by M. Francis Mannion
Today, many women’s religious orders and congregations seem headed for a very insecure future (to put it mildly), or worse, extinction. Those that have taken a more progressive direction since Vatican II have experienced the greatest disorientation and the sharpest decline in new vocations.
By a “progressive” direction, I mean one that goes far beyond the vision for the renewal of religious life envisaged by the Second Vatican Council. These congregations have notably adapted to modern culture with its characteristic prioritization of personal autonomy, individual calling, and self-determination. They are molded to some degree by a secular feminism, which is generally distrustful of tradition.
By contrast, the more “traditional” orders and congregations are experiencing much less of a decline, and some even appear to be flourishing. These have stayed within the vision of Vatican II on religious life. They are culturally critical, holding in high esteem communal life and the priority of a shared vision over personal and individual interest. They are informed by a gentler feminism sympathetic to the Catholic outlook, such as that proposed by Pope John Paul II.
How does one explain the fundamental difference between the progressive and the traditional congregations? It is, in my view, a matter of symbolism. I would argue that religious congregations thrive when they are built on a strong symbol system, and that they experience difficulties when they do not.
The style of religious life that existed before Vatican II was based on a strong communal symbol system. This found expression in a distinctive mode of dress, a structured order of daily prayer, set schedules of work and leisure, commitment to a common mission, and, not least, a sense of the religious house as a holy place. This general scheme continues today in the more traditional congregations.
However, the progressive congregations have shed many of these characteristics. There is generally no distinctive dress. There is no longer a strong communal life. Many religious live alone in apartments or in small houses with a few others. Religious get “jobs” in parishes, schools, and dioceses through an open-listing and professional interview process. Connections with the motherhouse seem tenuous. The central–and local–authority systems appear weak.
The fundamental problem with the more progressive orders and congregations is, in my view, their tendency to underplay the importance of a structured order of life and the kind of symbol systems that informs the more traditional groups.
This assertion finds ample support among social and cultural anthropologists. These have long marveled at the naïveté that any sort of society or community can thrive for long without a formal set of rites, codes of behavior, and clearly-defined protocols–in short, a symbol system. This is no less true of the nation, school, and family. (The much lamented break-down of social institutions in the U.S. can be located precisely in the collapse of inherited symbol systems.)
The progressive orders and congregations, if they are to survive–and follow an upward direction rather than a downward spiral, will have to undergo a radical renewal, by which I mean a deep and profound rediscovery of their original vocation and mode of life–appropriately renewed by Vatican II. This is sometimes called “re-founding.”
Those religious orders and congregations that do not renew themselves by a rediscovery of the mission for which they were founded and a reinvigoration of their original symbol system will, I fear, undergo a certain death.
But, as Pope Francis has said, the Church cannot envisage a future without religious life. Thus, there is always hope. One encouraging sign is the new traditionally-oriented congregations that are coming into existence–and attracting many young, talented women.
Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.