Tom Draney cfc, a retired Christian Brother in Florida, has sent us this response to the current conversations on Catholica about the nature of Religious Brotherhood. What he writes also intersects with the much longer discussion we've been having in this place about the changing role of the priesthood. He extends that into the realm of pondering the future nature of religious communities. In introducing his essay he writes: This foray into the future of religious life, the life style of the congregations for Brothers and Sisters, is meant only to stimulate some thought and dialogue on the subject. The thoughts are only one man's opinion, and they are not intended to include groups of clerics or monastic communities.
Some Thoughts on the Future of Religious Life
by Brother Tom Draney, cfc
Some aspects of what I propose may shock some more conservative minded people, but I take comfort in the fact that every new development in the consecrated life has shocked some people. The mendicants were shocking because it was axiomatic to some that "monks" belonged in monasteries. In later centuries when consecrated women were not confined to convents, many Catholics, particularly in the hierarchy, were uncomfortable, to say the least. And let us remember that Jesus shocked many in his day by talking to women, touching lepers, and walking through Samaria rather than going around it.
The old way of religious life is fast dying...
It should be obvious to all that the old way of religious life is fast dying, at least in the First World countries. I do not mean to disparage that "old" way, because it served the church, the world, and countless number of individuals well, helping to make the Risen Christ present to and in all of them. That way is dying, not because of its deficiencies and limitations; God can be present and work through these. The Divine embracing imperfection is the very principle of the Incarnation. The old way is dying because our God is a living God, and just as evolution is the key to understanding the physical world, development is the lens for viewing the spiritual life. "There is a time to be born, a time to die." Any new way will not be perfect either, but hopefully it will be a step up on the ladder reaching to the Cosmic Christ.
It is also obvious that there are many people, young and old, who hunger for a more meaningful life, a spiritual life that resonates with their personal experience, and a life which brings them to true community. In order to fulfill the needs and desires of these people, the new communities would have to have, I believe, these three characteristics:
A place for the Spirit to work...
New communities, unless they are extremely conservative and need the illusion of certainty, will need breathing room, space for the Spirit to work. The hierarchy has shown by its investigation of the Sisters group, the LCWR, that it wants to be in control of when and how the Spirit works. It seems to believe no new questions can be valid if they do not fit a traditional answer already in hand. The Vatican has done its best to squash the spirit of Vatican II and exalt the culture and traditions of the Middle Ages. This can be best seen in the recent re-translation of the responses of the liturgy to conform to the Latin, even though the Gospels were written in Greek, and Jesus spoke some form of Aramaic!
The members of future communities need the freedom to really follow the basic Catholic teaching on the primacy of conscience — the right and obligation to follow their informed conscience. They need space to explore new understandings of old doctrines, understandings that resonate with our modern knowledge of the arts and science . They must face questions such as:
Non-canonical structures within an ecclesial structure...
Functioning outside of the canonical structure is not new and does not signal the end of ecclesial structure. There have always been groups functioning in this fashion. The mendicant orders began that way. The Beguines (women) and Beghards (men) were lay people in the Middle Ages who pursued a higher form of Christian life, sometimes as individuals loosely connected — like a virtual community of today — and sometime in a real community with a common purse. Two characteristics of their life were that they did not take vows, and they valued their lived experience highly and tested the abstract philosophical or theological concept pronounced by the hierarchy against it (like many lay people today in the matter of contraception). Needless to say, they were not trusted by the hierarchy and various popes condemned them.
There are many non-canonical communities in our day: the Catholic Worker, Focolare, Third Orders of canonical communities, Sant'Egidio, charismatic prayer groups, the Base Communities of Latin America, to name a few. What they seem to have in common is that they are associations of people with a common goal or vision, a spiritual path that leads to service of the larger community through and for the love of God. What they do not embrace, with the possible exception of groups like the Catholic Worker, is living in a community together and sharing a common purse. Commitment is by promises rather than by vows made to God through the institutional Church.
The reason why religious communities exist...
The members of these new communities, lay associations or non-canonical, will have more freedom to experiment, but their purpose in coming together will be different. The canonical congregations have lived in community, but the purpose of this was more like soldiers living in a barracks. The real purpose was not sharing their lives, but to get a certain job done. I contrast this to the traditional monastic communities where the community was chosen for its own sake, and stability in the same monastery was expected. It is for this reason, I think, that some newer lay groups such as the "Simple Way" in Philadelphia, have been described as the "New Monastics". Of course there will be work to be done, ministry of some sort, but the community will not exist for the sake of or because of it.
"Corporation" or "family"?
Religious communities in recent centuries have been organized more like international corporations. The members join the Corporation, and that is their identity. They may live in this place or that place, do this work or that work, but they are members of the Corporation. Communities in the future will be more like families, cooperative ventures, or monastic foundations that form associations; their identity is really in the specific community they join.
