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It was a truism—universally accepted until the last decades of the twentieth century—that, wherever the Catholic Church was present, there would be representatives of the religious life: communities of vowed men and women living a frugal common life, praying and working together in Christian service, and offering a witness to the kingdom of God. They belonged to congregations that explicitly took on the responsibility of answering the gospel’s call to leave family, lands, and ownership to follow Jesus Christ.

Similar religious communities existed in smaller numbers in the Orthodox churches. Even today, many older people were taught, guided, and cared for by an impressive army of religious sisters, brothers, and priests. They numbered at least three hundred thousand in the United States on the eve of the Second Vatican Council, and their ranks were swelling. From Trappists to Jesuits, from cloistered Carmelites to Sisters of Charity, the religious could be found everywhere, celebrating the liturgy and common prayer, and frequently serving those with personal needs, especially the poor and the sick.

Most of these communities are now in a state of collapse, with the average age of members in the upper seventies, and no recruits in sight. My own experience offers a sad example. In 1951 I entered the Capuchin province of Detroit, which had almost seven hundred friars. The Capuchins were the fourth-largest religious order of men in the Church. They had produced such examples of sanctity in our time as Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, now declared a saint, and the Venerable Solanus Casey, who may soon be beatified. There were almost 150 friars in formation in the Detroit province when I joined. Today the province has fewer than a dozen men in formation.

Against that decline, one has to set the number of new communities that have appeared in recent years—made up of deeply dedicated men and women who are part of what has come to be known as the John Paul II generation. I belong now to a reform movement, founded by eight Capuchins and known as the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. We currently have 115 friars and some twenty-five sisters. Because I was the first servant, or superior, of our community, many people ask me, “What are you doing to thrive in a wasteland?” Occasionally someone inquires, “What can we do to see religious life return?” I have thought much about these questions.

I had been a friar for two decades when I came across some work in psychological anthropology that made me suspect that religious life was beginning to go in the wrong direction. Serious cracks were already appearing in the structures and attitudes of many religious communities, even the largest and most respected. When I studied the book The Ritual Process, by the eminent psychological anthropologist Victor Turner, I was mesmerized by some of the anthropological components of religious life, which seem to have gone unrecognized in the endless discussion on how to make orders more relevant. I discovered, for instance, that religious life is older and wider than Christianity. Buddhist and Hindu forms of this life, with the basic disciplines of poverty, chastity, and obedience, had existed for hundreds of years before the first Christian bands of anchorites and cenobites went into the desert during the early centuries of persecution.

Following the example of such saints as Anthony of Egypt, Paul the Hermit, and Pachomius, an ex-soldier of the Roman legions, men and women took up the pursuit of the vowed life. An important but frequently overlooked variable of that life is a quality known as liminality—the state of being an outsider to the establishment of any society, even one with strong religious characteristics and values.

Liminality derives from the Latin limen (which means threshold or edge) and refers in this case to people who live beyond the accepted norms of the establishment. Obviously chastity, poverty, and obedience to a spiritual master or superior take a person out of any establishment where family life and inheritance are the norm. Such people as St. Benedict, St. Francis, and, in our time, Mother Teresa of Calcutta are obvious examples of liminal personalities. In fact, Turner spends much time on the study of liminality in the early days of the Franciscan Order.

Liminal people stand in sharp contrast even to virtuous members of the establishment. This dichotomy is not a bad thing, although there must always be a degree of liminality in any follower of Christ. We see this in the saintly members of royal families: St. Louis IX of France and St. Elizabeth of Hungary, for example, who wore the Franciscan habit beneath their royal finery and served the poor with zeal and joy. Anyone familiar with religious life at the time of its collapse knows that liminality was almost entirely lost—and remains lost, except for the new communities and a few older ones that have remarkably held the line.

If we ask, “What could have gone so wrong and caused such a decline in religious life?” we realize that this is a dull tale extending over a period of more than forty years. Yet it comes as no surprise to anyone who knows church history and understands anthropology. You cannot go against the laws of human nature reflected in psychological anthropology—even laws such as liminality that apply only to a select few—without disastrous results. The current tampering with family life and marriage is another example of foolish intervention into the laws of anthropology. Such endeavors are like trying to grow figs from thistles.

The 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 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.

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 1940s to the 1980s.

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 pelagian 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 a 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 the 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 those 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 Friedrich Engels. (Poor Engels never thought that the last people to take him seriously would be Catholic nuns who had gone off the rails.)

Religious life will either reform or disappear. There remain, of course, a few stalwart communities that clung to their identity and purpose through the dark times. They are easily identified now because they have novices and postulants, and some of them are thriving.

The more interesting phenomenon is the creation of new communities largely out of the ruins of older ones—more interesting, because it means that an entirely new approach to religious life is not necessary or even desirable. Instead, new communities can be built on the foundations of older ones by taking rejected traditions and bringing them back to life. It also means that a return to the ideals of an order’s founder and embracing the charism that had been granted through that founder (rather than dubious late-twentieth-century interpretations) can prove the difference between survival and extinction. One example of a thriving new community that is both original and traditional is Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. Most others, like my own, grow out of the past.

Is there any hope for the older communities that are now in a state of collapse? There are so many of these that a statistical probability suggests that a few will regain their purpose and experience new life. But, so far, there is no obvious example of a community that, having gone into severe decline, later underwent a reform allowing it to regain its vitality. The few thriving older communities never lost their identity. It is wonderful to hope that out of the chaos and debris some voices may be raised that will preserve some of the older communities. My own community experienced considerable resistance when we first attempted to reform within the jurisdiction of the Capuchin Order. There seems to be more openness now to possible reform.

In particular, the new communities must be careful not to make the same mistakes as the older ones. They must teach and encourage people to think for themselves without being disobedient. They must try to discuss and find a consensus within the community concerning what they do. Otherwise there will be a return of the widespread resentment that characterized religious both on the eve of Vatican II and later, when changes were forced on them. There must be an authentic and prayerful return to and respect for the following of the gospel. Finally, the anthropological signs of religious life identified by Turner and Arbuckle must be maintained: Common life, frugality, identifiable uniform dress of a religious nature (a habit), and a common apostolic work shared by all members of the community are things one must look for. Otherwise, there is no hope of a community’s revival.

A surprising and welcome development at the present time is the emergence of a whole wave of young men and women interested in authentic religious life. They provide proof of the ongoing presence of God’s grace—as well as the validity of the anthropological theory of liminality. These young people surprise us by their willingness to join even communities beset by obvious theological confusion and little observance of their traditional rule. If they manage to survive for twenty years, the appearance of the sinking communities may change. In some communities there is an absurd phenomenon similar to a theological sandwich: The youngest and the oldest, who are in agreement, are like slices of bread. The age group in the middle reminds us of mayonnaise.

Something in human nature has been calling people to religious life for thousands of years—and gospel teaching and church tradition have aimed this human hunger at a strong form of Christian dedication. We should have learned by the disastrous experience of the twentieth century that we cannot afford the luxury of frivolous attempts at silly spirituality and self-seeking. We cannot continue to be misled by untested and unscientific sociological and psychological theories.

There hardly seems a mistake that religious orders did not make. Corruptio optimi pessimum, the old Latin proverb runs: Corruption of the best becomes the worst. We have seen it for forty years. The generation formed since John Paul II became pope is clamoring for something better.

Fr. Benedict Groeschel is one of the founders of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and author most recently of Praying to Our Lord Jesus Christ and The Virtue Driven Life.