News Analysis

Last orders? Spain’s vanishing monasteries


Catholics in Spain have voiced alarm at the rapid decline of monastic life in the country, despite reassurances from Church leaders.

“We are haemorrhaging fast – religious congregations are being forced to shut their doors definitively due to scarce vocations and advancing ages,” says a statement from Christian Networks, a grouping of more than 200 Catholic communities. “Their unused houses are generally being closed until someone buys or rents them for another purpose, while some are targeted and degraded by vandals and squatters. In certain cases, the houses are kept open and used, but often without any consecrated persons present.”

The Networks ­– established as a “critical and alternative voice” to “respond to the great problems faced today” – said 341 religious houses had closed since January 2017, despite efforts to attract members from Africa, Asia and Latin America. It added that mostly elderly female convents accounted for 80 per cent of closures, with the St Vincent de Paul Daughters of Charity losing 23 houses in two years.

Although four-fifths of Spain’s 40 million inhabitants are nominally Catholic, only a small proportion attends Mass, according to Madrid’s Social Research Centre. Many of the 70 dioceses report no priestly vocations.

Christian Networks said Dominican and Franciscan orders had closed 30 convents between them since the start of 2017, while the Carmelites, Augustinians and Poor Clares had also given up about 30. A total of 71 male communities had closed over the same period, with the Jesuits disbanding five and the Dominicans and La Salle brothers 22 between them.

Meanwhile, Fr Eleuterio López, the director of Claustros Necesitados (Claune), a pontifical institute supporting contemplative communities, said his organisation received at least 50 emergency funding requests a year, adding that some religious houses were using food banks and surviving on the state pensions of older members.

A more upbeat message was given by Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo, the secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, who told the Vida Nueva he believed Spain would remain “a key power” in contemplative life, and could “rejuvenate and relaunch its vocations ministry” with suitable reforms. Monastic life, he said, was “essential for the Church – but we cannot maintain all the present communities. It’s painful to have to close them, but it would be more painful to sacrifice the contemplative life by maintaining a presence that sooner or later would have to end anyway.”

The Pope offered guidance in a 2016 apostolic constitution, Vultum Dei Quaerere, which called for declining convents to be restructured and “federated” to avoid isolation and ensure “mutual fraternal help”.

In June Spain’s bishops’ conference said the Church still had 18,000 priests, 13,000 missionaries and 106,000 catechists, constituting “a force to be reckoned with”.