08 February 2010

Modernist crisis in religious life?

Cardinal Franc Rode, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, recently addressed the problems in contemporary religious orders, describing the situation as a "modern crisis." 

He argues that declining numbers, systemic dissent and disobedience, and spiritual malaise are all rooted in a surrender to secular worldviews, specifically, "the adoption of a secularist mentality and the abandonment of traditional practices."

The situation in contemporary religious life is not only a modern crisis but a "modernist crisis" as well; that is, a crisis brought on by the introduction, cultivation, and harvesting of the destructive fruits of modernist thinking.  

As a philosophical and theological worldview, modernism leads to several ways of thinking and acting that erode spiritually fruitful religious life. . .

First, modernism elevates scientific rationalism above mystery.  In an attempt to replace less reliable sources of knowing such as revelation, myth, mystery, etc., modernist thinkers placed materialist reason and science on the throne of knowledge.  Reason's patrimony as a divine gift for understanding God through His creation was up-ended.  Reason became an end in itself. 

Second, modernism, now committed to the pursuit of knowledge through reason alone, abandoned traditional metaphysics, the science of being.  No longer concerned with existence itself as a foundation for knowing, modernism replaced the divine with the natural, leaving us blind to everything but the material world.  Once our ways of knowing were naturalized, we no longer needed to appeal to any sort of objective ethical/moral standards.  There is nothing beyond nature that gives us a way of deciding between right and wrong, so there is no real  metaphysical difference btw right and wrong.

Third, if there is no real metaphysical difference btw right and wrong, how do we go about deciding which behaviors, beliefs, etc. are acceptable and which are not?  Since we are dealing only with the natural world--no objective standards, no appeal to God--we must appeal to emotion, affection.  Now, our moral decisions are made after asking the question, "how does this make me feel?"  Trusting in feelings over and above a rational assessment of objective truth inevitability leads to moral chaos. 

Fourth, by focusing exclusively on individual feelings, modernism rapidly declined into a project for self-fulfillment and narcissist projection:  the world and everyone in it is all about me and my needs.  As the sole creator and redeemer of my world, I am the final arbiter of what's good for me, bad for me, necessary for me to thrive, and you are just a player in my world--though a player I choose to respect as if you were totally independent of my decisions.   My respect for you, however, is premised solely on your willingness to stay out of my way.  Detached from community and transcendence, I am a morally free agent but, perversely, one largely determined by genetics, social forces, and biology. 

Fifth, as modernist rationalism slowly became more and more the possession of materialist science, the humanities surrendered to nihilism.  No objective standards.  Total suspicion of authority.  Elevation of liberationist politics over the search for truth.  Anti-realist appeals to language as the sole builder of "reality."  Collectivists models for knowing (philosopher Richard Rorty once noted, "The truth is what my colleagues will allow me to get away with saying.")  And the most destructive development of all for religious life:  the death of charity in the pursuit of individualized careers, agendas, etc. even to the destruction of the community.

Though Crdl Rode is correct in noting that secularization is destroying religious life, I do not think that an uncritical return to traditional religious practices will reverse this trend.  What we need is a renaissance in the humanist pursuit of mystery in the art, liturgy, theology, philosophy, literature of the Catholic sacramental imagination.  Simply picking up a rosary or wearing a habit is not going to revive religious life.  We have to come to a broadly, deeply held understanding of what it means to "stand under" the mystery of the divine and live toward our perfection in Him.  Traditional religious practices are more likely to lead us to this goal than the fabricated neo-pagan rituals many religious communities use now.  However, there is no magic in devotionals; no magic in habits or monstrances or anything else we associate with traditional religion. 

What we must do at every level is re-establish the notion that intellect, will, reason, emotion, etc. are all divine gifts oriented toward our divinization though Christ.  Nothing can stand above faith as the source and summit of our life in Christ, but every gift we have received as well-loved creatures can stand along side faith in order to clarify, enlighten, and distinguish.

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  1. Father, do you have any recommendations for reading on this? Thanks.

  2. I'm reading "The Foundations of Religious Life: Revisiting the Vision," a compilation of essays put together by the Council of Major Superior of Women Religious. It's quite good and very balanced, I believe, in presenting the why of religious life (which leads to the how).

    Although written by women religious, ostensibly for women religious, it's great stuff for us as well.

  3. Sub, there's an excellent list of sources on Fr Z's recent post...in the combox:


  4. ahem...
    and then there's Oprah who is having Dominican sisters vs Geishas....and all she can talk about is sex.