The religious life (meaning the vowed life of poverty, chastity and obedience) is forever producing commentary, both from secular quarters and Catholic ones. Three weeks ago, Br. Justin Hannegan, a Benedictine, published an article in Crisis Magazine explaining why the religious life was imploding in numbers, which can effectively be summarised in the title “Sacrificing Religious Life on the Altar of Egalitarianism.” The essence of his argument comes from an analysis of a paper published by the secular sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke (here), which shows with an impressive amount of data that the cause was the end of the Second Vatican Council, in particular, the emphasis on the universal call to holiness. Hannegan argues that an perverted spirit of egalitarianism that emerged after the council has effectively made religious life into masochism, obscuring the highway to holiness that it represents. He writes:
“Religious life, in itself, is not a desirable good. Religious life is a renunciation. It is a kind of death. It involves turning one’s back on what is humanly good and desirable. Consider the life of a Trappist. A Trappist monk deprives himself of sleep, deprives himself of food, gives up a wife and children, puts aside the joys of conversation, gives up his personal property, rises at 4:00 in the morning every day to chant interminable psalms in a cold church, loses the opportunity to travel, and even relinquishes his own will. The thought of being a Trappist is not an appealing thought. It instills a kind of dread—the sort of dread that we feel when we contemplate a skull, or when we stand over a precipice, or when we look across a barren landscape. All forms of religious life have this repulsive effect. All forms of religious life, at their very core, consist of three vows—poverty, chastity, and obedience—and each of these vows is repulsive. The vow of poverty means giving up money and property; the vow of chastity means giving up a spouse and children; and the vow of obedience means giving up one’s own will. No one has an innate desire to sever himself from property, family, and his own will. No one has an innate desire to uproot three of life’s greatest goods. Such a desire would be mere perversion.”
Hannegan goes on, however, to point out why religious life exists at all by quoting various saints:
“Instead of asking people whether they desire religious life, we should ask them whether they desire salvation—whether they desire to become saints. If sanctity is the goal, then religious life and all its harrowing renunciations begin to make sense. Although religious life is the hardest, most fearsome way to live, it is also the most spiritually secure, most fruitful, and most meritorious. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux tells us that because they renounce property, family, and their own wills, religious “live more purely, they fall more rarely, they rise more speedily, they are aided more powerfully, they live more peacefully, they die more securely, and they are rewarded more abundantly.” According to Saint Athanasius, “if a man embraces the holy and unearthly way, even though as compared with [married life] it be rugged and hard to accomplish, nonetheless it has the more wonderful gifts: for it grows the perfect fruit, namely a hundredfold.” Saint Theresa of Ávila even tells us that she became a nun, against her own desires, because she “saw that the religious state was the best and safest.”
Now, as Sister Theresa Noble, in responding to the article over at Ignitium Today, points out, the Benedictine seems to be suggesting an excellent way to Pelagianism, the heresy memorably combated by St Augustine of Hippo, the idea that people can earn their way to salvation. Still, if he subbed in sanctity for his mention of salvation, he does have a point: very few people spontaneously wake up with a desire to be obedient to someone else, renounce marriage and sexuality, and not own anything. Preaching desire for the vows as a way to vocation will almost inevitably lead to married life.1
If I was being overly cynical, or more likely, I was completely ignorant of the way the Church understands the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, I would be inclined to think that they were either a way for a power-hungry Church to dominate people, or an exercise is pointless asceticism. Both are ignorant, and for those who know where they come from, absurd. The vows, at least as I see them, have at least three closely related purposes: they are evangelical, they are eschatological and they are practical.
Before I explain why I think the vows are central to the Church's mission, I should probably note that my perspective is different to those from other religious orders' traditions: I am not seeking to be a Trappist, or a Benedictine, or a Franciscan, etc. Each of these great orders will have a view on why the vows are taken. Instead, I will present a view that is at least moderately within the Ignatian or (broadly) Jesuit tradition. Since I am not (yet) a Jesuit, perhaps this is a bit presumptuous of me, but I will do so nonetheless.
