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Commentary on Perfectae Caritatis

Daniel J. Castellano


1. Pre-Conciliar Reforms
2. Principles of Renewal
3. Types of Religious Communities
4. Evangelical Counsels
5. Aspects of Religious Life
6. Religious Communities as Institutions
7. Aftermath

Shortly after the Second Vatican Council, there was a cataclysmic drop in vocations for monastic orders and congregations throughout Western Europe and North America. This included thousands of defections from religious life, especially among the young. Various plausible-sounding explanations have been offered for this decline, which continued for decades, yet most are contradicted by statistical evidence. The precise timing of the sharpest decline seems to be strongly correlated to the Council itself and the implementation of post-Conciliar reforms. Some suggest that the reforms took away much of the special esteem that religious life had previously enjoyed, making vocations less appealing. This interpretation is confirmed anecdotally by various religious who witnessed the reform of their communities firsthand. Without presuming to determine the extent to which the Council’s reforms may have caused the disastrous decline in vocations, we should at least look at what the Council actually prescribed in its decree Perfectae Caritatis (1965) and how these norms were proposed for implementation in Ecclesiae Sanctae (1966).

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1. Pre-Conciliar Reforms

Reform of religious communities or institutes had long been a concern of the twentieth-century popes. At first, these reforms focused on issues of authority. One issue of concern was the distinction between orders and congregations. The former had a rule of cloister, and vows were solemnly accepted by the Church, while the latter were permitted to work in the world, with “simple” vows made to the institute, not to the Church. Nuns and monks in orders were frequently dispensed from the rule of cloister in order to teach, preach and perform other works of the apostolate, somewhat effacing the special character of those communities. Sisters in congregations, for their part, had a tendency to encroach upon the prerogatives of the orders, adopting similar habits and titles, yet enjoying greater public exposure and independence from Church authority.

The reforms of Popes Leo XIII and St. Pius X placed religious congregations under the local authority of diocesan bishops, while all religious, including those in orders, were under the jurisdiction of the Vatican’s Congregation of Religious established in 1908. With a fixed set of rules and regulations, religious orders and congregations throughout the world flourished in numbers, though it remained at least questionable if many of them were truly living in accordance with their proper charisms.

Pope Pius XII imposed several important reforms that altered the balance among various types of religious life. In 1947, he granted members of secular institutes—who live out in the world, not forming their own communities, wear no habits, and take no solemn vows—official recognition as “consecrated persons.” Although this recognition was new, secular institutes had existed for more than a century, in order to circumvent secularist laws forbidding religious orders. Even earlier, there had long been devout laypeople (e.g., in 16th cent. Spain) who adopted the rule of religious life in their own homes, sometimes even wearing a habit. Still, many complained that this new status eroded the distinction between religious and secular life.

In 1950, Pope Pius’ constitution Sponsa Christi established a distinction between major and minor papal enclosure of orders of nuns. Those under minor enclosure could perform outside apostolic works (as had most nuns in the U.S. since the early 20th century), though all nuns should remain devoted primarily to the contemplative life. Each order should look to its traditions to determine which, if any, works of the external apostolate are “compatible with the contemplative life proper to the Order.” The Pope also encouraged womens’ orders to form federations for mutual assistance.

The reforms proposed by Pope Pius in Sponsa Christi and in the instructions of the Congregation for Religious [AAS 43 (1951), 37-44; AAS 48 (1956), 512-526] were actually quite restrained, and preserved a strong rule of cloister as well as an emphasis on the contemplative life. Nonetheless, more radical ideas of reform circulated in the Church, drawing upon Sponsa Christi’s general statement that:

...we find also in the Institute of Nuns some things that are neither necessary, nor complementary in themselves, but simply historical and external, that were born of circumstances of past times, that today have also changed much. When these other characters are no longer advantageous to or can impede another greater good, there is no special reason to be seen to conserve them.

In immediate context, the Pope was talking about those things not essential or complementary to “the contemplative canonical life of the Nuns as their primary and principal end.” Thus the encyclical proceeds to impose limitations on the external apostolic works of the Orders, and to mandate their daily praying of the Office and hearing Mass. In speeches, the Pope urged expanded training and education for the nuns to perform their works of the apostolate with high proficiency.

