In our long journey through the Vatican II documents, we now turn to the Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life, Perfectae Caritatis (“Of perfect charity”).
The long contention of the past forty-some years is that religious, especially women religious, took Vatican II somewhat more seriously than did the clergy. Each group has had its post-conciliar successes and failures. Many religious, both those of conservative and progressive sensibilities, have had notable successes in the past two generations of Catholicism. Contemplative orders continue to attract followers, and I’m sure this is not only true because of the fruits of the council, but possibly spurred on by the witness of mystics such as Thomas Merton. Other orders have expanded their apostolates into areas traditionally held by priests and lay persons. The former invasion is sometimes greeted with suspicion and hostility. And the latter? Women religious and laity alike ask if the outward expression of charism is the only thing that determines one’s solidly discerned status as a sister. In other words, if a woman no longer needs to join a religious order to be a teacher, nurse, lawyer, parish minister, missioner, etc., then what is the essence of religious life?
Let’s get to section number 1, which by its very first Latin phrase, suggests that the aspiration for perfection is one of the roots of religious life:
The sacred synod has already shown in the constitution on the Church that the pursuit of perfect charity through the evangelical counsels draws its origin from the doctrine and example of the Divine Master and reveals itself as a splendid sign of the heavenly kingdom. Now it intends to treat of the life and discipline of those institutes whose members make profession of chastity, poverty and obedience and to provide for their needs in our time.
The bishops affirm that religious life is an exercise in freedom, and that in imitation of Christ, it is more about “being” than “doing.” That said, the close imitation of Christ presumes that some “actions” or ministries will be strongly associated with those who aspire to “perfect charity.”
Indeed from the very beginning of the Church men and women have set about following Christ with greater freedom and imitating Him more closely through the practice of the evangelical counsels, each in (her or) his own way leading a life dedicated to God. Many of them, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, lived as hermits or founded religious families, which the Church gladly welcomed and approved by her authority. So it is that in accordance with the Divine Plan a wonderful variety of religious communities has grown up which has made it easier for the Church not only to be equipped for every good work (cf. 2 Tim 3:17) and ready for the work of the ministry-the building up of the Body of Christ (cf. Eph. 4:12)-but also to appear adorned with the various gifts of her children like a spouse adorned for her husband (cf. Apoc. 21:2) and for the manifold Wisdom of God to be revealed through her (cf. Eph. 3:10).
A basic definition of the religious life, linking the fervor of the persons involved with the fruitfulness of the apostolate:
Despite such a great variety of gifts, all those called by God to the practice of the evangelical counsels and who, faithfully responding to the call, undertake to observe the same, bind themselves to the Lord in a special way, following Christ, who chaste and poor (cf. Matt. 8:20; Luke 9:58) redeemed and sanctified (people) through obedience even to the death of the Cross (cf. Phil. 2:8). Driven by love with which the Holy Spirit floods their hearts (cf. Rom. 5:5) they live more and more for Christ and for His body which is the Church (cf. Col. 1:24). The more fervently, then, they are joined to Christ by this total life-long gift of themselves, the richer the life of the Church becomes and the more lively and successful its apostolate.
After this fine introduction, the council intends to set forth guidelines for renewal. As with most Vatican II documents, we will see mostly general principles. These were to be fleshed out by proper “authority” following the council.
In order that the great value of a life consecrated by the profession of the counsels and its necessary mission today may yield greater good to the Church, the sacred synod lays down the following prescriptions. They are meant to state only the general principles of the adaptation and renewal of the life and discipline of Religious orders and also, without prejudice to their special characteristics, of societies of common life without vows and secular institutes. Particular norms for the proper explanation and application of these principles are to be determined after the council by the authority in question.