This not a new concept and some traditional congregations are moving in this direction. With the assistance of a facilitator, and with spiritual direction of the individuals being part of it, members are seeking to form communities in which they can grow and prosper, community for its own sake
A new attitude towards sexuality...
The third characteristic is more fundamental and challenging: a new attitude towards sexuality. The older way took as a given that a sexual life was an impediment to growth in spirituality. But why? Young people today do not believe that, and with good reason. The concept of the good spirit and the bad body just doesn't make sense in a religion based on Incarnation. The dualism of Manichaeism was condemned as a heresy long ago. Neither does it make sense to say that while the body is good, we can love God more if we do not love another person totally. That is like telling a parent not to have a second child, because the love they have for the first will be diminished.
The comments above may give a wrong impression of celibacy as something which is essentially negative, choosing NOT to do something rather than a positive embracing of another reality. Celibacy may be better understood by comparing it to the decision to marry. People choose to marry because they cannot imagine going on with their lives without the other person being present, and being present in a unique way. (In our culture today, people marry for many other and ultimately insufficient reasons — money, prestige, simple lust to name a few; is that why we have such a high divorce rate?)
When responsible adults makes a choice to marry, it is because they want to share their life with another person and are willing to make their life revolve around this relationship. Celibacy is the result of the individual choosing as the other person — God! The celibate is not really rejecting human love and sexuality, but is rather choosing to make God the center of his or her life in a way which a married state does not allow.
Spiritual literature is full of references to the fullness of the relationship between God and a loving, celibate disciple as a marriage. Celibacy remains a valid choice for some, perhaps those to whom Jesus said, "You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you".
I believe that those who choose celibacy and can live it out, are not motivated solely by the laudable desire to do good in the world, but have had some kind of experience of the Divine already. This experience is not highly emotional as often described in novellas, but rather a perception of ultimate reality. This perception could be through the lens of the intellect and a grasping of ultimate truth, through relationships and the perception of unity in creation, or through gut instincts and the perception of being itself. Whatever the type and degree of the experience., it could be a valid test of those called to the celibate life. In any case, celibacy must remain always an option, a positive option for the disciple. A Christian and religious community, however, does not have to be made up only of celibates. Variety seems to be a hallmark of God's creation, and we can look to the first disciples as an example of a motley crew in age, marital status, and talents.
A new attitude towards homosexuality...
Another dimension of the sexual aspect is the hierarchy's teaching on homosexuality. They teach essentially that it is defective because it does not lead to childbirth, and therefore all sexual acts of homosexuals are sinful. (But we LOVE the person we have just condemned to a half-life.!) The teaching is defective, not the gay person. It assumes that the only purpose of sexuality is biological. If we transfer that mentality to eating, we have to say that the purpose of eating is nourishment, hence any eating not directed towards that end is sinful. So if I meet a friend or relative who is in a crisis, or is mourning, and I have a coffee and doughnut with him or her as a setting to be a companion and friend, the only question will be whether I have committed a venial or mortal sin. (And some learned canonists will write books delineating where to draw the line between the two, depending on the quantity consumed and length of time involved.) Moral: there is more to eating that nourishment, and more to sex than reproduction.
This understanding of sexuality is really not new. It has been there in the "sensus fidelium" for a long time, as the polls on Catholic couples practicing birth control and their attitude towards homosexuality prove. These Catholics are exercising the fundamental moral teaching of our faith that the individual must follow his informed conscience — just as Jesus did. "Sensus fidelium" is the same doctrine applied to the community. It is not just a mere abstract theory. We should recall the controversy over usury, charging interest on money loaned, in the Middle Ages when the Pope declared it sinful. A man could lend a boat, a field, etc. and charge interest for its use, but he could not lend money. Simply put, the Pope did not understand that money had become a commodity. The bankers did, and they went right on lending money at interest and the pope finally got the message.
Diversity in different forms of religious community...
Being non-canonical, focused on community for its own sake, and open to all kinds of loving relationships, the communities of the future will look very different from the canonical ones of today. They will not all look the same, either. Being open to all does not mean every type will be found in every community. Some may point towards life-long commitment, while others towards an experience of spirituality that will strengthen the individual for life's journey.
They will affect the wider church profoundly too in such areas as the best way to evangelize. Instead of a missionary priest going to spread the word — a creedal message; a community will be planted to demonstrate it. The communities can reclaim the priesthood of the baptized and celebrate Eucharist as a meal, adding a whole new dimension to what it means to be a Eucharistic people. The communities could also be a garden for growing candidates for the ordained priesthood; this is similar to the way monks in the traditional monasteries used to operate: all joined as brothers and some were selected by the community to serve, not rule, as priests.
As the old way passes, we should focus on encouraging the new through our networks by any and every way we can. This is what I think. What do you think????
Bro. Tom Draney c.f.c.. Submitted to Catholica 16 Oct 2012
What are your thoughts on this commentary?