Contrary to every norm coming from the Holy See, various reformers in the 1950s and 60s made strange recommendations for nuns to stop wearing habits or to live in the world. The call for greater education was misconstrued as an occasion to secularize the religious, as novices and sisters attended coeducational Catholic and secular universities, which were then heavily influenced by leftist philosophies, including Marxism. The supremacy of the contemplative life was increasingly ignored. Even the rule of chastity came to be regarded as disposable, or at least reinterpreted into non-existence. This, of course, was utterly contrary to the teaching of Bl. Pope John XXIII, who steadfastly insisted on perfect continence in religious and clerics, and called for the rejection of any candidate who could not break the habit of “solitary sin,” or for whom continence would be heroically difficult. The emerging culture, of course, was much weaker in regard to sexual matters, leading to flaccid libertinism that would start to predominate in the late 1960s.

All the ingredients for radical reform were brewing before the opening of the Second Vatican Council. It remains to be seen to what extent, if any, the Council gave radicals the opening they sought to advance their programme. To this end, we will carefully examine the general principles for reform articulated by the Council in its decree Perfectae Caritatis, as well as the specific norms for implementation, defined in Ecclesiae Sanctae.

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2. Principles of Renewal [*]

The first part of the body of Perfectae Caritatis (sections 2-6) deals with the general principles governing the proposed reform or renewal of religious life. The Council does not propose giving religious communities a fundamentally new orientation, but rather to restore proper precedence to traditional norms. “Since the ultimate norm of the religious life is the following of Christ set forth in the Gospels, let this be held by all institutes as the highest rule.” (PC, 2a) After this highest norm, each institute should faithfully honor “their founders spirit and special aims they set before them as well as their sound traditions”. (PC, 2b)

A third norm is that, “All institutes should share in the life of the Church, adapting as their own and implementing in accordance with their own characteristics the Church's undertakings and aims in matters biblical, liturgical, dogmatic, pastoral, ecumenical, missionary and social.” (PC, 2c) Fourth, “Institutes should promote among their members an adequate knowledge of the social conditions of the times they live in and of the needs of the Church.” This is so “they may be able to assist men more effectively.” (PC, 2d)

Lastly, the council reminds us:

The purpose of the religious life is to help the members follow Christ and be united to God through the profession of the evangelical counsels. It should be constantly kept in mind, therefore, that even the best adjustments made in accordance with the needs of our age will be ineffectual unless they are animated by a renewal of spirit. This must take precedence over even the active ministry. (PC, 2e)

The traditional evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience remain the means by which religious life attains its essential purpose of following Christ in spiritual perfection. Since the purpose of religious life is interior spiritual development, any reform of that life must be in accordance with that aim. The priority of contemplation over active ministry is clearly articulated.

Still, there are many aspects of religious life that can be adapted to time and place.

The manner of living, praying and working should be suitably adapted everywhere, but especially in mission territories, to the modern physical and psychological circumstances of the members and also, as required by the nature of each institute, to the necessities of the apostolate, the demands of culture, and social and economic circumstances.

According to the same criteria let the manner of governing the institutes also be examined.

Therefore let constitutions, directories, custom books, books of prayers and ceremonies and such like be suitably re-edited and, obsolete laws being suppressed, be adapted to the decrees of this sacred synod. (PC, 3)

The most obvious place where revision would be necessary was in liturgical practice, as reformed under Sacrosanctum Concilium. Ecclesiae Sanctae goes a bit further, recommending that institutes in the Latin Rite replace their Little Offices with part or all of the Divine Office, even though the Little Offices are explicitly accepted by Sacrosanctum Concilium. (Eccl. Sanct. 20; SC, 98)

Ecclesiae Sanctae also refers us especially to chapters 5 and 6 of Lumen Gentium for the renewal’s norms. (Eccl. Sanct., 15) There we find that the mission of the Church is “to proclaim and to spread among all peoples the Kingdom of Christ and of God and to be, on earth, the initial budding forth of that kingdom.” (LG, 5) We also find that the Church is a sheepfold whose shepherd and gate is Christ. It is where God dwells among men, a Temple built of living stones. The Church on earth seeks heavenly things, until the day her hidden life will appear in glory. (LG, 6)

