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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 18 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: geoffreysmith1 - Nov. 19, 2016 8:35 AM ET USA

    "By the pope's own account, a substantial number of Catholic marriages are sacramentally defective..." Substantial? I would be most interested to learn how Pope Francis could possibly know this. The mind boggles at the degree of interrogation that would be necessary to arrive at such a deduction. Many thousands of Catholic spouses would have to be closely questioned about their circumstances and intentions before casting doubt on their nuptial vows. Totally unrealistic - not to say crazy.

  • Posted by: hitchs - Nov. 19, 2016 4:05 AM ET USA

    This is a masterly and courageous attempt to get inside the enigmas involved in the Amores-Laetitia-divorced-and-remarried problem. (I was about to call it a debate, but if anything it is an anti-debate, a series of delaying tactics designed to avoid a debate.) I still find it difficult to believe that this is happening in the Catholic Church, which for two millennia has upheld the truth - sometimes reluctantly, perhaps a little confusedly, but so often heroically and magnificently.

  • Posted by: Lucius49 - Nov. 18, 2016 10:18 PM ET USA

    Indeed a de facto change in discipine leads to a change in doctrine. This is the whole orthopraxis claim heavily promoted in Germany. Orthodoxy becomes an ideal especially in moral matters to which lip service is paid but that's about it. The human subject is the final arbiter and objective truth is denied. Doctrinal statements are provisional and time-bound. This is simply modernism and historicism. The Pope is on the wrong side of this and has rammed through this ambiguity and confusion in AL8

  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Nov. 18, 2016 10:15 PM ET USA

    I think you've described a very likely explanation in your next-to-last paragraph: intentional ambiguity that will allow de facto change in discipline in so many places that pressure will build to change doctrine. It's nothing new; Cdl. Kasper himself confirmed (approvingly) that this technique is at the root of many of the ambiguities and internal contradictions in certain documents of Vatican II.

  • Posted by: mckmailbox5418 - Nov. 18, 2016 6:31 PM ET USA

    I thought that when a marriage was "sacramentally defective" the church offered her children the annulment process. It seems that a "careful forming of conscience" has often led to people doing whatever they please. Considering what our Lord said about divorce and remarriage it seems to me that the "four" may be more concerned with saving souls than our current pope.

  • Posted by: BCLX - Nov. 18, 2016 5:26 PM ET USA

    By the pope's own account, a substantial number of Catholic marriages are sacramentally defective. So it hardly seems that the best (and only) pastoral advice is to tell divorced and civilly remarried couples to live as brother and sister. A careful forming of conscience might lead to what many would call a "non-traditional" result but we as a church should be open to that possibility. The "four" seem to have something in common with the Pharisees of our Lord's time with their questions.

  • Posted by: bernie4871 - Nov. 18, 2016 4:55 PM ET USA

    Re your parenthetical statement, the Pope had taken on the role of provocateur. He is deliberately trying to draw the Church away from Orthodox teaching. Oh please , Dear Lord, may we have a faithful Pastor !!!

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Nov. 16, 2016 7:27 PM ET USA

    Father Spadaro is the proverbial fox in the chicken coop. Of course my own words and work are, undoubtedly, clear and without reproach too. If the cardinals' approach posed difficulties due to wording or what all, that might be a point but when it's laid out in such a straightforward easy to respond to manner, there is no excuse for Father Spadaro's uncharitable response. Guess he too is a member of the rigid crew.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 16, 2016 12:30 PM ET USA

    It's not easy to be among the baptized in these days. At least if one hopes to adhere to the catechism. We're learning in a difficult manner that to be Catholic inevitably means to be traditional. The Christian is a witness. This involves courage and honesty. The Catholic willfully faces reality with courage. He suffers most when his testimony incurs the displeasure of those in authority whom he loves as a child loves his father. Fortitude invloves many things. Easy ain't one of them.

  • 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.