Thin document sparked renewal of religious life

April 14, 2014

One misshapen stereotype about the Catholic Church is that following the Second Vatican Council men's and women's religious orders went squirrelly, lost their sense of identity and went into a freefall of vocations.

While there is a grain of truth in the stereotype and while large numbers of men and women did leave religious life in the years following the council, the decline in religious vocations had been underway for decades.

As well, questions about religious life were being asked throughout the 20th century, a century which followed a veritable explosion of new religious orders in the 18th and 19th centuries.

As the new orders – almost all of them active as opposed to monastic – grew, the decline in vocations to the traditional monastic orders declined.

The Church really had little idea of what to do with these orders of women with active apostolates in the world. So, it put them into semi-enclosed, barracks-like living situations, imposed extraordinarily cumbersome and uniform habits, and trained them in prim and solemn behaviour.

The sisters worked with either children or the sick and dying, rarely with active, healthy adults. By the start of the 20th century, vocations to the orders were already in decline in Europe, a trend that moved to North America a few decades later.


A well-known preconciliar canonist, Father Albert van Biervliet, said the canons governing women religious were marked by the conviction that women were weak and incapable in many areas. In a brutal and disorganized world, a woman who didn't have a husband to protect her would have to be put behind walls in order to protect her virtue. Or, so it was seen.

The Second Vatican Council launched religious orders on a path of renewal.

The Second Vatican Council launched religious orders on a path of renewal.

Well before Vatican II, there was widespread recognition that things needed to change drastically. Religious women were, according to Maryanne Confoy, "living anachronisms rather than witnesses to an authentic Christian lifestyle."

A decline in numbers was almost inevitable following the vast pre-20th century expansion as was a re-thinking about the nature of religious life.

By the pontificate of Pope Pius XII (1939-57), the Roman congregation which oversaw religious life, was telling religious leaders about the need to update.

Cardinal Leo Suenens of Brussels was also outspoken, writing a book that claimed that women religious were treated like children and calling for sisters to become involved in new apostolates more suited to the times. Their ministries needed to be pruned so that they could focus on what was essential.

The Vatican II commission charged with writing the document on religious life was riven with controversy. The five drafts that it produced were radically divergent in structure, ranging from the first weighty tome composed of 200 articles to the 25 articles in the document approved five years later.


Indeed, the final document, the Decree on the Renewal of Religious Life (Perfectae Caritatis), was rather thin. However, it must be remembered that the theological foundations of religious life were described in chapter six of the Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium). (See my article of Nov. 18, 2013).

Nevertheless, the decree does provide an overview of how religious institutes ought to renew themselves to better follow the Gospel.

Perfectae Caritatis begins by linking religious life today with its long history dating back to the early days of the Church. Even then, women and men set out to imitate Christ by living lives based on the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience.

The decree makes the point that the life of holiness pursued by religious should not be seen in individualistic terms. Rather, the more fully they give their lives to Christ, "the fuller does the Church's life become and the more vigorous and fruitful its apostolate" (PC 1).


It calls on religious communities to return to those early sources of inspiration for Christian living and especially to "the primitive inspiration" of their own congregations.

Perhaps it seems obvious to us that religious would draw their inspiration from the Gospel, but at the time that was a new emphasis. They were also called upon to adapt to the needs of the current era, an adaptation that should be animated by a spiritual renewal.

As well, the constitutions, customs, prayers and ceremonies of religious communities were to be "suitably revised" (PC 3).

At the heart of living the evangelical counsels was to be a spirit of charity.

Superiors of the communities were called upon to "exercise authority in a spirit of service of their sisters or brothers, thus reflecting God's love for them" (PC 14). The spirit of obedience would be radically changed.

Religious dress "must be simple and modest, at once poor and becoming" (PC 17).


Although Perfectae Caritatis was far from specific in spelling out the future direction of religious congregations, all of those prescriptions for renewal were loaded with implications. Based on the decree, religious life was to undergo a vast renewal which shook once-staid communities to their foundations.

For many, the shift from a military-style system of obedience with a highly prescribed lifestyle to one with freedom and consultation was too much of a culture shock.

For many others, however, it was a true liberation, one that they embraced whole-heartedly and which enabled them to provide forms of service in the Church and community that were undreamt of in the years prior to Vatican II.

Perfectae Caritatis does not appear to be anything like a radical document. But it opened doors to new forms of religious life that many had been trying, without success, to bring forward for decades.