Ecclesiae Sanctae prescribes that the reformed laws or constitutions of each institute should ordinarily include (a) evangelical and theological principles of religious life in accordance with the aims of the founders and their own traditions (per PC, 2b), and (b) necessary juridical norms, which “should not be excessively multiplied”. (Eccl. Sanct., 12) Both the spiritual and juridical elements are necessary; “care must therefore be taken that a merely juridical or purely exhortatory text is not composed.” (Eccl. Sanct., 13)

The fundamental code or constitution of an institute was expected to have permanence, so Ecclesiae Sanctae prescribed that matters which are obsolete, or subject to change with time or place should be excluded. Those norms which correspond only to present needs and particular circumstances, as well as “the physical and psychological conditions of the members,” should be written in supplementary codes or directories. (Eccl. Sanct., 14)

To ensure that the general principles of Perfectae Caritatis (2a-e) should pervade religious life, Ecclesiae Sanctae recommended (1) that all members, including novices, should study and meditate on the Gospels and all Sacred Scripture; (2) the theological, historical, and canonical aspects of the doctrine of religious life should be explained; and (3) “the institutes should strive for a genuine knowledge of their original spirit, so that faithfully preserving this spirit in determining adaptations, their religious life may thus be purified of alien elements and freed from those which are obsolete.” (Eccl. Sanct., 16) These recommendations, with their apparent emphasis on scholarship, carried the danger of making religious institutes subject to critical or revisionist theories of little worth. In particular, a historically erroneous or minimalist sense of the founders’ original aims might lay waste to much that is valued in an institute’s traditions. As with Sacrosanctum Concilium, the implementation of Perfectae Caritatis may have granted too much influence to “liturgical experts” with ideologically motivated theories. Such intellectual pretensions could prove especially inappropriate to the religious life, with its emphasis on ascetic humility.

Ecclesiae Sanctae does recognize that there can be value in retaining traditions not meeting these criteria:

Those elements are to be considered obsolete which do not constitute the nature and purpose of the institute and which, having lost their meaning and power, are no longer a real help to religious life. Nevertheless, consideration must be given to the witness which the religious state has as its role the obligation of giving. (Eccl. Sanct., 17)

Even if a custom is not essential to an Institute’s purpose or is retained purely for tradition’s sake, it might still have value as giving witness to the special character of the religious state. An obvious example of this would be an order’s dress or habit. Even if this habit is not original or essential to the founder’s aim, and no longer is typical of a poor person’s clothing, it might still be retained on account of the witness it gives.

Returning to Perfectae Caritatis, we find that any reforms to constitutions must be approved by the Holy See or the local Ordinary where prescribed by canon law. Superiors should also take counsel from the members of their order prior to reform. “For the adaptation and renewal of convents of nuns suggestions and advice may be obtained also from the meetings of federations or from other assemblies lawfully convoked.” (PC, 4) Yet “the hope of renewal lies more in the faithful observance of the rules and constitutions than in multiplying laws.” (PC, 4)

These themes had already been discussed by Pope Paul VI in his address to all the general chapters of orders and congregations in 1964:

...the principal task of the General Chapter is, as time goes on, to keep intact those norms of the Religious family which were set up by its Founder and Lawgiver. Therefore, it is your responsibility to firmly shut the door against all those modes of conduct which gradually devitalize the strength of religious discipline, namely, practices which are dangerous to religious life, unnecessary dispensations, and privileges not properly approved. You must likewise be wholly on guard against any relaxation of discipline which is urged, not by true necessity, but which rather arises from arrogance of spirit, or aversion to obedience, or love of worldly things. Moreover, with respect to undertaking new projects or activities, you should refrain from taking on those which do not entirely correspond to the principal work of your Institute or to the mind of your Founder.

