life must be faithful to sources of all Christian life and the original spirit or charism of the particular order. Of course, these may require some necessary adaptation of first principles but not abandonment. So, when Sr. Laurie Brink spelled out her “dynamic option” for religious life to be beyond Jesus, to be beyond institutional religion, and to be post-Christian, she offered a recipe that is in irreconcilable conflict with both the “spirit” and the intent of the Council’s Decree on Religious Life. [HERE]
One cannot discount the essential nature of what constitutes appropriate adaptation of which the Council speaks and to which Sr. Ilia alludes. The Council note that the ultimate norm of religious life is following Jesus Christ and the Gospels. To be beyond Jesus and to be post-Christian are problems of the highest magnitude. The Council, moreover, noted that all religious institutes must participate in the life of the Church, not beyond or outside of it. Regardless of the order—male or female; contemplative or apostolic), each shares in the principal mission of aiding its members to follow Christ, be united to God, and to remain faithful to the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
While the Council recommended the possibility of prudent experimentation in adaptation, it clearly asserted that the approval of the Holy See or the local Ordinary must be obtained so that the experimentation is consistent with the Decree’s objectives. To pick and choose which practices and beliefs of the Church constitute acceptable adaptation of religious life would likely conflict with this vital element of the Decree. In this context, it is clear that each member of a religious institute is “dedicated to [the Church’s] service.” This essential communion with the Church requires daily prayer and “the holy sacrifice of the Mass.” In this regard, it would seem that the Benedictine Women of Madison, who reconstituted themselves as a secular corporation and piecemeally alienated ecclesiastical property and no longer have Mass at their Holy Wisdom monastery, are not in accord with the intent and “spirit” of the Decree. The mandated union with the Church has evaporated.
Sr. Ilia may consider that she follows the correct course in her effort to be faithful to the Second Vatican Council. But she has given us little to consider by way of pointing out that renewal, adaptation, or anything else that she offers draws from the Decree on the Appropriate Renewal of Religious Life. I trust that some of the relevant elements of the Decree that I have pointed out in this posting demonstrate convincingly that the Decree mandates both “communio” and “concilium”—you can’t have one without the other.