The disappearance of traditional religious orders is changing the landscape of the Church

Archbishop Jose Rodriguez Carballo, who said more than 3,000 people leave religious life each year, with Pope Francis (CNS)

What is the big story of our times, from the ecclesial perspective? I think it may be this (thanks to Francis Phillips for bringing it to our attention): the annual exodus from the religious life of 3,000 or more souls.

More than anything else, this disappearance from the Catholic scene of the traditional religious orders will change the landscape of the Church. Indeed, it already has done so. Many of us of a certain age remember being taught by nuns and religious priests and brothers. Only recently a child in primary school, to whom I gave a picture of Saint Faustina, asked me: “What’s a nun?”

The Church owes an immense debt to the religious orders. During the last five hundred years, ever since the Counter-Reformation, the religious orders have been the backbone of the Church’s mission both at home and abroad. But now, in Europe and North America at least, most of the religious orders seem to have run their course. Not all, but most; and there are of course new religious movements that have emerged: but the generational change is there for all to see.

It is interesting to note that the curial Archbishop who made the comments about people leaving religious life was himself for ten years Minister General of the Friars Minor. Archbishop Carballo knows, as do we all, that the Second Vatican Council was meant to usher in the renewal of religious life: in fact, the opposite happened – the post-Conciliar era has seen the decay of religious life. And this is why so many younger religious are leaving their orders, because there is no real point in being part of a religious community that exists on paper only. It might be a ‘canonical reality’ as they love to say, but that is the equivalent of a marriage that is being kept going only for the sake of the children. Many religious orders continue, for the time being, but they are in fact dead in all but name, and just waiting for their surviving members to die off. This is what the Archbishop means when he talks of “absence of spiritual life” and “loss of a sense of community.”

In 1996 the Vatican issued a document called Vita Consecrata, after a Synod on consecrated life, in which it said, as I remember reading at the time, that religious should live in their communities, and only live outside them if there were serious reason to do so, and then for one year only. Even back then, it was clear from my perspective, that this was a dead letter, for there were many religious who were in living solitary lives, some of whom were even superiors, who had elected to live away from the communities over which they had oversight. When religious no longer live together, it is pretty clear that communal life has ceased to exist. So, why continue to be an ‘on paper only’ religious? Why keep up the legal fiction? A glance at the figures published by the Catholic Directory might give the impression that numbers are healthy in some orders, but it ought to be kept in mind that many of these member of orders are members in name only.

When institutions are in decline, the surface is the last thing to go. Hence the Byzantine Empire had all the outward appearances of a great polity minutes before its collapse, although these realities had long ago been hollowed out from within. Similarly with religious orders today. Many (again, pleased note, not all) have Generals and Provincials and novitiates, and rule books and documents and all the outward appearances of the religious life, but they have long ago ceased to be the orders they once were. Only the surface remains.

What should be done? Given that many of these moribund institutions may still have a long shadow life left in them, and given that they are sometimes sitting on huge amounts of money and resources that may not be being used for their original purpose, the best thing is for the Vatican (which has this power) to suppress them and put their resources to better use – a use, incidentally, more in keeping with the intentions of the original donors. I am not confident that this will be done, as the vested interests are too strong. But it ought to be done. This is one important reform that Pope Francis should tackle. As a Jesuit, he knows the religious life. And as a Jesuit, he knows where the reforms ought to begin too, perhaps.