Viewpoint: Radical Renewal Needed for Religious Life

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.


  1. This editorial doesn’t seem to take history into account. Nor the realities of the present.

    1. Religious orders emerge, flourish for a time, and die–this has been true all throughout Christian history. That women’s orders today appear to be in trouble might be due in part to the multiplication of orders over the past century or three.

    1a. The important thing to survive is the Gospel mission. Secondly, if lay people are willing and able to shoulder the charism, why is that not a good thing?

    1b. What’s wrong with death?

    2. Is this evidence of the seemingly endless battle between clerics and apostolic religious life for women? Priests and women in the world have been battling for centuries. Isn’t it time for clergy to be more mature about it? This is less about secular feminism and more about men who do not understand women. It could be one of the biggest problems with mandatory clerical celibacy in the diocesan priesthood: a lack of basic compassion.

    3. Vocations to cloistered/traditional orders and apostolic/post-conciliar orders are running about equal in the US. The latter have four to five times as many communities.

    4. Many of these criticisms of women could be leveled at diocesan clergy who are trained in a quasi-monastic system, then live an immature quasi-eremitic life alone in a rectory. Instead of prayer, meditation, and continued learning, there might be brandy, cigars, and computers.

    5. Priests don’t encourage vocations to religious life. Plain and simple fact.

    My sense is that women religious are better equipped to deal with their own changes. And priests, unless they are willing to engage in understanding, dialogue, and a dollop of compassion, might do better to stick to their own issues. And maybe call out a bishop or three from time to time. (Not much news from the Sartain Commission lately, is there?)

    Women religious took Vatican II seriously. Bishops and priests seemed much more timid. By the numbers, both are in decline. Maybe there’s something to that that goes beyond simple numbers.

    1. @Todd Flowerday – comment #1:
      An excellent and compelling response to the editorial. I fully agree with your points – and their implications for going forward with renewal of religious life according to a bold interpretation of Vatican 2.

    2. @Todd Flowerday – comment #1:

      Excellent responses!

      Especially “… priests, unless they are willing to engage in understanding, dialogue, and a dollop of compassion, might do better to stick to their own issues. And maybe call out a bishop or three from time to time.”

      Another factor is that the new “traditional” groups often have the loving support of the hierarchs they serve and some really big money supporters.
      The Pizza Dominicans for example.

  2. Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Sandra Schneiders, Professor of New Testament Studies and Christian Spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley is one of the best scholars of scripture, spirituality, and religious life. Her views are well summarized in this series of articles in NCR.

    The essay, titled “Religious Life as Prophetic Life Form” explores the meaning of religious life today and comes during a controversial three-year Vatican study of U.S. women religious congregations.

    Contrary to traditionalists, I think the decline in vocations to the priesthood and religious life, which has mostly occurred in countries with highly educated populations, is the work of the Holy Spirit to enable the leadership of the world, Christianity and Catholicism by Christians who are neither ordained nor employees of any denomination. This is the subject of my retirement project called Voluntary Christian Leadership .

    Contrary to liberals, I think the unwillingness of Popes to ordain married men and women is providential since if we did those things now we would just end up with a very clerical church. We have to empower the baptized, replace clericalism with servant leadership, and most importantly replace paid leadership with voluntary (unpaid) leadership. Yes we do need a POOR (unpaid) church for the POOR.

    Ultimately I think voluntary Christian leadership will become a value and a life form at least as powerful and varied as the religious life form, and that most of the ordained ministry of future centuries will be voluntary both full and part time.

    Yes we do live in an exciting time of transition under Francis. Liberals as well as traditionalists should put on their seat belts.

    Christianity and Catholicism needs the renewal and empowerment of the baptized (i.e. Voluntary Christian Leadership) more than it needs renewal of the clergy (i.e. servant leadership) and renewal of religious life.

    I don’t know what the future of religious life will be. However religious life in the past has been the primary form of church renewal for Catholicism. Its charisms come from baptism not ordination, e.g. the innovations of Ignatius came before he was ordained a priest. Each renewal of religious life has brought new forms of ministry to the church. Voluntary Christian leaders of the future, both Catholic and Protestant, have much to learn from the history of religious life and its varied spiritualites.

