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Faith and Reason: for a true renewal in religious life and the Church
There is no state of life in which the combination of faith and reason is so essential and should be so manifest as in the religious vocation. The life of poverty, chastity and obedience is in fact, the most reasonable response to an overwhelming faith in and love for Christ.
It is no wonder then, that when faith and reason part company in the Church at large, they will be found to do so first and most markedly in this most concentrated form of the Christian life.
The period before Vatican II was not particularly notable for its emphasis on a reasoned faith, which is probably why religious communities fell apart on a massive scale after the Council.
Up to that point they had held together, not only through the sheer rigidity of their life-structures and mores, but also, it should be noted, by the sheer heroism of most of the members who were strong in their belief, self-sacrificing in their fidelity to religious duty and often passionate in their devotion to Christ, His Mother, the saints and all things divine.
Before the Council
Faith itself was eminently visible in many religious before the Council, and we should assume that they have now attained a shining reward for that faith. But they were often deprived of the capacity to live the spiritual life and vows to the fullest extent because the whole dimension of human reason and understanding was held up to suspicion as a threat to good order and personal asceticism.
Few religious would have studied philosophy, and doctrine was often understood in a skeletal and piecemeal way that was not proof against certain theological predators who came into their own from the early days of the Council.
Yet another less than rational element of religious life before the Council was its sheer formalism which turned not only on a multiplicity of small legalities, retained because they had always been "done", but on foundational things like the vows.
If there was and has been a revolution in religious life during the last 40 years, it is because there were in the Church distinct elements of suppression and deprivation of the kind that tend to spark off any revolution in any place and in any era.
The Church during and after the Council had no option but to renew religious life as it had no option but to renew itself generally. This, in the mind of the Church, meant going back to the original Gospel inspiration - the magnanimous, whole-hearted, liberating and transcendent business of total dedication to and imitation of Christ.
It also meant going back to the glorious intensity of one's foundation; to the Order's original charism in order to recapture its pristine power and allure.
It meant a return to a fuller ecclesiology, of a sense of the Church and of the place of religious life as central to her life. It required a return to true worship, with proper priority given to liturgical and mental prayer over many pious devotions. It implied a return to the pursuit of truth "to a reasoned and enriched approach to the life of faith".
For example, in speaking of the education of religious, the documents remind us that religious formation is not a matter of a few years of initial guidance, but a life-long affair.
The content, says the Church, should contain an emphasis on biblical, spiritual and pastoral theology, the theology of consecrated life and the charism of the Order, most of which was notably absent from the more "hit and miss" pre-Conciliar formation programs.
The whole aftermath of Vatican II was, however, probably too much for everyone. Certainly it did not run to the Church's own plan. Too suddenly, hierarchical structures crumbled in favour of the democratic; old certainties were thrown into the melting pot; unquestionable faith issues were called into question; reasons were asked for things that had become virtual absolutes.
Religious were herded, quite unprepared, into seminars and think-tanks in which they were induced to critique everything they had previously held as sacred, including the very bases of their vocation. They were fed new self-concepts - coloured by the findings of psychology, sociology and various other secular sciences - and they were all terribly compliant and obedient.
Most people in the pews in pre-Vatican days gave unquestioning assent to almost everything their priests and bishops taught them and then gave the same kind of obedience to the same priests and bishops even when, in the silly season after the Council, they went astray and began to make unauthorised changes to doctrine and liturgy.
Similarly, religious went along with changes to their religious ethos and life-style, even when it became rather obvious that such changes were inauthentic and threatened the very existence of their communities.
The general reaction amongst religious ranged from sheer bemusement to wild enthusiasm; but either way, naivety was the hall-mark. The guides and tutors of the day were, on the other hand, very thoroughly prepared. They had taken their cues from the modernist theologians waiting in the wings before and during the Council to bring forth their own version of Church renewal.
Such was their effectiveness that, within a couple of years of the Council's close, only a handful of religious superiors in the United States, for example, were left taking a stand against a wholesale overthrow of the traditional religious life-style in that country.
Religious Orders secularised almost completely in those years and/or lost huge proportions of their membership. One eminent psychologist now claims to his own profound shame that through the influence of his counselling he managed to virtually wipe out an entire and very eminent order of teaching sisters.
We should have seen through all this. We knew the faith and we knew the catechism of the vows - didn't we? We should have seen that it is not rational to renew religious life by eliminating things which are part of its essential definition such as shared life in common; or that doing away with that universally recognisable aid to witness, the religious habit, is not the way to enhance our public witness to heavenly things and our availability to others.
We should have had our suspicions that those who encouraged us to redefine obedience as co-operation with the community or mere openness and "listening to life" did so in anticipation that we would one day wheel superiors out of our communities altogether and with them our precious vow of obedience. We should have realised that making ourselves more materially comfortable and secure was not really the way to return to the Gospel poverty in spirit and in fact called for by the Council.
Above all, we should have detected something a little anti-Christian in the overwhelming push for self- actualisation and a more subjective morality. But our powers of reasoning were somehow blinded by our instincts for indiscriminate obedience and desire to have that promised utopia of peace, love and freedom dawn in our religious life and in the Church at large.