In the same address, Pope Paul extols the traditional values of chastity, poverty, and obedience, and indeed prescribes that reforms should facilitate living according to the evangelical counsels. The general chapters will have the task of implementing such reforms, as clarified in Ecclesiae Sanctae, which recommends that they be convened within two or three years. (Eccl. Sanct., 3) The commission preparing the general chapter should consult with members and provincial chapters to determine the agenda of reform. (Eccl. Sanct., 4) Once convened:

This general chapter has the right to alter certain norms of the constitutions, or among Orientals the norms of the Typika, as an experiment, as long as the purpose, nature and character of the institute are preserved. Experiments contrary to the common law, provided they are to be undertaken prudently, will be willingly permitted by the Holy See as the occasions call for them. These experiments can be prolonged until the next Ordinary general chapter, which will have the faculty to continue them further but not beyond the chapter immediately following. (Eccl. Sanct., 6)

The use of the term ‘experiment’ has been construed, both by advocates and opponents of the post-conciliar reforms, as an occasion for open-ended tampering with established constitutions, to the point that the law is merely optional. On the contrary, given the surrounding context of this directive, it is clear that the experimentation was intended to give reform a temporary or tentative character at first, to cautiously test each change in custom before making it permanent. All such alterations were supposed to be within the purpose and character of the religious institute, and these had already been defined by Pope and Council in traditional terms.

Further, such changes were only to be made by duly constituted authority. Anything contrary to universal canon law would require papal approval, while other experimental changes were reserved to duly convoked general chapters. “The general council has the same faculty during the time that intervenes between chapters of this kind...” (Eccl. Sanct., 7) Definitive approval of the constitutions was reserved to the competent authority (Eccl. Sanct., 8), which usually meant the Holy See or the local Ordinary.

For convents of nuns, superiors general and delegates of the Holy See (or Eastern patriarch) could authorize experimental changes in observances. “Yet special consideration should be given to the special outlook and frame of mind of those who are cloistered and who have so great a need for stability and security.” (Eccl. Sanct., 10)

In actual implementation, reforms of the religious institutes frequently did not abide by the norms prescribed above, and tended toward disastrous instability in even the most basic observances. Consequently, in 1983, the Holy See ended the period of experimentation and clearly defined the fundamental norms for religious institutes in the new Code of Canon Law and in the document from the Congregation of Religious titled Essential Elements in the Church's Teaching on Religious Life as Applied to Institutes Dedicated to Works of the Apostolate.

Since then, the juridical codes of religious institutes have stabilized, though the same has not always been true of practice. As Pope Paul VI warned in his 1964 address: “Multiplicity of laws is not always accompanied by progress in religious life. It often happens that the more rules there are, the less people pay attention to them.”

In Perfectae Caritatis, the Council reminds religious:

...that by professing the evangelical counsels they responded to a divine call so that by being not only dead to sin (cf. Rom. 6:11) but also renouncing the world they may live for God alone...

Since the Church has accepted their surrender of self they should realize they are also dedicated to its service. This service of God ought to inspire and foster in them the exercise of the virtues, especially humility, obedience, fortitude and chastity....

It is necessary therefore that the members of every community, seeking God solely and before everything else, should join contemplation, by which they fix their minds and hearts on Him, with apostolic love, by which they strive to be associated with the work of redemption and to spread the kingdom of God. (PC, 5)

While upholding the primacy of the contemplative life, the Council affirms that this very renunciation of self requires service to the Church, which has accepted their vows. (This is properly applicable only to those in orders.) This service, in turn, facilitates the exercise of virtues conducive to the contemplative life. Accordingly, religious are exhorted to join contemplation with apostolic charity. Further they, “should resolutely cultivate both the spirit and practice of prayer,” as well as reading Scripture and participating at Mass. (PC, 6) To this end, Ecclesiae Sanctae prescribed that “a larger place should be given to mental prayer instead of a multitude of prayers, retaining nevertheless the pious exercises commonly accepted in the Church...” (Eccl. Sanct., 20)

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3. Types of Religious Communities

In the next part of Perfectae Caritatis (sections 7-11), the Council distinguishes the major types of religious communities. First are the strict contemplatives:

