Rorate Caeli

Man’s Choice of Life – The Religious Life -'The Council and the Eclipse of God' by Don Pietro Leone – SECTION II – CHAPTER VI continued.


The Council and the Eclipse of God by

 Don Pietro Leone

 ‘Man’s choice of Life’

 A.   The Religious Life

            ‘Nuns under Threat’ by Eugen Von Blaas (1869)


Historical Sketch [1]


Cardinal Spellman opened the debate on the scheme on religious on 10th November 1964, denouncing the risk of the modernization of religious life in opposition to the position adopted by Cardinal Suenens, who had proposed a radical reform of female religious life two years before in his book Promotion apostolique de la religieuse. In our presentation of the Council texts below, we shall see a reflection of many of the elements of the latter Cardinal’s vision. In this book he aimed to redefine the rôle of the nun by giving her an adequate ‘social formation’ and making her an ‘animator of the female laity.’ To this end he called for the elimination of ‘certain outmoded and superfluous devotions’ which risked ‘mechanizing or atrophying prayer life’ and called for the transformation of their spiritual exercises to ‘renovate, simplify, and make them evolve towards a piety that was more biblical, liturgical, ecclesial, and apostolic.’


He invited nuns to be more sincere and expansive in their mutual relations and to be ‘constructively self-critical concerning their own religious practices.’ They should avoid the impression of ‘living in a ghetto’ isolated from the world; religious habits should be fully adapted to relations with the world; they should abandon forms and rituals no longer befitting our age. Even the concept of obedience was to be reviewed: renunciation of one’s own will was not to be preferred to the common good; the common good sometimes required inferiors to make their point of view felt, before superiors made their decisions.


On 11th November Cardinals Döpfner and Suenens declared themselves satisfied neither with the scheme nor with the proposed amendments. The former Cardinal maintained that the scheme lacked the key points of renewal and aggiornamento; the latter demanded new rules for convents, so that the nuns should be treated as feminae vere adultae [2]. He recommended new structures of government, more democratic and representative, to avoid concentrating power in the hands of a single superior and an obedience which was excessively ‘passive’ and ‘infantile.’


Bishop Guilly, on the other hand, found it ‘truly surprising’ that there was ‘so little on the other Orders and Congregations who dedicated themselves severely to the contemplative life’, who were ‘ the very ‘men and women who with their prayers, austerity, silence, and sacrifices contribute more than all others to the promotion of the Church’s apostolate.’


Other Council members dissatisfied with the scheme did not attempt to have it rejected, because every-one believed that in such a case it would have been entirely reformulated by the ‘Progressives.’ The latter group, by contrast, did not have sufficient numbers to reject the scheme themselves, and instead hit on the strategy of voting placet juxta modum, proposing modifications in favor of their own vision of things, a strategy which turned out to be successful.          


We observe that in line with the changes to the religious habit that he had proposed, Cardinal Suenens, together with Cardinal Léger personally set the tone by making their appearance in the corridors of the Council at the time of its last public sessions, clad in black clerical suits, no doubt ‘fully adapted to relations with the world’ [3].  



Analysis of Texts


In this section we shall consider:


      1.   ‘Up-to-date Renewal’;

      2.    How the Council Envisages this Renewal;

      3.    The Process of Renewal.



1.     ‘Up-to-date Renewal’


i) ‘The up-to-date renewal of the religious life comprises both a constant return to the sources of Christian life in general and to the primitive inspirations of the institutes, and their adaptation to the changed conditions of our time.’ (Perfectae Caritatis 2).


The renewal of religious life is here justified both by an appeal to a return to original purity, and

by an appeal to adaptation to ‘changed conditions of our times.’ The former appeal suggesting that contemporary religious life did not correspond to the past, which was a bad thing, and therefore should be accommodated to the past; the latter suggesting that it did correspond to the past, which was a bad thing, and should thereby be accommodated to the present. We see here two discrete appeals for change which, when taken together, are contradictory. In fact religious life did correspond to the past, but, in its zeal to promote renewal, the Council appeals to a return to religious life in its original purity [4].


A further contradiction in this text is manifest in the pair of terms ‘return’ and ‘adaptation’: ‘return’ suggesting resuming something in a stable manner and adaptation entailing change.