The upshot is that religious life lies in ruins around us. There is practically nothing to distinguish us religious from seculars except that we often have more leisure and money to squander on our pet projects - usually of a radically political or ideological nature. And all this has been done in response to a Council that only called on us to live our religious and spiritual lives more deeply, honestly and intelligently - with more faith and more reason.
The wider Church
It is not hard to see the parallels in Church life at large. Catholics are still suffering under the ministrations of faithless guides who roam from country to country and diocese to diocese spreading dissenting opinions among people who do not seem to scent the incongruity. The faithful have long since become victims of a deliberate erosion of both faith and reason, having lost their powers of discrimination.
This is not helped by the fact that some bishops will justify the use of the education programs of dissenting theologians by explaining that they draw only on their educational philosophy, not on their theology. This sounds rather like an official declaration that faith and reason have no mutual relevance.
We all have our pet solutions to this pervasive problem. We all seem, in a spiritual sense, to be picking our way through desolate waste-lands, living from hand to mouth on whatever we can get.
On the one hand, anyone can see that rationalism doesn't work; hasn't worked. During its over forty- year innings it has emptied churches, induced mass defections, broken down the moral life and wrought the spiritual starvation of generations.
But against it we have another tendency that doesn't work - that of trying to recreate the pre-Vatican era stone by stone.
So we often find serious-minded Catholics today trying to re-create the '50s - reacting to the aberrations and deficiencies they see all about them by teaching their children merely formula-type doctrines using simple catechisms from the early half of the 20th century, reverting to prayers and practices of a sentimental type, multiplying pious devotions, applying the Gospel morality with a kind of fundamentalist rigour.
There is also a tendency among such Catholics to use private revelations - approved and even unapproved - as bases for one's spiritual life, perhaps because they recognise in them phenomena that involve concepts and language suggestive of an "old-time" and therefore "safe" religion.
Pope John Paul II's Encyclical, Fides et Ratio, suggests the solution to the problems of both extremes. It reminds us that our quest is for God who is Truth Itself but also that He Himself is the way to Truth. Neither subjectivism, rationalism nor fundamentalism have a hope of getting us there. We must seek for knowledge, understanding and wisdom where they are to be found - in God's revelation, properly understood and assimilated by human reason.
At present what the faithful need is to be thoroughly catechised from the huge sea of teaching and pastoral documents that has poured out from the Church during and following the Council.
The wonderful thing about following Church documents is that, with them, we can think and believe with the Church - no longer set adrift to chart our own dubious way. The difficult thing about them is that most of us don't have time or expertise to read and study them as they deserve, and the majority of bishops, priests and Catholic intellectuals don't teach their content to us - either because they don't agree with it, or because they think we are not up to it.
So the Church's teaching on everything from human sexuality to the contemplative dimension, from the Eucharist to social issues, from priesthood to feminism, lies out there unread and unheeded.
Fortunately, there are admirable exceptions to this sad trend. Miraculously enough, since there is little to encourage them, some serious-minded Catholics of today have a strong tendency to seek true learning and spirituality from Sacred Revelation.
I know priests of scrupulous orthodoxy who spend themselves in the study of truth and in passing it on in assimilable form to those they teach, whether in seminary or parish. I know religious without degrees or community support who, by their careful personal study and faithful listening in prayer, could buy and sell almost all of those in authority so deep is their penetration of Divine Wisdom.
The Bishop who mandates a program of preaching on the Catechism of the Catholic Church throughout his diocese, is taking his role seriously.
Certain publishing houses offer us wonderful opportunities to access the truth in a multitude of forms and genres. Catholic Adult Education of Sydney now offers excellent courses which give the students every opportunity to make their faith more enlightened, deep and reasonable.
"Call to Holiness" is just one of the excellent initiatives by the laity to expose Catholics to the teachings of the Magisterium. And many of the young inspired by grace, if not by their elders, are gathering to study apologetics and various faith issues under the guidance of people who have a good understanding of how faith and reason work together.
The Campion College project is a major bid to educate people in a truly and wholly Catholic sense. Those few young people who enter seminaries and religious houses today are mostly possessed of a strong and intelligent faith. They expect to be formed by programmes which feature faith and reason in fidelity to the Church's magisterium.
Surely these are God's way of putting things to order in the chaos of dissent and schism which has resulted from our ineptitude in dealing with a revolution.
People are inclined to react with horror at the very words "renewal" and "aggiornamento" because of their association with every bad thing that has hit the Church since Vatican II. The fact is that when faith and reason are working properly, it will become perfectly clear to us that the Christian life is very much a matter of constant on-going conversion of soul and the constant realignment of the mind and soul to truth.
History teaches us that we avoid "renewal" at the peril of our spiritual lives. We fail to update and enlarge our understanding of truth at the peril of our faith.
Sister Mary Augustine OP is Superior of the Conventual Sisters of St Dominic located in Ganmain, Wagga Wagga Diocese. She is also editor of the APREL (Association for the Promotion of Religious Life) Bulletin.
This article is adapted from a talk given at the "Call to Holiness" conference in Brisbane in October 2004.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 18 No 1 (February 2005), p. 10
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