Communities which are entirely dedicated to contemplation, so that their members in solitude and silence, with constant prayer and penance willingly undertaken, occupy themselves with God alone, retain at all times, no matter how pressing the needs of the active apostolate may be, an honorable place in the Mystical Body of Christ, whose "members do not all have the same function" (Rom. 12:4). ... Nevertheless their manner of living should be revised according to the principles and criteria of adaptation and renewal mentioned above. However their withdrawal from the world and the exercises proper to the contemplative life should be preserved with the utmost care. (PC, 7)

The Council rejects any suggestion that such communities are defective or should be compelled to adopt works of the active apostolate. Far from devaluing contemplation, the Council teaches that even communities with apostolic tasks (e.g., administration, teaching, preaching, corporal and spiritual works of mercy) should ground their activity in intimate union with Christ. Their rules and customs should be adjusted “to fit the demands of the apostolate to which they are dedicated.” (PC, 8) The Council recognizes that there should be a diversity of communities with different tasks.

Monastic orders (i.e., cloistered monks and nuns) have the principal duty “to offer a service to the divine majesty at once humble and noble within the walls of the monastery, whether they dedicate themselves entirely to divine worship in the contemplative life or have legitimately undertaken some apostolate or work of Christian charity”. The Council praises this way of life, whose character should be retained, yet monastics “should revive their ancient traditions of service and so adapt them to the needs of today that monasteries will become institutions dedicated to the edification of the Christian people.” (PC, 9)

In particular, those religious communities that “closely join the apostolic life to choir duty and monastic observances” should adapt to “the demands of the apostolate appropriate to them that they observe faithfully their way of life, since it has been of great service to the Church.” (PC, 9) There is no question here of changing the character or purpose of a religious community, but of adjusting its rules to more faithfully reflect its existing special vocation.

The Council confirms that lay religious, male or female, may enjoy the state of professing the evangelical counsels “which is complete in itself.” This was to correct a popular error that priestly ordination was a further monastic perfection, leading to inequitable treatment between clerical and lay monks, and a consequent excessive desire for priestly ordinations in lay monasteries. The Council allows that some brothers may be ordained in order to meet their sacramental needs, “provided that the lay character of the community remains unchanged.” (PC, 10)

“Secular Institutes, although not Religious Institutes, involve a true and full profession of the evangelical counsels in the world. This profession is recognized by the Church and consecrates to God men and women, lay and clerical, who live in the world.” (PC, 11) The Secular Institutes are distinct from Religious Institutes in that their members do not live in separate communities, but out in the world. They still make full profession of the counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience, though not necessarily by formal vows. The Council advises that they should retain their secular character (living in the world), so they can most effectively carry out “the apostolate for which they were founded.” (PC, 11) Their members should “be thoroughly trained in matters divine and human so that they are truly a leaven in the world,” and superiors “should give serious attention especially to the spiritual training to be given members”. (PC, 11)

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4. Evangelical Counsels

The traditional counsels of chastity, poverty, and obedience are to be observed in their fullness by all religious.

The chastity of religious is “an outstanding gift of grace” that “frees the heart of man in a unique fashion (cf. 1 Cor. 7:32-35) so that it may be more inflamed with love for God and for all men.” (PC, 12) To keep their profession of chastity, religious must “trusting in God's help not overestimate their own strength but practice mortification and custody of the senses.” (PC, 12) Ecclesiae Sanctae similarly recommends “works of penance and mortification,” though advising that “the special penitential practices of institutes should be revised insofar as it is necessary so that, taking into account traditions, whether of the East or of the West, and modern circumstances, the members may in practice be able to observe them, adopting new forms also drawn from modern conditions of life.” (Eccl. Sanctae, 22) Such reforms should not be construed as relaxing the discipline of perfect continence, for the Council emphatically rejects “those false doctrines which scorn perfect continence as being impossible or harmful to human development”. (PC, 12)

No one should be permitted to take a vow of chastity “unless they have been previously tested sufficiently and have been shown to possess the required psychological and emotional maturity.” (PC, 12) Novices should “be warned about the dangers to chastity which they may meet but they should be so instructed as to be able to undertake the celibacy which binds them to God in a way which will benefit their entire personality.” (PC, 12)

The discipline of poverty should be diligently observed, so that members are “poor both in fact and in spirit”. Religious are bound, like all men, to perform labor. They should not be unduly solicitous of funding beyond “what is required for their sustenance and works”. (PC, 13) This is to prevent situations where monasteries or their members are “poor” only by technicality.