We shall now look at the more general question of the meaning of the phrase ‘up-to-date renewal.’ Such is the translation by Father Flannery OP of the Latin accomodata renovatio, which in its turn is viewed by Bishop Butler in his book ‘Theology of Vatican II’, as the translation of the Italian term aggiornamento [5].


At a first glance one might consider it inappropriate to use the phrase ‘up-to-date renewal’ of the religious life, but on reflection one can see that the phrase is simply an idiomatic expression of the concept of ‘adjournment’ and it is this very concept of adjournment which is so incongruous when used of the religious life, and indeed of the Church as a whole, according to the Council’s program of change. 


To examine what the Council is proposing here, let us first attempt to understand the meaning of:

‘Up-to-Date Renewal’/ aggiornamento and the Religious Life.


Now to bring a given thing or a given activity up to date, is to bring the qualities of that thing or of that activity up to modern standards. So for example to bring a certain type of car up to date is to bring its qualities such as its aerodynamic or safety features up to modern standards. As for the religious life, it is the life of a consecrated person who has taken the three evangelical vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in order to love God and neighbor perfectly. When the religious life is active or ‘mixed’, the love of neighbor is exercised not only by prayer but also by activity; when the religious life is purely contemplative by contrast, the love of neighbor is exercised only through prayer.


In view of these facts, we can conclude that an ‘up-to-date renewal’/ aggiornamento of the religious life should consist in bringing the method of loving God and neighbor up to modern standards, such as by the use of computers or the radio for apostolic purposes: the same thing should be done, but in a more efficient way. Such however was not to be the case, for the Council understood the renewal not as a change of the way of doing the thing, but as a change of the thing itself, or more precisely, not as a change of the thing, but as its destruction.



2.     How the Council Envisages ‘Up-to-Date Renewal’


i) ‘All institutes should share in the life of the church. They should make their own and should promote to the best of their ability, each in a manner suited to its own character, the church’s initiatives and undertakings in biblical, liturgical, dogmatic, pastoral, ecumenical, missionary and social matters.’ (PC 2, Principle of Renewal “c”).


ii) ‘… let them more and more live and think with the church, and let them dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to its mission.’ (PC 6)


In texts (i) and (ii) amongst others, the Council, by an appeal to the obedience of religious to the Church, presents the renewal of religious life as the implementation by religious of the Church’s work ‘in biblical, liturgical, dogmatic, pastoral, ecumenical, missionary and social matters’, in other words as the implementation of the Council teaching as a whole. 


This principle of renewal obviously applies principally to religious of the active and mixed life, but in a more restricted sense also to religious dedicated to the purely contemplative life, where it may have an impact on biblical study, liturgy, on the type of religious habit to be worn, and on recreation where the new humanitarian, worldly spirit may suggest that the use of television is opportune, or the use of other such media (such as the ‘internet’ in the present day).


Reflecting on how the Council envisages this renewal, we realize that it does not in fact consist in a change of qualities, but rather in a change of substance. For the Council teaching as a whole, as we have attempted to show above, is no longer fully Catholic, but rather consists in a sort of Catholicism tainted by worldly, naturalizing humanitarianism. Religious communities, then, in implementing this teaching, are implementing a sort of humanism which comprises a different form of love towards God and neighbor: which constitutes in short a change in its very substance.


We see an example of this in the life of one of the most luminous of 20th. century religious, St. Theresa of Calcutta, who, together with all her wonderful work for the poor and suffering and despite the many conversions to which it certainly has given rise, did not in fact, in conformity to the ecumenical bias of the Council, seek to convert members of other religions to Catholicism, but only to make them ‘better Moslems’ or ‘better Buddhists’ etc. 


St. Theresa of Calcutta

We are not, then, dealing with an accidental (qualitative) change here, but with a substantial change, like the change of a car into a hovercraft. To present such a change of the religious life (or of the car for that matter) as an ‘up-to-date renewal’/ aggiornamento is clearly to use such a term in an illegitimate manner.


We have been looking at the old type of religious life and the new, and analyzing the change from one to the other in terms of substance and qualities (accidents). In order more deeply to understand the difference between the two types of life, we continue to analyze them in scholastic terms, this time in terms of matter and form.


