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Vatican II on Religious Life

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 21, 2010

The seventh document issued by the Second Vatican Council, on October 28, 1965, was the Decree on Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life (Perfectae Caritatis). It is one of the shorter documents, chiefly because it deals only with the broadest guidelines. This has led many to consider the document too vague. Before focusing on the document’s strengths, therefore, a word is in order about what specific problems in religious life the Council Fathers might have hoped to address.

In general, we receive only very broad hints. Thus:

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. (3)

Similarly, religious communities “should continue to maintain and fulfill the ministries proper to them” but “should adapt them to the requirements 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” (20). These two passages reflect the lack of specificity in the text when it comes to enumerating attitudes and practices which require adaptation and renewal.

Nonetheless, a few particular issues are addressed. For example, “care should be taken that there be only one class of Sisters in communities of women. Only that distinction of persons should be retained which corresponds to the diversity of works for which the Sisters are destined” (15). Also, “monasteries of men and communities which are not exclusively lay can…admit clerics and lay persons on an equal footing and with equal rights and obligations, excepting those which flow from sacred orders” (15). These prescriptions clearly hint at unwarranted concern about rank and precedence in some communities.

Other specific concerns include:

  • Papal Cloister: “Papal cloister should be maintained in the case of nuns engaged exclusively in the contemplative life.” But “obsolete practices” must be “suppressed” (16).
  • Religious Habit: The habit should be simple, modest, poor yet becoming; it must meet the requirements of health and “be suited to circumstances of time and place and to the needs of the ministry.” Inadequate habits “must be changed” (17).
  • Union of Institutes: Independent institutes should “form federations”, particularly if they have highly similar spirits, constitutions and apostolates, and especially when they have “too few members” . The purpose is clearly to reduce debilitating fragmentation. (22)
  • Councils of Major Superiors: “This synod favors conferences or councils of major superiors, established by the Holy See” as well as similar conferences for secular institutes, to help each institute achieve its purpose, encourage cooperation for the welfare of the Church, ensure a just distribution of ministers, and handle common concerns. (23)

If Perfectae Caritatis offers relatively little in terms of concrete proposals, it nonetheless excels at its primary purpose, which is to articulate the wellsprings of authentic renewal for religious. This is clear right from the opening sentence, which roots all religious life in “the pursuit of perfect charity through the evangelical counsels” (1). The whole point of the document is to set down the prescriptions required “in order that the great value of a life consecrated by the profession of the counsels and its necessary mission today may yield greater good to the Church” (1). We note in this purpose an essentially ecclesial focus which permeates the entire document.

Authentic renewal “includes both the constant return to the sources of all Christian life and to the original spirit of the institutes and their adaptation to the changed conditions of our time” (2). This renewal must proceed “under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the guidance of the Church” (2). In this context, the authentic principles of renewal are summarized in section 2:

  • The “ultimate norm of the religious life is the following of Christ set forth in the Gospels.”
  • The spirit and aims of the founders, as well as the institute’s “sound traditions”, must be “faithfully held in honor.”
  • All institutes must “share in the life of the Church, adopting 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.”
  • Institutes should promote among their members “an adequate knowledge of the social conditions of the times…and of the needs of the Church.”
  • The purpose of religious life is to help the members “follow Christ and be united to God” through the profession of the evangelical counsels. This point is emphasized: “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.”

In order to achieve true renewal, therefore, Perfectae Caritatis insists that religious must “strive to foster in all circumstances a life hidden with Christ in God;” they must “resolutely cultivate both the spirit and practice of prayer;” and they must “love Christ’s members as brothers, honor and love their pastors as sons…and, living and thinking ever more in union with the Church, dedicate themselves wholly to its mission”(6). The document goes on to explain the special importance of each kind of religious life: communities devoted to contemplation (7) and to apostolic and charitable activity (8), monastic communities (9), and secular institutes (11).

Perfectae Caritatis also provides an extended reflection on the evangelical counsels. Chastity requires the “practice of mortification and custody of the senses” so that religious “will not be influenced by those false doctrines which scorn perfect continence as being impossible or harmful to human development.” Chastity also demands that candidates possess “the required psychological and emotional maturity” (12). Poverty includes not only personal poverty but the need for communities to “avoid every appearance of luxury, excessive wealth and the accumulation of goods” (13). Obedience is the means by which “religious offer the full surrender of their own will as a sacrifice of themselves to God and so are united permanently and securely to God’s salvific will” (14).

The great value of this document, intentionally lacking in particulars, consists in its spiritual depth. In our historical situation, its principles move one to tears over what has been squandered in their abandonment. It is true that institutes both new and old have born rich fruit wherever these principles have been observed. But it has been predominately otherwise, and how deep and widespread the destruction has been!


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