The vows of religious life are repulsive, at least according to an article Br. Justin Hannegan recently wrote in Crisis Magazine provokingly titled: Sacrificing Religious Life on the Altar of Egalitarianism.
All forms of religious life, at their very core, consist of three vows—poverty, chastity, and obedience—and each of these vows is repulsive … No one has an innate desire to uproot three of life’s greatest goods. Such a desire would be mere perversion.
Br. Justin’s argument is that vocations directors need to leave behind the language of desire when talking about vocation. He argues:
The prevailing opinion amongst those who talk and write about discernment is that God calls men and women to religious life by placing an innate desire for religious life in their hearts. If you have no such desire, it is unlikely that you are called. This advice, although it looks harmless on the surface, ends up thwarting religious vocations.
My first thought upon reading this article was this guy is on to something. When I was discerning, I listened to a lot of people talk about discernment and give their vocation stories and the one story that spoke most to me was a talk that Fr. Stan Fortuna, CFR gave at a conference in the Bay Area. In it, he described his reaction to God’s call to religious life by shaking his fist at heaven and yelling, “Nooooooo!”
Nowadays, telling most young people, “If you are not attracted to religious life then it is not for you” is just not the right advice. Unless you have lived a life of radical virtue in today’s culture, chances are you are not going to feel a natural desire to the religious life. Young people will be more likely to feel an infatuation that flees when confronted with reality or simply feel repelled from it on every level. I do differ with Br. Justin in that, despite this reality, I still think talking to young people about desire is important.
The Language of Desire in Discernment
We are beings of desire and we cannot discount them. They reveal deep spiritual realities. St. Ignatius discerned his vocation through very careful attention to his desires and he taught that key is ordering our desires. The Christian life is about following Jesus who perfectly ordered his human desires to the Father’s will.
However, these days, young people must dig deeply to unearth a radical desire for holiness that is strong enough to combat the many temptations against living religious life. But we cannot discount the power of the desire for holiness once it is unearthed and ordered.
We also should not leave behind the language of desire for one of “effectiveness.” To encourage young people to take up the religious life because it is a more “effective” way to holiness, as Br. Justin seems to encourage, is a quick path to Pelagianism. Religious life is not about attaining holiness efficiently, it is about living our human desire and love for God in a special way. Our life cannot be lived without love; otherwise, the vows will indeed become repulsive and masochistic. The vows are desirable but only insofar as they bring us closer in love to Christ who lived them and in that religious find solace and true joy.
Is Religious Life Objectively Superior?
In his article, Br Justin points to the “objective superiority” of the religious life as something that should be unabashedly pointed out to young people discerning.
I agree that religious do have a special call. It is not something to be apologetic about. Religious are not special in and of themselves, but the call is special. Why is it special? Because the life, more than married life, imitates the life of Jesus and foretells the kingdom of God.
However, I would like to point out two things. Br. Justin quotes Vita Consecrata, the papal document in which Blessed John Paul II writes: “This is why Christian tradition has always spoken of the objective superiority of the consecrated life.” The Latin phrase in the document for “superiority” is praestantia and it can be translated as “excellence” and is translated that way in the Italian version of the document. I think this is a better translation.
Unfortunately, for many years Catholic faithful believed that the religious vocation was “superior” to the lay vocation. If one didn’t become a religious then sanctity and holiness was not for them. Br. Justin is correct in challenging the pendulum swing that now tells people it doesn’t matter. However he misses the key issue of calling.
Generally, we can speak of the consecrated life as “more excellent” than any other way of life precisely because it imitates Jesus and foretells the kingdom of God, and the way of life to which we all are called. However, on an individual level, we cannot speak of an objective excellence in the call to religious life. Religious life is not the objectively more excellent way of life for everyone. The vocation that God calls a person to is “objectively superior” to any other way of life because God has called that person to holiness through that particular vocation. I do not think we should shy away from emphasizing the special call that is a religious vocation, but it must be done with care and nuance.
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In the end, Br Justin’s article seems to be a call to go back to the past but I respectfully respond with a call to go forward with balance. Our numbers will never be the same as they were in the “good ol’ days” and it is cause for some lament but we have also grown as a Church and as religious. But along with Br. Justin I do see some things that could change in the current approach to religious vocations. So, I join him in his forthright and frank challenge for change and conversation about the way we speak about religious vocations– for the sake of the Church and the sake of young people who need help in hearing God’s call.