  3. Based on my associations with a variety of women religious I want to re-affirm the positive comments regarding symbol systems in Msgr Mannion’s statement (but not his negative and undifferentiated comments) and the responses from Todd and Jack. I also want to make five additional comments.
    First: the large communities of women religious that I am familiar with, e.g. Sisters of St Joseph, School Sisters of Notre Dame, Precious Blood Sisters, lose many prospects once it becomes evident to them that their future may be involved not in an apostolic mission but in caring for the enormous number of retired and aging sisters, and thus not necessarily for the reasons Msgr Mannion asserts.
    Second: The long-standing and more “traditional” communities of women religious tout how many candidates they have. They do not talk about the numbers of professed Sisters who drop out after a few years when they are exposed to stifling and authoritarian governance.
    Third: Newly founded and more “traditional” communities do not have the weight of retired sisters to carry, thus creating a different dynamic.
    Fourth: Older, but smaller (50 or fewer members twenty or thirty years ago), and “traditional” communities are also disappearing, despite their following traditional practices and wearing the habit.
    Fifth: The negativity of many priests I know towards progressive women religious has not helped them. This negativity, though ostensibly directed at their “worldliness” etc., seems to me more about priests not being able to handle intelligent, dedicated and faithful, but also independent (rather than subservient) WOMEN.

  4. Good points from Todd and Jack. IMO, M. Francis Mannion is Partially on target. Two responses:

    a) ORIGINS – VOLUME: 22 ISSUE: 15 DATE:09/24/1992

    Vatican II called religious to a return to the “spirit of the founder.” While most congregations have engaged in much study and devoted great efforts to move in this direction, the absence of corporate commitment to embody the group’s response to current unmet needs in light of Gospel imperatives stands in contrast to the collective vision and action, rooted in God, that marked the birth of most apostolic, monastic or contemplative congregations. Religious life as a social institution in American society is at a crossroads. To achieve a desired future, religious as a group as well as individuals must confront the forces that currently restrain them and reinforce those dynamics that will allow them to in fact be responsive to absolute human need in the context of their particular charism. A future marked by significant revitalization will emerge for those congregations that are rooted in their relationship with God and, in a spirit of fidelity to their founding purpose and responsiveness to absolute human need, confront the current gap between the Gospel and the culture.

    b) Best study on this question:

    Nygren and Ukreitis published four studies and one specifically addressed Mannion’s question.

    (Note – the 20th century experience of religious orders was an anamoly – huge spike in vocations which had never happened before. One study conclusion – average religious community exists for 100 years – cycle of founding to death. They arise for specific reasons – find that a universal misunderstanding from our 20th century experience is that communities are *forever* and if they are not; then, they are seen as dying and a negative (which is contrary to religious communities histories, reasons for being, etc.)

    Disclaimer – Nygren and I were good friends and worked together as student formation directors for the Vincentian college seminary for years.)

  5. My response is based neither on statistics nor research, but just the observations of a 72 year old man who for 41 of those years has been a parish priest.
    Religious orders of various kinds flourished during a time when ordinary Catholics had no notion of a baptismal vocation that empowered them to play active roles in the mission of the church. If one perceived some kind of calling to serve God it meant joining a religious community (male or female), or becoming a diocesan priest. Most Catholics didn’t even think of marriage as a vocation that was also linked to the mission of the church. Then came Vatican II which spawned a great renewal in sacramental theology and practice, powered by a revitalized ecclesiology which was accessible to all through the new liturgy.
    Before Vatican II, the average parish was staffed by one or more priests, a housekeeper/cook, and the women religious who operated the parochial school. Schools may have had a paid secretary and a small number of lay teachers. Some had a janitor. After Vatican II, a rich and diversified understand of ministry led to the addition of secretaries, bookkeepers, RE directors, Youth Ministers, Adult Formation/RCIA directors, Music directors, Child care coordinators, and on and on and on. Contemporaneous with this development were the exodus from the priesthood and religious life of tens of thousands of men and women who had devoted some of the best years of their lives to service in the church but who heard yet another call–to marriage and family life.
    My point is simply that for a very long time now, the many Catholics who discern a vocation to service have no need to narrow their options to priesthood and religious life especially when they do not at all feel called to celibacy/virginity. I disagree with Jack that it would be a mistake to open up the priesthood and religious communities to those who are married. The idea that people are unable to have spouses and families while also being committed to specific apostolic work is an injustice. Out of…