The matter that we are dealing with here is the religious life: the life consecrated by the three vows to the perfect love of Christ, the Spouse of the soul, and of the neighbor; the form is that which gives the matter its particular character. Now the form of the religious life, that which makes the religious life what it is, is the Rule. This Rule, up to the time of the Council, had always been Christocentric in character, because clearly only a Christocentric rule can enable the religious to love Christ, the Spouse of the soul, with a perfect love: only this type of rule can enable a perfect love towards God and man: that is to say the total self-gift towards God and the commitment to convert, save, and sanctify souls.


The Rule which forms the religious life subsequent to the Council, by contrast, is no longer exclusively Christocentric, but rather oscillates between Christocentricism and anthropocentricism and in its entirety thus constitutes an incoherent amalgam of these two principles. In other words it no longer conforms entirely to the Catholic Faith, but rather, as we have said above, to a Faith colored by a sort of worldly, naturalizing humanitarianism: it is this that determines what love towards God and man is in the new type of life: the love towards God, namely, that is enshrined in modern liturgy, and the love towards neighbor that is enshrined in humanitarianism. The Form of the Old Rule differs from the Form of the New Rule and thus makes of the matter which it molds in either case a different substance, a different thing.


If an art master in the first lesson of the day models clay into the form of a cat so that his pupils can copy it, and after the pause models the same clay into a dog so that they can copy that, then the thing he is dealing with has changed and is no longer what it is before: it is a model of a dog and not of a cat. So religious life, governed by new principles enshrined in a new rule, has been transformed into something that it was not before.



3.       The Process of Renewal


We here consider:


a)     The Implementation of Renewal

b)    The Consolidation of Renewal



a)    The Implementation of Renewal


i) ‘The manner of life, of prayer and of work should be suited to the physical and psychological conditions of today’s religious. It should also, in so far as this is permitted by an institute’s character, be in harmony with the demands of the apostolate, with the requirements of culture and with the social and economic climate, especially in mission territories…’ (PC 3)


ii) ‘[Clerical and lay institutes] should adjust their observances and customs to the needs of their particular apostolate.’ (PC 8, cf. PC 9).


iii) ‘The holy synod… encourages them [religious lay congregations] to adapt their lives to modern requirements.’ (PC 10).


iv) ‘In young churches… [adaptation is necessary to local] character and way of life… local customs and conditions …’ (PC 19)


v) ‘When it is proposed to found a new religious institute it must be asked, seriously: is it necessary, or at least very useful, and can it develop?’ (PC 19)


Texts (i)-(v) express the broad scope of the envisaged renewal, encompassing, as it does, the character of the religious, of the apostolate, of the time and place, especially in the missions. The term ‘Usefulness’ has an activist flavor and will of course be governed by the goal envisaged, which is the implementation of the Council’s doctrines in the context of a given apostolate.


The texts suggest that the various institutes have hitherto not conformed to modern or local conditions. Take text (ii) for instance: Here we are told that institutes should adjust themselves to ‘the needs of their particular apostolate’. But if they are engaged in an apostolate, then what are they engaged in if not in its needs? And if they are engaged in its needs, how are they meant to adjust themselves to what they are already doing?


The only thing that such apostolates had not previously been doing, of course, was implementing conciliar doctrines. Are these, then, the modern and local ‘needs’? - needs like the need for ecumenism, for the New Mass, and for the convocation of the Council itself, which in fact were not experienced by the people at all - but perhaps would be later, when the people were told to experience them.




b)    The Consolidation of the Renewal



We may view the consolidation of the renewal according to the following categories:


1.     Rule and Books;

2.     Internal Renewal;

3.     Dress;

4.     Traditional Spirituality;

5.     Contemplative Communities.



1.     Rule and Books


‘…For this reason [i.e. the necessity of adaptation to the particular religious, apostolate, and place] the constitutions, directories, books of customs, of prayers, of ceremonies and such like should be suitably revised, obsolete prescriptions being suppressed, and should be brought into line with this synod’s documents.’ (PC 3).



2.     Internal Renewal


‘Lest the adaptation of the religious life to the needs of our time be merely external and lest those whose rule assigns them to the active ministry should prove unequal to the task, they should be properly instructed, in keeping with each one’s intellectual caliber and personal bent, concerning the behavior patterns, the emotional attitudes, and the thought processes of modern society… all through their lives, religious should endeavor assiduously to perfect their spiritual, doctrinal and technical culture. Superiors, as far as they are able, should provide for them the opportunity, assistance and the time for this.’ (PC 18).


