THEOLOGY OF RELIGIOUS LIFE

Sandra M. Schneiders, IHM

Jesuit School of  Theology/Graduate Theological Union

Berkeley, California

Given the brevity of this essay I have decided to concentrate not on theology of Religious Life as content (that is, what we think about the life theoretically) but on theology of Religious Life as a process (that is, how might we reflect fruitfully on this life in the concrete present).  What needs to be taken into account?  Who needs to be involved?  Why do we need to do this?  What can we expect from such a process?

Christian Religious Life is a nearly 2000 year old movement that has been both enormously diverse in its realizations and remarkably consistent with itself in regard to its  constitutive coordinates and dynamics.  This suggests that the first thing on which we need to focus  is the reality itself.  Where and why did it come into existence and how has it managed to continue, throughout a history of incredible change and development, to maintain its identity?  Margaret Wheatley, in her wonderful book on organization in the context of the new science, says that the freedom of a social reality to grow and evolve depends on a single “rule”: “[i]t must remain consistent with itself and its past.” (Leadership and the New Science, 1992, p. 135).  Since Religious Life has obviously evolved in myriad ways without dying out it must have managed to observe that “rule” throughout the ages.  Thinking theologically about Religious Life today involves looking at its origins and recognizing its continuities.

Religious Life emerged within a few decades of the resurrection of Jesus among women and men who felt personally called by the risen Jesus to give themselves to him and his cause with existential totality.  They vowed publically, in the Christian community, virginity (or what we today would call consecrated celibacy) by which, according to all the literature of the period, they meant self-gift to Christ to the exclusion of all other primary life commitments such as marriage, family, profession, or office.  By concentrating their  affectivity totally on Christ they allowed this single, all-consuming love, which they recognized as the gift of his Spirit, to shape their lives.  And the totality of the gift was signified by the temporal “all” of perpetuity.  So convinced were these first Religious of the validity and significance of this particular way of following Christ that many actually accepted martyrdom rather than abandon the vocation to which they felt called.

Even as the phenomenon evolved to include ministerial forms Religious Life which seemed radically new in comparison with the enclosed monastic forms of the first 1500 years, the fundamental self-understanding of founders as well as members, as far as we can judge from the literature testifying to motivations for embracing the life, remained the same: the  desire to give oneself totally to God in Christ.  The founders of ministerial forms of the life felt deeply the need to express and to experience that union in service of Christ’s members, usually in terms of the most pressing needs of Church and society in their own historical contexts: education, health care, social service, especially of the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, the underserved.  It seems to me that any reflection on Religious Life today must begin by recognizing and affirming this  deep dynamic, the life-encompassing self-gift in response to personal vocation, that is at its heart, and which both keeps it true to its own identity and frees it for the creativity that is characteristic of all great loves.

A second focus of reflection for anyone thinking about (that is, theologizing about) Religious Life today (and in my opinion that includes everyone who feels called to live the life, not just specialists or professionals in the field of theology) is its character as both religious and a life.  Religious Life is not a business enterprise, a service organization, a political party, a support group or family substitute, or a form of ongoing therapy.  It is a life.  One does not just enter Religious Life; one becomes a Religious.  Profession catches  up and integrates all of one’s life in a love commitment that includes everything, everyone, every activity, and all the resources (material, physical, economic, social, temporal, intellectual, and artistic) of one’s experience.  In contemporary parlance, as a  life it is 24/7, not 9 to 5 Monday to Friday.  And that makes it intrinsically communitarian in the deep sense of lifelong union of heart with those who share this vocation.

But Religious Life is also religious, and specifically it is a Catholic Christian life form.  At its heart is Jesus Christ and his agenda of the transformation of this world and its history into God’s reign of   justice and peace that embraces not only all humans but all of creation.  This is not a general project of doing good, however laudable that might be, but a personal and passionate commitment to live the paschal mystery by which that reign was inaugurated and by which it will come to fulfillment.  In other words, it is a commitment to participate in the saving death Christ that will bring new life to the whole world and to do this within the context of a fallible, flawed, and fractured Church which is sometimes as much a hindrance as a help.  Reflecting on the ecclesial character of Religious Life and what it involves today is one of the most painful and challenging aspects of doing theology of this life today.

A third focus of reflection is the context in which Religious Life is lived today.  Because it is lived in such a variety of historical contexts social analysis is indispensable for the elaboration of a relevant theology.  It seems to me fruitless to try to revive (even with “adaptations”) approaches to Religious Life that may have been compelling in the 1950’s but are incompatible with the cultural milieu of the 21st century.  And it is equally fruitless to try to invent some “new form” of the life projected for a milieu which does not yet exist and may never exist.  And finally, it is imperialistic and oppressive to try to formulate a “universal” theology of Religious Life (usually extrapolated from the experience of the more privileged among us) and impose it in contexts which are radically diverse.  It seems to me that Religious today are on the right track in trying to analyze their own historical reality and the ways they interact with their own cultures, to explicitate and claim their theological, spirituality, and communitarian  presuppositions, to critically examine and appropriate their positive and negative experience both past and present, and to affirm their deepest ministerial commitments.  This will enable the continual evolution of Religious Life in the actual contexts in which we are called to live it rather than in a romanticized past, a fantasized  future, or an abstract universality.   Who can doubt that Religious Life today is both strikingly “new” and yet still authentically itself?  And it will be continually renewed provided that we, i.e., all of us called to this live this life, theologize creatively on the experienced interaction between our vocation to total self-gift to God and our world,  our Catholic Christian faith, and our actual cultural and ecclesial context.  We are capable in the Spirit of Christ of reforming what is deteriorated,  renewing what is worn, and creating what is needed, just as did our founders and the spiritual greats in our tradition.

4 Responses to “THEOLOGY OF RELIGIOUS LIFE”


  1. 1 Jonathan Phillips December 4, 2009 at 12:12 am

    The process of Religious Life starts with examples; be it at home or the faithful witness of a caring Priest, Brother, Sister, Deacon, or Tertiary. We, as Catholic Christians, need to step up and step up NOW if we expect Holy Mother Church to have vocations in the future. Is there a Priest or Religious shortage? Yes, only in the fact that there is a shortage of MENTORS. For the sake of God’s Church, talk to a young man or woman today and ask this simple question; Have you ever thought of The Priesthood or Religious life?

    • 2 sgfp December 4, 2009 at 9:37 am

      yes you were right in saying about religious life. Witnessing, mentoring and making active proposals to young people is the key. Lest not we forget about praying for young vocations, too.

  2. 3 jahn January 27, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    I thought this was an excellent reflection. I wish that all religious viewed religious life as a life not a mission. It is a total and radical gift of self, not just a job. If the focus is lost then it can become a focus on self. It takes great Christian sacrifice to live this life but when lived with the understanding that Christ is the reason we enter this life then it is deeply fulfilling. Ministry naturally flows from this love of Christ. However, sadly, I belong to a community of women who have not understood or grasped why they were in this life. It makes for a very difficult and lonely journey. As well, it is difficult for young people to feel attracted to this life when it is not lived in its fullness, but it is extremely attractive when it is. Keep praying for vocations and may those who are living religious life give witness of this gift.

    • 4 sgfp January 28, 2011 at 9:15 am

      Thank you very much for sharing your personal reflection on this important issue we have to confront everyday as religous in this contemporary and globalized world. We have to rediscover our being religious, rather than focusing on our mission. It is discovering the joy of our vocation that we can share the same joy in our apostolate.


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