So it has been a week since I last visited the Council Vatican II. (Yesterday I was feeling very much like Cardinal Ottaviani: “all change is bad.”) We left off in October, 1964, with the heated exchange on “The Church in the Modern World.” In looking at my sources here, I note that there were other schema discussed during this time that receive less attention today but are fascinating to observe nonetheless.
October 23 and 26 were devoted to the reality of atheism. Most of the Church fathers understood that atheism in the twentieth century, after two violent wars and countless other atrocities, enjoyed a certain philosophical respectability. All of us young hip collegians of the late 1960’s had our little fling with Existentialism, the post-war philosophy of human individualism and societal emptiness. The writings of Nietzsche, Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus sold out in every campus bookstore. Interestingly, existential atheism inspired a series of anti-establishment films like “Easy Rider,” “Cool Hand Luke,” and perhaps stretching things a bit, “The Graduate.” (Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson.) On a more serious note, the materialistic-Marxist philosophy of communism was the professed ideology of totalitarian governments that prohibited freedom of religion, an actual threat to the Church in many parts of the world.
October 26 and 27 discussed “The Church in the World,” a rambling discussion about primarily church-state relations in a world that was dividing along the “first,” “second,” and “third” worlds of the future. It was, if nothing else, an agreement that the old medieval synthesis of church and state was dead.
There was a brief but historically intriguing discussion on “Racial Discrimination.” The issue of apartheid in India and Africa received particular scrutiny, and the name of Gandhi was referred to as a “magnificent example” of the kind of justice to be hoped for. Interestingly, Bishop Grutka of Gary, Indiana, observed that “it is a scandal to see parishes deserted whenever Negro families move in.” Grutka was referring to “white flight,” the move of white residents to American suburbs in a pattern that nearly all of the Rust Belt cities succumbed to after World War II, a pattern of which Detroit has become prime exhibit. Archbishop O’Boyle of Washington, D.C. recommended that racial problems be addressed across denominational lines.
I am going to jump ahead to November 11 and 12, 1964, to the discussion of the schema that would ultimately be promulgated as Perfectae Caritatis, on the adaptation and renewal of religious life. As a Franciscan myself for a quarter century, this document impacted upon my life in many ways, good and troublesome. I have linked to the actual document as it was finalized in 1965, and if you have a minute or two to scan it, you will pick up a feel for the Council’s intent. Religious life (religious sisters and brothers) is rooted in the sacrament of Baptism as a state where an individual lives an intensified life of prayer and good works at the service of the Church. The “ultimate rule” of all orders is the Gospel of Jesus Christ; the specific rule of each order is the intent of the founder.
Vatican II placed considerable emphasis upon a return to roots. In my youth, certainly, it was rather difficult to distinguish all the orders of nuns aside from distinctive habits. In truth, most religious sisters (except those in cloistered houses of prayer, contemplatives) were involved in the service ministries of teaching, nursing, and social work such as staffing orphanages. Most male communities evolved over time to communities of priests, and the clerical lifestyle of active pastoral responsibility tended to overshadow the simpler community style of vowed life. This occurred among the Franciscans even in St. Francis’s lifetime and was true in my years in the order till 1989. There were exceptions: I had the Christian Brothers in elementary school, an entirely lay order of men founded by St. John Baptist de la Salle in eighteenth century France.
At the same time, the Council understood that religious life was badly in need of overhaul. That pre-Council women’s religious habit, so much a staple of Hollywood and Traditionalists, was actually patterned after the dress of noblewomen, as the convent or abbey was itself a place where ambitious and well-placed women of late medieval and post-Reformation times could achieve learning and influence. By the twentieth century, however, the women’s habits were endowed with different meaning—as reminders of Christ’s suffering on the cross, or to protect chastity. Perfectae Caritatis para. 17 discusses the habit in a very sane and reasonable fashion. I refer you to paras. 2, notably 3, and 8, 10, 13 and 17 where the areas of general reform are spelled out with particular relevance and clarity.
There is a version of history circulated today, especially among people who never lived through that era, that PC essentially loosened the structure of religious life to the degree that it was no longer distinctive vis-à-vis the secular world, and for this reason religious women in particular left the convent in droves and caused the collapse of the Catholic school system in the U.S. This is a good example of the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc, that is, if two things happen in a sequence, the second caused the first.
What I would say, though, is that the main problem with Perfectae Caritatis, as is true with some other Council schemas, is that it came too late. Many young religious women entering the convent after Vatican II were not of the same cloth as the innocent Therese of Lisieux who took the veil at 15. After World War II, when dioceses like Los Angeles were opening a new Catholic school every ninety days, religious sisters went straight from novitiate to the classroom, spending each summer in college to earn a bachelor’s degree for personal and institutional accreditation. Sisters used to joke about the “twenty year plan” to earn a degree through summer school courses. In short, the typical classroom teaching religious was young, idealistic, and routinely in communion with higher education. An excellent source here is When the Sisters Said Farewell (2013); I have a review posted on the Amazon site.
By the time Perfectae Caritatis was released in 1965, it is fair to say that a wholesale reevaluation of religious life was already taking place, certainly in the United States. As the French discovered centuries ago, there is no such thing as half a revolution, and through the 1960’s and 1970’s a number of painful discernments—many with extreme expressions—took place among individual religious and religious orders as a whole. The fathers at Vatican II expressed the wish for a thoughtful and gradual discernment of religious life—and a goodly number of communities embraced their recommendations, but for a large number the ways and means of reform and its consequences were already long underway.