Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Collapse of the Religious Orders in the U.S. After Vatican II

Father George Welzbacher, formerly of St Agnes, now pastor of St John's on St Paul's east side, always has an interesting "Pastor's Page" column in his Sunday Bulletin. Today's is an interesting bit on the decline of the religious orders since the Second Vatican Council. Here is a snippet, but you'd be best off reading the whole essay.

. . . . The [recent] collapse of the large religious orders of men and women in the Church can be attributed to a variety of factors that coalesced at the same time. The disaster has been well described by the well-known anthropologist Fr. Gerald Arbuckle, S.M. in two important books: Strategies for Growth in Religious Life and Out of Chaos: Reforming, Religious Congregations. Religious life, Arbuckle argues, was drawn into the same cultural revolution that undermined family life and higher education in the late 1960s. Unfortunately, the Catholic religious, who had been taught not to think for themselves, followed like sheep. Many of the most strident voices, which demanded the removal of the foundations of religious life, departed after eviscerating the life and constitutions of their communities. Those who sincerely attempted to lead a spiritual life found themselves with little effective leadership.

I once heard a well-meaning and well-educated sister of a respected teaching order tearfully observe at a seminar, "We did what we were told to do." The obvious question "Who told you?" must be asked. Christian religious are called without exception to lead a gospel life and to follow the Scriptures and the traditions of the Fathers, the Church, and the saints. These sources, which were always there, were almost completely ignored. Instead, many shaky theories of psychology, most of them now gone over the waterfall of time, were substituted for the gospel and sacred teaching. Alien and awkward things were introduced into the spiritual life, some of them borrowed from totally misunderstood Asian traditions. We have only to look at the offerings of retreat houses run by some religious congregations to discover how silly people intending to be serious can sometimes become. [One thinks of the cult of labyrinths.] [Several times in the olden days I attended "retreats" in the archdiocese where I looked forward to finding out what "labryinths" were all about. The Holy Spirit made sure that I never found out. I'm no longer interested.]

Along with this came the impact of psychotherapy, which as a result of the discoveries of Sigmund Freud focused almost entirely on undoing what were seen as repressive mechanisms in the personality. Contemporary positive psychology has rejected the general intellectual and emotional bankruptcy of this position. Although some people did get to feel better, they did not necessarily do better or come closer to their eternal goal. As one founder of positive psychology, Aaron Beck, has pointed out, there was an almost complete lack of common sense in psychotherapy from the 1940's to the 1980s. [One of the smartest guys I've ever known majored in psychology and mathematics at the U of MN; he got his PhD from Stanford and has been Chair of the Psychology Department at UCLA for some time now. I instinctively knew that what he talked about was "wrong", but I didn't know why. It must have been "grace."]

The necessity of grace for the spiritual life was also ignored. Semipelagianism, or even full-blown Pelagianism, practically denying the necessity of grace, was observable on all sides. Thus, for example, the widespread popularity of the therapy and petagian assumptions of Carl Rogers, one of the creators of client-centered therapy, practically wiped out a large and respected congregation in California in a single summer.

On top of this, the two major underpinnings of Catholic religious life were seriously weakened in their presentation. The first was the credibility of Sacred Scripture. The rules of many religious orders say explicitly that they are founded on the gospel. As a result of skeptical and rationalistic criticism of the New Testament, the scriptural foundation of religious life was undercut. The rule of life of the Franciscan order, for example, is to observe the gospel-but if the popular scholars are telling us that Jesus didn't do this, didn't say that, didn't mean the other thing, what are we to do?

There was also what Pope Benedict XVI has referred to as the "collapse" of liturgical life. The intellectually and spiritually impressive liturgical movement that was growing in the United States after the Second World War-a movement founded on insights cultivated in the Benedictine abbeys-gave way to misunderstanding of the liturgy as primarily entertainment. The goal was to get everybody involved, but the question remains: Involved in what? In religious communities and parishes across America, liturgical committees were suddenly filled with people who had never studied anything of substance about the Church's liturgy. Eminent liturgical writers such as Romano Guardini and Louis Bouyer deplored this popular and often well-intentioned debasing of liturgy.

In addition, a general theological confusion prevailed in the 1970s and 1980s, undisciplined and unrestrained in nature, which deeply penetrated religious communities and seminaries. I am well aware of it because I was thrown out of four seminaries during these years for the offense of being a Catholic, even though I was only teaching, pastoral counseling. This period of theological confusion has largely come to an end and is roundly rejected by today's young candidates for religious life or the priesthood.

Finally, strange as it may seem, the ideas of Marxism, a philosophy that did untold damage to the lives of hundreds of millions of people, suddenly began to appear in religious communities during this era. I spoke to someone a few years ago who had attended the more avant-garde meetings of religious sisters. I asked what the main topic of conversation was. I was flabbergasted when I was told that it was the teachings of Frederick Engels. (Poor Engels never thought that the last people to take him seriously would be Catholic nuns who had gone off the rails.) [Liberation Theology?] [. . . . Snip]


Cathy_of_Alex said...

That is an excellent column.

It could be a good thing that Father Welzbacher does not have a blog, I don't believe a server exists that can handle the capacity of his knowledge.

Unknown said...

That's for dang sure. It appears that he was ordained in 1951, so that would make him about 82 or so. May God grant him a much longer and healthy life.

We need priests like him.