The mandate for change, implemented in the manner that we have seen in the previous section, is here consolidated both externally, by committing it to paper, and internally, by a program of study. The object of the study is modern society, presented as a form of dark and inscrutable Kafkaesque metropolis needing a life-time to fathom. The truth is, rather, that it is no different from society in any other epoch, because the man who dwells therein is no different from his forebears: he is fallen and in need of Truth and Grace like any other man. The only difference between the past and the present is the acceleration with which the inner dynamic of Fallen Nature is being realized to-day [6].

Traditional Religious Dress 


3.     Dress


‘Religious dress… must be simple and modest, at once poor and becoming. In addition, it must be in keeping with the requirements of health and must be suited to the time and place and to the needs of the apostolate. The dress… which is not in conformity with these norms ought to be changed’ (PC 17).


Such then are the criteria for assessing the idoneity of habits, which of course exclude the one essential criterion, namely that of being a constant reminder to the religious and to every-one else, of their total self-gift to the Divine Spouse of their soul. Such a self-gift was admirably expressed by the traditional nun’s habit covering the whole person - and was such a habit supposed incidentally to be not ‘becoming’?


As for the requirement that the habit must be suited to the times, one might ask why a habit that had been suited to all times up to the 1960’s, perhaps even since the Middle Ages, might no longer be considered suited to the present – unless of course the Council was already envisaging changing it to imitate contemporary fashions. We observe too that simplicity is also presented as a motive for change, as it was in the liturgy: simplex munditiis? [7]



4.     Traditional Spirituality

St. Francis (El Greco) 


i) ‘Those who make profession of the evangelical counsels should seek and love above all else God… In all circumstances they should take care to foster a life hidden with Christ in God, which is the source and stimulus of love of the neighbor, for the salvation of the world and the building-up of the church.’ (PC 6)


ii) ‘Chastity for the sake of the kingdom of heaven which religious profess, must be esteemed an exceptional gift of grace…’ (PC 12);


iii) ‘Voluntary poverty, in Christ’s footsteps, is a symbol of Christ which is much esteemed, especially nowadays. Religious should cultivate it diligently…’ (PC 13);


iv) ‘By their vow of obedience, religious offer the full surrender of their own wills as a sacrifice of themselves to God…’ (PC 14)


In texts (i)-(iv) we see clear expressions of the final end of religious life, in other words of the perfect love of God in accordance with the title of the respective document Perfectae Caritatis, which is however implicitly contradicted by the document’s principal teaching, favoring, as it does, the renewal of religious life in conformity with the Council’s humanitarianism. We have seen a similar syncretism of self-contradictory old and new elements in the domain of the Mass and of the priesthood, and indeed everywhere else in the Council documents.



5.     Contemplative Communities


i) ‘…their [the contemplative institutes’] way of life should be revised in accordance with the aforesaid principles and criteria of up-to-date renewal…’ (PC 7).


ii) ‘While preserving… the nature of their own institutions they [the monks] should renovate their ancient holy traditions and should… adapt them to the present-day needs of souls…’ (PC 9).


iii) ‘Papal enclosure is to be maintained for nuns whose life is wholly contemplative. However, it should be adjusted to suit the conditions of time and place, abolishing obsolete practices after consultation with the monasteries themselves.’ (PC 16).


iv) ‘Institutes and monasteries… which the Holy See… judges not to offer any reasonable hope of further development, are to be forbidden to receive more novices.’ (PC 21)


It is of course more difficult to imbue a purely contemplative community with a humanitarian spirit, as we have said above. There can be no other reason that such communities have found it easier to survive the Council than those of the active or mixed life.


Texts (i)-(iv) do however attempt to open contemplative communities to change, although not without obscurantism.


Why, in text (ii), should monks renovate ancient or holy traditions unless antiquity or holiness are somehow bad? And if the duty of monks is of the purely spiritual order, then the needs of souls with which they come into contact must be spiritual and always the same, so that there is no sense in speaking of ‘present-day (spiritual) needs’; and even if there were new spiritual needs (presumably unearthed by the monks after a life-time research into the ‘behavior patterns… emotional attitudes…  and thought processes’ of modern man), why should that require that ‘ancient and holy traditions’ should be adapted?