Congregations (i.e., institutes with simple vows) can permit, by rule, “members to renounce inheritances, both those which have been acquired or may be acquired.” (PC, 13) Ecclesiae Sanctae clarifies that such institutes may specify whether such renunciation is obligatory or optional, and whether it is done before or after perpetual profession. (Eccl. Sanct., 24)

Local conditions permitting, religious communities should use their goods to support other needs of the Church and the needs of the poor. They should also help fellow religious communities in need. The Council recognizes the right of religious communities “to possess whatever is required for their temporal life and work, unless this is forbidden by their rules and constitutions. Nevertheless, they should avoid every appearance of luxury, excessive wealth and the accumulation of goods.” (PC, 13; cf CCC 1983, c. 634)

By professing obedience, religious fully surrender their own will, in emulation of Christ who did only the will of the Father and assumed the nature of a slave. (Phil. 2:7) The religious “subject themselves in faith to their superiors who hold the place of God. Under their guidance they are led to serve all their brothers in Christ, just as Christ himself in obedience to the Father served His brethren and laid down His life as a ransom for many.” (PC, 14) Obedience to a superior is the means by which religious are bound in service to the Church. Therefore, they “should humbly obey their superiors according to their rules and constitutions.” This obedience does not lessen human dignity, but leads it to maturity, as the religious freely use their intellect, will, and other gifts to fulfill the commands and duties entrusted to them. (PC, 14)

Superiors, accountable for the souls entrusted to them, “should exercise their authority out of a spirit of service to the brethren, expressing in this way the love with which God loves their subjects. They should govern these as sons of God, respecting their human dignity.” (PC, 14) Superiors retain full authority “to decide and command,” but they should still “gladly listen to their subjects and foster harmony among them”. (PC, 14)

“Chapters and deliberative bodies should faithfully discharge the part in ruling entrusted to them and each should in its own way express that concern for the good of the entire community which all its members share.” (PC, 14) Ecclesiae Sanctae adds that this aim is best realized “if the members have a really effective part in selecting the members of these chapters and councils.” Also, the exercise of authority should be “made more effective and unhindered,” so “superiors on every level should be given sufficient powers so that useless and too frequent recourse to higher authorities is not multiplied.” (Eccl. Sanct., 18)

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5. Aspects of Religious Life

The next part of Perfectae Caritatis (sections 15-18) deals with basic aspects of religious life, namely: communal living, papal cloister, habits, education and formation.

Communal life is modeled after the early Church (cf. Acts 4:32), where members defer to each other and bear each other’s burdens. (PC, 15) To strengthen the bond of fraternal love, lay-brothers and assistants “should be drawn closely in to the life and work of the community.” Again, this is a corrective of the development whereby non-priests were effectively second-class monks. Likewise: “Unless conditions really suggest something else, care should be taken that there be only one class of Sisters in communities of women.” Sisters should be distinguished only in accordance with their special works or aptitudes. Monasteries and communities may “admit clerics and lay persons on an equal footing and with equal rights and obligations, excepting those which flow from sacred orders.” (PC, 15)

Ecclesiae Sanctae offers more specific directives, saying that institutes devoted to apostolic works should still foster communal life, though “the order of the day cannot always be the same in all their houses, nor at times in the same house for all the members.” Still, the religious should have time for spiritual matters, labor, rest and recreation. (Eccl. Sanct., 25-26)

General chapters may grant assistants or cooperatores an active vote in certain actions and a passive vote for certain offices. This will bind them more closely to the community, and free the priests for their own ministry. (Eccl. Sanct., 27)

Similar solicitude should be shown for sisters dedicated to the external service of convents. Special statutes for them should be drawn, taking into consideration the needs of their vocation as well as the cloistered nuns to whom they are joined. (Eccl Sanct, 29)

