20 July 2015

The Excellence of Perfectae Caritatis and Reasons for its Failure

I am presently reading Volume 1 of Jesuit Fr. Joseph Becker's chronicle of changes in the Society of Jesus in the US from 1965-1975 (The Re-Formed Jesuits).  The book and its sequel are both excellent: calm, objective, emphatically non-evaluative records of events.  Fr. Becker mentions early on in the book that the Vatican II decree on religious life (Perfectae Caritatis) was one of the main early sources of change in the Society of Jesus, so I decided to read it.  Perfectae Caritatis is a very fine exhortation on the virtues and character of religious life. It is, from beginning to end, in its descriptions of the spirit and ideals of religious life, clear in its affirmation of traditional teaching, and sometimes even eloquent. Reading it, I noticed an emphasis on certain points.  For example:
"Nevertheless everyone should keep in mind that the hope of renewal lies more in the faithful observance of the rules and constitutions than in multiplying laws." (PC 4)
"[Purely contemplative religious] present God, indeed, with a special sacrifice of praise; their great holiness inspires and embellishes, their mystical mission enriches God's people.  They are the glory of the Church, the focus of divine favor ... [T]heir withdrawal from the world and the exercises proper to the contemplative life should be preserved with the utmost care." (PC 7)
"Religious, therefore, who are striving faithfully to observe the chastity they have professed must have faith in the words of the Lord, and trusting in God's help not overestimate their own strength but practice mortification and custody of the senses. Neither should they neglect the natural means which promote health of mind and body. As a result they will not be influenced by those false doctrines which scorn perfect continence as being impossible or harmful to human development and they will repudiate by a certain spiritual instinct everything which endangers chastity. In addition let all, especially superiors, remember that chastity is guarded more securely when true fraternal love flourishes in the common life of the community." (PC 12)

Beyond these, there is the injunction to practice poverty in fact and not merely in spirit, to guarantee that spiritual nourishment and formation continue throughout the life of the religious, that the common life is nurtured through the daily reading of sacred scripture, through the liturgy, and through the Eucharist, and so on.  

Now, anyone who knows anything about the history of religious life in the Church over the past 60 years, knows that beginning in the 1960s, around the time Perfectae Caritatis was promulgated, a theretofore unimaginable collapse in the discipline, orthodoxy, and numbers of religious took place.  Obedience and community life were set aside, the traditional practice of chastity and mortification was eschewed for a "third way" approach, religious congregations became fonts of doctrinal dissent, traditional ascetical practices were abandoned, and in a number of cases the orders themselves so drastically re-imagined their missions and constitutions that they would, in their present state (if they still exist) not be recognizable to their founders.  In short: chaos and collapse.

What Fr. Becker points out is that the chaos in the government of religious orders came not from the decree's description of religious life per se, or its exhortations to renewal, but from the descriptions in the decree about how the renewal is to take place.  Consider the following passages.
"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. Therefore let constitutions, directories, custom books, books of prayers and ceremonies and such like be suitably re-edited and, obsolete laws being suppressed, be adapted to the decrees of this sacred synod." (PC 3)
The above is the decree's primary order for renewal.  In principle the command is reasonable: the constitutions should be reviewed and obsolete laws should be suppressed.  Problems arise when one attempts to discern the criteria for "obsolescence" and "suitable adaptation".  The decree speaks of "modern physical and psychological circumstances".  What are these circumstances?  It is possible that the Council Fathers intended the decree to reference the description of "Modern Man" given in Gaudium et Spes, but that Pastoral Constitution had not yet been put in its final form by the Council.  Nor, even supposing this intention, are the descriptions of modern conditions given in Gaudium et Spes adequate to guide the reformation of complex codes of customs and laws which, in many cases, had developed gradually over the course of centuries.  