The evangelical counsels are named so because they are, in fact, evangelical. That is to say, they foster the conditions which are most suitable for evangelism, for mission, for the proclamation of the Gospel. Obedience makes a person versatile to their superiors (in particular, note the Jesuit fourth vow of obedience to the Pope in matters of mission), poverty means they will be less attached to a particular place (as someone with a mortgaged house, for instance) and chastity also increases versatility. Historically speaking, the Order of Preachers (commonly known as the Dominicans) adopted the evangelical counsels as part of their own ministry, particularly in the context of the Albigensian heresy, where the monastic orders were limited in their ability to counter the heresy because of their monasticism.
The vows are also profoundly eschatological for two related reasons: they mirror the ministry of Jesus and they point to something other than this world. In mirroring the life of Jesus, those who take the vows show in exemplary fashion an aspect of Christ – they are like the poor preacher who had no-where to rest his head, they are like the chaste man who laid down his life for the Church, a theological marriage only to be consummated in the parousia, and they are like the obedient Son of God, obedient even unto death on a cross. This leads to the question, why? If one seeks to find the answer in purely worldly terms, the task will be in vain – because the vows, just as the life of Christ, point to something beyond the grave. Poverty leads to riches, as Paul says “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9). Though he gives himself bodily to nobody, in doing so, he is able to give himself bodily to everyone. The the obedience of Christ on the cross points to, and indeed, is a precondition of, the resurrection. Hence, the vows are not only centred on the Gospel, but point to its truth, and point to the life of the world to come.
Finally, they are intensely practical: both in the common sense pragmatic way and in the “practical way to holiness” type way that Br. Hannegan, the saints, and John Paul II (cf. Vita Consecrata) pointed to. They are pragmatic because they allow greater freedom – one is more free when less attached to material possessions, more versatile when not committed to the married life and children, and in a strange way which most religious can attest to,2 more free with the vow of obedience. An explanation of why that is the case would take a while, so I recommend Fr. James Martin, SJ's discussion of the issue in “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.”
When things are practical, however, it is not for the sake of being practical – pragmatism is, by its very nature, instrumental, a tool in the hand of the user. Practical for what? One answer might be, “for whatever you want to do”, and to a great extent, this is true. For this reason, these vows, particularly the vow of chastity (understood as vowing not to marry, ie as celibacy) can be abused for selfishness, at least when not professed for some other purpose (as religious vows are made). For the Society of Jesus, the vows are made for the purposes of mission and service to others, in recent times, particularly the poor. For other orders, the purpose might be slightly different, though the vows are still helpful in those pursuits.
Finally, they are indeed paths to holiness. One should not quote the saints as proof-texts on this point, but the witness of the holy people of times past is broad and has a degree of unanimity: religious life is excellence in the path to sanctity. Some of the reasons are like the ones above – the religious life is the life of Christ, not just in the vows, but in the community, contemplative and prayerful aspects of it. Probably the clearest, second to the example of Jesus, is the eschatological reason: in living a life that points to the Kingdom of God, it serves not as a pointer to others, but as preparation in itself. If C.S. Lewis was right in saying that the Christian path is such that we may become little Christs, then living like Christ, imitating Christ, is sure to be the fastest path to being transformed into Christs.
Still, the Second Vatican Council is not incorrect when it teaches that, in the words of its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium): “All Christians in any state of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love.” This universal calls are universal, by virtue of baptism, and even further than that. But whilst it says that it is the essence of the Christian vocation to grow in the fullness of Christian life and the perfection of love, it does not say that any particular way of following Jesus is the same. I think religious life probably is an easier path to holiness, which implies that the married saints really are heroic. This view might sound clericalist (though most, or at least many, religious are not ordained, and hence not clerics), but it is actually surprisingly obvious: a life of prayer, immersion in saintly spiritualities, liturgy and various expressions of Gospel centred life is seems evidently going to lead to greater holiness, and not even in a Pelagian standing way, but because religious life is clearly and simply a response to Jesus' call to leave everything and follow him. The issue is, how does one incorporate the same embodiment of the ministry of Jesus into married life? That difficulty is why religious life is an easier way to holiness.
1. I must emphasize the “almost” - because I was drawn first to the vows, then to the Society of Jesus where they were expressed in a way I found expressed what I thought they meant the best. I have never met anyone like me, however.
2. Whilst it is certainly freedom in a very real sense, if one takes freedom to be the mere absence of structures in life that guide one's path, of course one will not find it more free. The tales of people who have left religious life and written as if it were awful that whoever the superior is in the order would tell them to actually do something, did not understand the meaning of the term “obedience.” If they did not want to be obedient, they should not have vowed to do so.