How, in text (iii), can papal enclosure and other practices of contemplative communities which exist solely in order to enable the soul more perfectly to love God, in other words solely in view of Eternity, be affected by considerations of time and place?


How, in text (iv), can it be said that a community does not ‘offer any reasonable hope of further development’, if there is a question of receiving more novices? - unless of course ‘development’ only means the putting into effect of the ‘up-to-date renewal’. If this is true, we see how severely the Holy See is prepared to treat recalcitrant institutes: it will forbid them to receive more novices and thereby condemn them to extinction.



Conclusion to Section C


We have seen in the above texts:


a)     A movement away from the ideal of the perfect love of Christ as established by the original Rule of the Religious Order towards conciliar, worldly humanitarianism;


b)    A dissipation and fragmentation of the One into the multiple: into adaptation to the multiple contingencies of:



 -    individual communities;

      -    individual members;

      -    modern times;

   -    prevailing customs (especially in the missions, colored as they are by paganism);

    -   federations, unions, or associations for institutes and independent monasteries (PC 22);

     -    the dispositions of Episcopal Conferences (PC 23).


Such dissipation and fragmentation was to constitute a process of perpetual flux for the future.


c)     A rigorous method of imposing the renewal which is:


-         external;

-         internal, for the consolidation of the external renewal;

-         expressed in clothing;

-         enshrined in directories and rules;

-         implemented in the name of obedience to the Council and to the Church;

-     implemented in a language vague and ambiguous enough to justify suppressing recalcitrant communities and preventing new ones coming into existence with the old spirit.




In synthesis, we have seen a violent and definitive removal of the proper form of Religious Life, which, as we have explained in  more detail above, is a Christocentric Rule informed by the Catholic Faith in its entirety: the Faith in the One, Triune God, enabling the perfect love of Him, the Spouse of the soul.


The religious in their active life seek to bring all to know and love God by their work of evangelization and catechesis and by administering the sacraments; in their contemplative life they promote the same ends by prayer, where they also seek to know and love Him on a personal level, contemplation being defined as simplex visio Veritatis, the simple vision of Truth.


Such a religious life in its true sense can be made possible only by a Christocentric, authentically Catholic, rule. This rule constitutes its form: the principle of its identity, unity, and stability. Removing this form, or mixing it with worldly humanitarianism, robs the religious life of its identity: it fragments, dissipates, and diversifies it; it robs it of its eternal stability and subjects it to a process of never-ending change and evolution.


The disintegration resulting from the removal of the form has been pointed out in chapter 2, when we considered the abandonment of clear terminology for describing non-Catholics. The Aristotelian - Scholastic doctrine of Form, formal principle, formal cause, is in fact, as we shall later see, one of the keys to understanding the Council; its neglect constitutes one of that Council’s gravest metaphysical errors.


The particular evils of the renewal of religious life, in conclusion, are four in number:


1.     It contaminates the purity of the greatest love on earth second to martyrdom;

2.     It dims the supernatural light of the Mystical Body of Christ;

3.     It diminishes the workings of Divine Grace in the World

4.     It erodes that spiritual rampart which protects the World from Divine Wrath.


Here we can clearly discern the devil’s intent to thwart God’s workings in this world, especially in the cloister, where God’s servants dedicate themselves to living the Divine Life in its fullness. The devil, who knows that this is the true life which he has himself rejected, envies and hates those that live it and seeks to destroy them. Similar sentiments motivate his human agents who pursue the chimera of self-deification, ‘for the immanent deity cannot brook any other gods in his presence’ [8]. The demonic character of the renewal is further seen in its thoroughness, violence, and devastating power.



[1] RdM V 12

[2] truly adult women

[3] RdM VI. 10

[4] another field in which this tactic is used is that of the liturgy, as we shall see in the next chapter. 

[5] The Basic Sixteen Documents, Vatican Council II p.401, footnote (a)

[6] see the comments on modern man in chapter 8

[7] simple in [her] worldlinesses, Horace Odes, I. 5

[8] Father Fahey, The Mystical Body... op.cit p.58