    1. @Fr. Jack Feehily – comment #7:
      Fr. Jack – agree…..many of the largest religious communities today are finding and developing new models of incorporation into the community – some of these levels of participation are lay, married couples, singles and not forever but for a limited time period.

      Examples – religious communities have found significant life, passtion, and mission by developing *service corps* – folks who work in 3rd world nations serving the poor and living a common lifestyle and the charism of that religious community.

      In fact, if you review the works of Nygren/Urekietis you will find that many middle age religious communities began as lay organizations that eventually branched into Rome recognized communities with vows, etc. and with a lay branch.

      To pick up on Francis….the key is mission and going out to the periphery…..not to fixate on the inner workings and navel gaze.

  6. Another +1 for Todd. And excellent points also from Fr. Chochol @ #3.

    I must also say that anyone who thinks that progressive religious sisters don’t have a symbol system, istm, doesn’t know any of them very well. The religious I know are steeped in symbol and ritual, the stories of their founders are alive for them, and they engage in mission with a robust commitment that goes beyond the purely symbolic.

    Once again, it comes down to males wanting females to dress a certain way, behave a certain way, and be “gentle,” safe, non-threatening, somewhat confined, and defined by John Paul II’s notions about womanhood. Those that don’t conform to these expectations face heavy disapproval, and this, more than any perceived lack of a symbol system, has had a negative effect.

    Todd’s point #2 is especially apt. How many times have sisters been unceremoniously evicted from premises that a pastor or bishop suddenly found a different use for? Stonewalled when dialogue was sought? Insulted by crass comments about how they ought to be wearing a habit, when it’s their community’s wisdom that brought them to a different decision? Young women today for the most part do not expect to be told what to do without dialogue or respect or appeal. Those particular “good old days” are not so good that they invite repetition.

  7. I do not mean to attack the Monsignor nor his opinions on a personal level, but I think it is time to challenge this narrative that has been around for the past 40 years.

    Over and over, it is repeated that those orders who do not wear habits,
    follow a more traditional life style etc are at fault and will die out. And then there are all these vocations to more traditional orders that prove the point.

    God bless the newer or more traditional orders, and it is great they have vocations but their numbers are not some tidal wave. They are part of the mix and have their place, but time will tell how all this works out.

    Many of the older orders were working not from a symbolic sense, but often more from of rigid legalism. And one can conjecture that there are some other dynamics at work with the traditional orders, especially when one sees the high rate seeking dispensation after 5 to 10 years.

    I think the tradition of religious life is that it is more of a charism and part of the prophetic witness of the church. It is not how many, or what they wear etc, but if they are the light shining in the darkness. and often the darkness will not accept the light. If they are seeking the face of the living God in Jesus Christ and trying to express this reality in all their lives, then it matters little how traditional, progressive, how many or how few, or how long they will be around.
    it does not matter if they are a progressive or traditional container, it does matter how vital and real the life that container is holding and pouring itself out to share with others.

  8. In the 1980s and 90s I attended a Catholic grade school that, at the time, still had a few Franciscan sisters. Of course none of them wore the habit. Today the Franciscan presence at the school is completely gone. Women religious don’t have much visibility in today’s world, perhaps because a realistic sense of mission has evaporated in the past 50 years. Teaching children in a Catholic school is a realistic mission. Pushing earth-consciousness and fighting for some vaguely-defined meaning of “justice” are not enough to sustain an order of religious. I don’t see any work of the Holy Spirit here. How some women religious can attribute the decline of these orders and the priesthood to God is beyond me. But, I guess, people like to find the hand of God behind everything, rather than face their own failings.

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