There is no doubt whatsoever that there were practices among some religious orders in the Church in 1965 which were proportioned to conditions no longer existing in society and needed to be suppressed.  But by failing to guide the renewal, and pointing instead to vague "psychological circumstances"—which could be interpreted by anyone however he wished, and often were interpreted in direct contradiction to the contents of this decree—the Council effectively opened the floodgates to chaos and confusion in the religious orders.  Consider two more passages:
"Papal cloister should be maintained in the case of nuns engaged exclusively in the contemplative life. However, it must be adjusted to conditions of time and place and obsolete practices suppressed. This should be done after due consultation with the monasteries in question." (PC 16) 
"The religious habit, an outward mark of consecration to God, should be simple and modest, poor and at the same becoming. In addition it must meet the requirements of health and be suited to the circumstances of time and place and to the needs of the ministry involved. The habits of both men and women religious which do not conform to these norms must be changed." (PC 17)
What exactly the "conditions of time and place" are, we are not told.  Nor are we given guidance for discerning them.  Furthermore "obsolete practices" could be anything judged by the members of the order to be outmoded.  And, as Fr. Becker points out, by demanding that religious perform these reviews, and demanding that the laws, customs, and habits be accommodated to the conditions of time and place, the burden of proof is placed on tradition, and change becomes the default option.  One more quote:
"In order that the adaptation of religious life to the needs of our time may not be merely external and that those employed by rule in the active apostolate may be equal to their task, religious must be given suitable instruction, depending on their intellectual capacity and personal talent, in the currents and attitudes of sentiment and thought prevalent in social life today. This education must blend its elements together harmoniously so that an integrated life on the part of the religious concerned results." (PC 18)
Here we find that religious are not only to accommodate their constitutions, habits, and customs to time and place, but that the education of religious should form them in the currents and attitudes of sentiment and thought prevalent today, with the goal of producing an "integrated life" on the part of religious.  It is very difficult to say what this paragraph means.  Perhaps it simply means that religious should be given the tools to analyze and understand the principles and rationale of modern sentiments and ideas, so as better to engage them (a laudable idea).  But one could also read it—as many Jesuits read it in the time following the Council—as demanding that religious integrate themselves more closely into the currents and attitudes of sentiment and thought prevalent in social life today, so that they become ordinary participants alongside their secular brothers and sisters in the world.

Of course, this latter interpretation is incompatible with the character and essence of religious life, even as it is described by Perfectae Caritatis itself.  But in the absence of guidelines of reform, and in the absence of disciplinary regulation both on the part of religious superiors and on the part of the authorities in Rome after the Council, it's clear how these commands could produce such a destructive chain of events.

So, to conclude, what we find in the Second Vatican Council's decree on the renewal of religious life, is a beautiful and orthodox expression of the nature of religious life in its various forms, coupled with a requirement for reform and renewal which is stated in such a way that it fails to give adequate criteria for judging obsolescence or updating laws and customs, while lending at least textual support (through the language of "time and place") to any possible innovation based on modern habits of thought, lifestyle, dress, etc.  In short, a fine and well-intentioned decree seems to have been rendered ineffectual (and even counterproductive) in its desire for reform, on account of what was left unsaid or unclearly said in it.

These are merely the opinions of someone wandering through the historical record.  More precise, and probably more accurate, conclusions could be drawn by someone who had worked through all the official decrees on religious life which were issued during the pontificate of Pope Paul VI. 



Pope Paul VI did in fact give criteria for the implementation of Perfectae Caritatis, in the Motu Proprio letter Ecclesiae Sanctae.  However, this letter suffers from some of the same problems identified above.  Specifically, it gives an open mandate for the adjustment of the constitutions and practices of religious life to the conditions of modern life, without specifying what these are, but directing those responsible for performing the revisions to the "spirit" of Lumen Gentium, chapters 4 & 5.  The following quote is illustrative:
"Those elements are to be considered obsolete which do not constitute the nature and purpose of the institute and which, having lost their meaning and power, are no longer a real help to religious life." (Ecclesiae Sanctae II.17)
The determination of which elements are inessential and have "lost their meaning and power", or are "unhelpful" is left open.  And, in retrospect, the 1960s and 70s were a particularly unfortunate time to give free reign to impulses toward revision and reconstruction.