Perfectae Caritatis preserves the rule of papal cloister for strictly contemplative nuns. “However, it must be adjusted to conditions of time and place and obsolete practices suppressed.” (PC, 16) Nuns who, by rule, conduct apostolic work outside the convent are to be exempted from papal cloister, though they still maintain the cloister prescribed by their constitutions. This effectively abolished the “minor papal enclosure” established by Pius XII. A convent either followed the strict rule of papal enclosure (in the case of contemplatives), or else established its own rule of enclosure by its constitution. Ecclesiae Sanctae stated this explicitly, and gave contemplative nuns the stark choice of renouncing external works to keep papal enclosure or defining their own rule of enclosure to continue these works. (Eccl. Sanct., 32) The Holy See also granted religious institutes the authority to define particular norms for the material separation from the outside world which is essential to papal enclosure. (Eccl. Sanct, 31)

Regarding habits, Perfectae Caritatis says simply:

The religious habit, an outward mark of consecration to God, should be simple and modest, poor and at the same becoming. In addition it must meet the requirements of health and be suited to the circumstances of time and place and to the needs of the ministry involved. The habits of both men and women religious which do not conform to these norms must be changed. (PC, 17)

This vague prescription was not elaborated in Ecclesiae Sanctae, though the above language implies that some existing habits did not comply with these norms. Although these norms admit a great breadth of interpretation, they cannot be construed as advocating the abolition of habits in favor of secular dress. The habit is supposed to be “an outward mark of consecration to God,” but this can hardly be the case if one dresses no differently from the unconsecrated. (cf. CIC 1983, c. 669)

Lay religious should not be assigned to apostolic works until after completing “religious and apostolic formation, joined with instruction in arts and science directed toward obtaining appropriate degrees”. (PC, 18) Further, religious in the active apostolate “must be given suitable instruction, depending on their intellectual capacity and personal talent, in the currents and attitudes of sentiment and thought prevalent in social life today.” (PC, 18) They must continue this education and spiritual formation throughout their lives.

This emphasis on formal education was motivated by a desire to ensure that monastics in the active apostolate did not lag in competence, compared with their secular counterparts. Yet, given the state of Catholic and secular universities at the time, increasingly hostile to orthodox doctrines and traditions, the above prescriptions could prove ruinous to the spiritual formation of religious, causing them to be assimilated by the world instead of leavening it. This has anecdotally accounted for numerous defections by nuns, monks, and clerics during the post-Conciliar period. Still, this lamentable result can hardly be laid at the feet of the Council Fathers, unless one wishes to argue that religious in the lay apostolate should not be formally trained or educated, or else that all religious should be strict contemplatives.

Ecclesiae Sanctae goes a bit further than the Council, and says that “further training after the novitiate” is necessary “even for those living a contemplative life,” though this extends only over the period of temporary vows. (Eccl. Sanct., 35) This training should be “given in suitable houses” and “complemented by the performance of works and duties” proper to each institute. (Eccl. Sanct., 36) When an institute cannot provide its own “adequate doctrinal or technical training,” it may resort to “common lectures or courses, loan of teachers, associations of teachers, sharing of facilities in a common school to be attended by members of several institutes.” (Eccl. Sanct., 37) Clearly, the education and formation of religious was intended to be kept “in house” as much as possible.

6. Religious Communities as Institutions

The remainder of the body of Perfectae Caritatis (sections 19-24) deals with the institutional aspects of religious communities: how they are founded, how they maintain their ministry and mission, how they are dissolved or combined, how they confer with each other, and how they may foster vocations.

New communities should be formed only if they are necessary or at least promise many useful services. In areas where churches are only recently established, new religious communities should promote forms of life that “take into account the genius and way of life of the inhabitants and the customs and conditions of the regions.” (PC, 19)

Religious communities should maintain the “ministries proper to them,” and adapt these “to the requirements of of time and place, employing appropriate and even new programs and abandoning those works which today are less relevant to the spirit and authentic nature of the community.” All religious communities should preserve a missionary spirit, adapting this to modern conditions, “as the nature of each community permits”. (PC, 20)

