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A New Vision of Religious Life?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 06, 2006

Here comes Father David Couturier, OFM Cap. to utterly transform religious life. Addressing the annual assembly of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men on August 5th, Fr. Couturier, who is dean of the theology school at St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore, wastes no time beating about the bush. “If my thesis is correct,” he modestly intones, “modern philosophy is at a dead end, and religious life is at a crossroad.” One can hardly wait for the impending revelation.

Diminishment Thinking

According to Fr. Couturier, ever since the Enlightenment our culture has been victimized by “diminishment thinking”. We see everything in terms of a model of competition for scarce resources proposed to us by capitalism. Indeed, “religious life is not so much confused about Christ’s identity and the church’s dogma as it is struggling for mission as it acts out its part in the theological and philosophical drama of a culture captivated by aggressive consumer capitalism.” And things are much worse now than they were even five years ago: “Since 9/11 our country has gone on record saying that we will use any means necessary and pursue any strategy required, even preemptively, to defend our economic supremacy over all others.”

It would seem, then, that the crisis of religious life may be properly laid at the feet of rapacious American presidents and others like them over the past 250 years. But now the worst is over, and religious communities are beginning to emerge from this darksome influence to envision a mission based not on scarcity and diminishment but on abundance, “the theological recognition that God is good, all good, supremely good, all the time and to everyone.” With this in mind, those in religious life can make a major global difference by the development of “a relational economy” and “a truly global network of international compassion.” Until now, capitalist blinders had obscured this compelling vision.

Economics, Politics and Mission

Perhaps it is understandable that a man who sees the whole problem of contemporary religious life as having been caused by a false political and economic viewpoint can’t seem to escape politics and economics in his own assessment of the possibilities of the religious vocation. “Across the world today,” declaims Fr. Couturier, “religious are asking themselves some profound questions.” The profound questions are: (1) How do we live in an unequal and at times unjust world? (2) How do we use the goods of this world? and (3) What do we do with surplus? If these weren’t on your short list of critical questions for religious communities today, you’ve missed the whole point.

But Fr. Couturier has not missed the point. He looks “to the establishment and maintenance of Franciscans International, a nongovernmental organization of Franciscans at the United Nations, with particular satisfaction and hope.” This organization is both a symbol and an example of what religious can do when they break out of the old patterns of diminishment thought. Citing this as the first common Franciscan ministry (“lay and cleric, male and female, Protestant and Catholic”) since the time of St. Francis, Fr. Couturier finds Franciscans International to be of paramount importance because it is “allowing the poor to sit at the table when the diplomats of the world decide the fate of the planet.”

The Vision is All

So powerful is Fr. Couturier’s vision that every problem is both explained and solved by it. The shortage in religious vocations “impacts both progressive communities and traditional ones alike” because it is caused by capitalist diminishment thinking. Granted, even an ideological neophyte can see that a materialist culture has trouble with vocations, but it is also true that the most casual observation reveals a profound difference in the nature and extent of the vocation shortage in progressive as compared with traditional communities. Those communities which have a strong, deep, vibrant and confident Catholic identity, including unabashed fidelity to the Magisterium, have a far richer vocational picture.

But as we have already seen, Fr. Couturier’s vision heralds the death of such useless distinctions. He rejects as untenable the view that “the vocation shortage, polarization and supposed anemia experienced by religious congregations in the West are the natural…outcomes of infidelity and confusion.” To the contrary, this kind of “angry and accusatory” finger-pointing is simply another proof of the inadequacies of diminishment thinking. By such negative thought-processes, “we have been set up for disappointment and hoodwinked into discouragement.”

On a Global Scale

Fortunately, simply by embracing Fr. Couturier’s dynamic new thesis, even the harm done by the lack of vocations can be eliminated. “It doesn’t matter how small we get,” argues Fr. Couturier. “It is our international character that gives us strength and influence in the world today.” Indeed, as part of a “worldwide religious life movement”, religious communities can reach across boundaries and borders to support “compassionate and just institutions” and reorganize “sinful organizations and unjust systems.” The only thing that can hurt us is those bad old thoughts: “What diminishes us is diminishment thinking.”

Reading his speech, one is at times unsure exactly what Fr. Couturier means, but it seems likely that he never matured beyond the heady conviction of the 1960’s that the poor can be helped substantially, and the world redeemed, by denouncing the military-industrial complex. It is also, I think, axiomatic of the political mind that those who are least likely to do anything to help real people in concrete circumstances are most likely to instead urge ideological enlightenment at the highest level of government they can find. Is it important to help the poor? Well, speaking out at the United Nations certainly ought to take care of it.

And the Pope Says . . .

If only by contrast, Fr. Couturier’s speech also reminds me of Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. Never mind for the moment that there are far more fundamental questions that must be addressed in any religious community than how it will use its surplus goods. Never mind that the vocations crisis can’t be neutralized by positive thinking. Never mind that Fr. Couturier goes to great lengths to enumerate all the global suffering of our world without so much as mentioning abortion. And never mind that his all-encompassing vision, based on the “twin Catholic principles of communion and transcendent desire”, never once mentions Jesus Christ.

Let’s not assume that all these are dead giveaways for a much deeper problem. Instead, let's take Fr. Couturier at his word and assess only the culmination of his vision in the work of a Franciscan NGO at the UN to save the poor. Let’s look only at this question of charitable work, and let’s consult Deus Caritas Est to see how Benedict XVI describes what he calls “the distinctiveness of the Church’s charitable activity”. Here are the first two of Benedict’s three distinctive characteristics (Deus Caritas Est, 31):

a) Following the example given in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Christian charity is first of all the simple response to immediate needs and specific situations: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for and healing the sick, visiting those in prison, etc.”
b) Christian charitable activity must be independent of parties and ideologies. It is not a means of changing the world ideologically, and it is not at the service of worldly stratagems, but it is a way of making present here and now the love which man always needs.”

Fr. David Couturier's new vision for religious life? Ouch.

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