Action Alert!

Please, some honesty from the Vatican about the health of religious life

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 07, 2014

The life of consecrated religious communities worldwide “is really enjoying good health at this moment,” Archbishop José Rodriguez Carballo, the secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Religious, has reported.

His evidence? The archbishop told an EWTN interviewer that in his travels around the world he has found many convents and monasteries where religious lead exemplary lives. There are problems, he conceded, but “there is a lot of holiness in our monasteries.” He issued a challenge: “Whoever doubts of the holiness of consecrated life, let him go to monasteries.”

That’s not good enough.

Would you trust a doctor who pronounced his patient healthy because he detected a strong heartbeat, overlooking signs of cancer? Would you be satisfied with an economist who said that the economy must be really quite healthy, since Bill Gates and Warren Buffett enjoyed an excellent return on their investments? Of course not! A very sick man can have a strong heart; a weak economy can produce good returns for some investors.

Yes, I know that there are some religious communities whose members devote themselves completely to prayer and good works: convents and monasteries where Archbishop Rodriguez could certainly find the holiness he describes. But I have also met self-indulgent monks, and women religious who no longer practice anything recognizable as Christian prayer. If he were to be candid, the archbishop could certainly name such unhealthy communities, too.

There are always saints in the life of the Church, even in the worst of times, and sinners even in the best. Which sort of religious community predominates: the healthy or the unhealthy? With his pious report that one can find holiness in the monasteries, Archbishop Rodriguez Carballo does not answer that question.

A corporation on the verge of bankruptcy might still have a small cadre of loyal customers. Pointing to those customers will not save the company from disaster. When they report on corporate prospects, we expect business executives to take a hard-headed, dispassionate look at overall trends. We should expect Chuch leaders to do the same.

Archbishop Rodriguez Carballo might have let an inconvenient truth slip out in that same interview, when he said: “There is a lot more holiness than what there often appears to be.” The archbishop realizes, then there “often appears to be” a problem with contemporary religious life.

Nor is this merely a matter of superficial appearances. Each year about 3,000 consecrated religious drop out of their communities. Women’s religious orders are shriveling, as their members age and few young women enter to replace their ranks. The available evidence shows a clear pattern of decline.

Yes, one can find holiness in convents and monasteries. In some parts of the world—India, for example, and much of Africa—religious communities are growing rapidly. In other areas—the US is one—some congregations are booming, even while others sink toward extinction. There are signs of health, but it is misleading to suggest that the overall condition of religious life is healthy. More to the point, if Church leaders are not prepared to recognize the clear signs of a crisis, they are unlikely to take the steps that are necessary to address the disease.

Why not be honest? The faithful have a right to know the real situation. And by the way, we know it anyway.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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Show 9 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - Feb. 11, 2014 5:30 PM ET USA

    "if Church leaders are not prepared to recognize the clear signs of a crisis, they are unlikely to take the steps that are necessary to address the disease." Perhaps this is the central problem. They close their eyes so can ignore their own responsibilities to act. Is this not bishops betraying the Church? I think of the Inferno.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 11, 2014 12:41 AM ET USA

    This is upsetting! Problems cannot be solved if they are deliberated ignored. The word for that is bad faith. I did a study "The Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the tragic decline of the Sisters of Providence. Using their own data they cannot avoid extinction. This is a quote from my study. "Using all the above data it would take 287 years of new vocations just to make up for the nuns who died in the last 5 years." I'm sorry I teach science. Mistakes are one thing lying another

  • Posted by: koinonia - Feb. 09, 2014 7:25 PM ET USA

    The truth is essential. Catholicity must embrace the real and the true; there is something about rejection of truth or reality that does violence to the Catholic intellect and will. In conjunction with the theme of the narrative, infidelity to the truth is unhealthy. Testimony to truth must never be maligned. Yes, prudence and charity dictate discretion, but embracing falsehood is evil, not humility. The baptized have rights. They have the right to know the truth and to be faithful to it.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Feb. 09, 2014 11:04 AM ET USA

    The good news is we still have the Barque of Peter. Ready for the bad? The ship is listing to starboard, taking on water fast; the boiler is rusted almost beyond repair; and many of the crew are serving as if they were Somalian pirates, constantly throwing overboard everything that still works and punching more holes in the hull. Unfortunately, the captain and other wheel-house officers seem convinced that we should just keep on course and that things down below will correct themselves shortly.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Feb. 08, 2014 11:29 AM ET USA

    If Carballo were to acknowledge the problem with religious life then the next question would be what are you planning to do about that? I don't think Carballo has any plans for correction. Why? Hard to say. God is obviously purging the bad and filling the good religious organizations so what should Carballo do? One thing that the Vatican can do is to jerk the chain on individual Bishops to have them lean on lax religious. If the Bishops won't act then sack them and install new holy Bishops

  • Posted by: oakes.spalding7384 - Feb. 07, 2014 11:28 PM ET USA

    I wish the Pope would speak out forcefully about this issue. Do you think he will?

  • Posted by: feedback - Feb. 07, 2014 11:18 PM ET USA

    The rotten communities fall apart and age badly. The ones that stay in shape and have vocations are the good ones.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 07, 2014 7:43 PM ET USA

    Thank you, Phil, for this frank and refreshing assessment. Perhaps if Carballo keeps repeating his wishes, they will come true. What is so strange, however, is that he (and many others in the hierarchy) speak as though we can't see right through them. Almost pathological. And quite sad to witness.

  • Posted by: shrink - Feb. 07, 2014 6:30 PM ET USA

    Thank you Phil! You have touched upon a style of communication that seems to infect so many areas of the Church. One dreads to consider the possibility that these prelates actually believe what they are saying. Are we governed by the deluded? The cult of self-esteem seems to govern over all. Alas, there is no therapy, or salvation, when reality is denied, or delusion rules. Making nice, is not the same as making good. The truth, and candor, shall set us free--nothing less.