Communities judged by the Holy See, in consultation with local Ordinaries, “not to possess reasonable hope for further development,” will be forbidden to receive novices. (PC, 21) Ecclesiae Sanctae gives these criteria: “the small number of Religious in proportion to the age of the institute or the monastery, the lack of candidates over a period of several years, the advanced age of the majority of its members.” (Eccl. Sanct., 41) If possible, such institutes should be combined with other communities similar in scope or spirit, (PC, 21) though the individual religious affected should be consulted beforehand. (Eccl. Sanct., 41)

Independent institutes and monasteries should, when opportune and the Holy See permits, form federations if they can be considered as belonging to the same religious family. Others who have practically identical constitutions and rules and a common spirit should unite, particularly when they have too few members. Finally, those who share the same or a very similar active apostolate should become associated, one to the other. (PC, 22)

The construction of such federations should have “consideration for the specific character of each institute as well as to the freedom of individual members.” (Eccl. Sanct., 40)

This synod favors conferences or councils of major superiors, established by the Holy See. These can contribute very much to achieve the purpose of each institute; to encourage more effective cooperation for the welfare of the Church; to ensure a more just distribution of ministers of the Gospel in a given area; and finally to conduct affairs of interest to all religious. Suitable coordination and cooperation with episcopal conferences should be established with regard to the exercise of the apostolate.

Similar conferences should also be established for secular institutes. (PC, 23)

These directives were similarly prescribed in Ecclesiae Sanctae, which added that there should be mixed commissions of bishops and major superiors, to facilitate cooperation with episcopal conferences. (Eccl Sanct 43)

Lastly, the Council exhorts priests and Christian educators to foster vocations to religious life. “In ordinary preaching, the life of the evangelical counsels and the religious state should be treated more frequently. Parents, too, should nurture and protect religious vocations in their children by instilling Christian virtue in their hearts.” (PC, 24) Catholic readers are excused if they have never once heard such a homily. For their own part, “Religious communities have the right to make themselves known in order to foster vocations and seek candidates.” (PC, 24)

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7. Aftermath

As noted at the outset, the post-Conciliar period witnessed a dramatic drop in religious vocations, while at the same time sweeping, often radical reforms of religious communities were attempted. Many of these reforms paid lip service to the Council’s principles of going back to the founder’s aims and adapting to the modern world, yet they frequently disregarded the norms and reverence for traditions prescribed by the same Council.

Although there are many aspects of Perfectae Caritatis that allow room for interpretation, its clearly articulated principles definitely exclude the more radical reforms commonly associated with the implementation of the Council’s decrees. The Council emphasizes the importance of living and praying in community, even for institutes with a mission in the active apostolate, as well as the priority of the contemplative life. It repeatedly extols the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty, and obedience, and indeed urges that these should be strictly followed as perfectly as possible. The religious habit is to be retained as a distinctive sign of the consecrated life, which is still to be held up as an example of a more perfect following of Christ, by making the external life facilitate interior contemplation and union with God.

Nowhere can we find any hint that communal life is undesirable, that regular observances should give way to personal preference, that superiors need not be obeyed, that religious should discard their habits, living and thinking as the secular world does. Anyone who claims that these things were implementations of the Council’s teachings is either ignorant or indifferent to those teachings.

Misguided attempts to modernize religious life by effectively secularizing it were ultimately self-defeating. The institutions where these errors have been most pervasive have suffered the greatest losses in membership, as they have effectively undermined their reason for being. If religious are not to live that much differently from the unconsecrated, one might as well remain unconsecrated, without burdensome vows and corporate commitments. These poorly reformed orders and congregations now resemble those suitable for dissolution, per Ecclesiae Sanctae’s criteria: “the small number of Religious in proportion to the age of the institute or the monastery, the lack of candidates over a period of several years, the advanced age of the majority of its members.”

Perhaps, due to changing social circumstances, the collapse in vocations would have happened anyway, even without the pretext of institutional renewal. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that the self-contradictory vision of religious life without contemplation, community, or the evangelical counsels did not succeed, nor was it an authentic expression of the spirit or letter of the Council.

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[*] Credit for the subheading scheme to Jeffrey Pinyan at The Cross Reference blog

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© 2013 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org