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Paradox: New Conciliatory Tone May Signal Reform

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 06, 2011

The new Prefect and Secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, Archbishop João Bráz de Aviz and Archbishop Joseph Tobin, are said to be taking a more conciliatory tone with religious communities experiencing problems. I’d like to think that this means the Vatican is very close to initiating a reform of those mainstream orders which have lost countless vocations precisely because they have lost both their faith and their founding charisms.

In the wake of the Apostolic Visitation of American women religious, Catholics have a right to expect that the period of assessment will give way to a period of correction. American women religious, with few exceptions apart from relatively recent foundations, are an object lesson in what goes wrong when religious communities sell their birthright in order to be not just in the world but of it. The same problem exists to some degree in most older, mainstream orders, male and female, throughout the West. It is another symptom of the growing secularization of Western culture.

Since Benedict XVI has been sending strong signals (to bishops, to Catholic social service agencies, and to at least one monastery), it would be unreasonable to expect that he would not be looking for picked battles—battles he can win—in order to stem the tide of secularization in religious life. It is possible, of course, that the Apostolic Visitation in America has convinced the Pope that a confrontational approach has no chance of success, in which case he may want to see what is to be gained through encouraging discussions. But given the growing pattern of discipline in Benedict’s pontificate, I think that will be only one part of the strategy.

I do not mean to imply that the Pope or the leaders of the CICLSAL are merely managers, but there is a strong element of management in reform, even in the Church. A good manager tries to build relationships of trust with his subordinates. There are many reasons for this, but one reason is that it makes it possible to exercise discipline more fruitfully. There will be only so many battles in the short term that the Pope can win. Should he single out a particular leadership group or a particular community by removing the leadership or suppressing the community, it will (or at least had better) be a group or community that does not feel capable of significant resistance.

What one wants in a case like this are two things: First, a rapid victory rather than a prolonged battle, for unfortunate alliances are often formed in a protracted struggle; and, second, an atmosphere in which other leaders and communities will respond to the news of effective discipline by working with Rome to improve themselves rather than opening fresh hostilities. For this second desideratum to be possible, a minimal sense of trust, or at least an open line of communication, is essential.

Now with an order which is virtually dead (with nothing but aged members, growing debts, and a deeply secularized sense of purpose throughout) one cannot reasonably expect a positive response to a growing pattern of discipline. In fact, the shortest distance between two points may be to allow some communities to die. In many cases, that time is not far off, and their members know it. Not having initiated a reform for 50 years, there is now little to be gained. However, an occasional suppression here or there of a nearly dead order might send a potent signal to other orders where authentic renewal is still a possibility.

There are in fact some significantly weakened groups that do have younger members, or members that have been carefully kept from key leadership roles—a faithful core of members who have been exiled to the provinces, for example. One thinks perhaps of the Jesuits. And there are others that are reasonably healthy in some countries and regions while miserably disoriented in others. With such groups the specter of discipline may be sufficient to shift the internal balance of power gradually, especially if they are continuing to attract new vocations (and if, as is not infrequently the case, nearly all new vocations are more orthodox and more devoted to the founding charism).

I do not mind saying that my first reaction to the news with which I began was disappointment, or to put this feeling in a spiritual context, resignation. But on reflection, I doubt that reaction is warranted. All the other recent signs and signals are against it. Most notably, one shoe has already dropped on the Cistercians in Rome. Look for another shoe, or shoes, to drop soon. Also, do not forget the requirements of sound strategy. Expect the easiest targets to be struck first—I mean psychologically and sociologically isolated targets, targets with few lines of supply and support.

Or perhaps here is a better metaphor: Expect precise laser surgery coupled with the encouragement of long-term habits for health. A good doctor can smile as he works, if he is saving lives.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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