Sandra M. Scheniders, IHM

I. Introduction

A. Framing the Question

My assignment, to talk about the future of Religious Life, is both the best and the worst of tasks. It is the best because no one can prove me wrong in the present. It is the worst because no one can safely speculate on what “the future” means in our multi-cultural, pluralistic, globalizing, nuclear threatened, and environmentally compromised post-modern world that is changing kaleidoscopically at blinding speed. In short, any attempt to describe the future in order to ground some kind of plausible prediction is impossible. So, instead of talking about the future of Religious Life I will talk about Religious Life in the future, whatever that future may be.

The question I am asking, in other words, is not an empirical one about what will be but an imaginative one about what can be. What understanding of this life can be humanly meaningful and evangelically effective no matter what the future holds for us, for the Church, for our world? [1] I will propose an imaginative construction of Religious Life which assumes that, no matter when or where it is lived, it must be Gospel-based and capable of being lived simultaneously and diversely in the vastly varied cultural, social, and ecclesial contexts which affect it profoundly and are affected by it.

B. My Hypothesis

The hypothesis I will offer rests on two assumptions. On the one hand, Religious Life is profoundly Christian, i.e., Religious share in the identity and mission of all the baptized with whom they relate as equals. On the other hand, Religious Life is a distinctive life-form in the Church, i.e., a state of life that can be recognized and identified by its specific contribution to the life and mission of the Church. By way of prolepsis, I will suggest that Religious Life is an alternate life-form in the Church. Religious, by the vows they profess and live, create an alternate “world” in the midst of this world, the saeculum. Religious do not simply attempt to live differently in the world, which all Christians must do, but to create a different world which will offer a prophetic witness in, to, and sometimes against the world and even the institutional Church. At the end, I will connect this hypothesis to the theme of redemptive marginality evoked by our icon of the Samaritan Woman in John 4 and the Samaritan Man in Luke 10.

C. Presuppositions

Three presuppositions frame this hypothesis. The first concerns the meaning of the term “world,” a concept that must be carefully parsed today lest Christians continue policies of domination and exploitation of nature or rejection of creation in the name of religion.[2] Perhaps our best New Testament source for a nuanced theology of world is the Gospel of John which uses the term more frequently than the rest of the New Testament combined.[3] Four meanings of the term kosmos can be distinguished in the Gospel.

First, world can mean the whole of creation which John’s Gospel, echoing the first chapter of Genesis, declares came into existence through the Word of God (cf. Jn. 1:9-11), the creator God who declared it very good (cf. Gen.1:31). Second, the world can be seen as the theater of human history. Jesus spoke of his own coming into the world as light to save all (cf. Jn. 12:46) and prayed at the last supper not that God take his disciples out of the world, i.e., out of human history, but that God preserve them from evil as they lived and acted in the world (cf. Jn. 17:15). Third, the world is the human race in its entirety. God “so loved the world” as to give the only Son that all who believe in him may have eternal life (cf. Jn. 3:16). All three of these meanings of “world” are essentially positive. The world created by God, especially the human race in its journey through and creation of history, is the handiwork of God, redeemed in Christ, and destined to glory.

But the fourth meaning of “world” in the Fourth Gospel, used much more frequently than the preceding three, is distinctly negative. Jesus refers to a world that is a synonym for evil, that is in the grip of Satan (cf. Jn. 13:27), the devil, the “Prince of this World.”[4] Jesus is not of this evil world nor are his disciples (cf. Jn. 17:16). The minions of the Evil One will persecute and even kill them but they are to have confidence because Jesus has overcome the world (Jn. 16:33). Against Jesus the Prince of this World is powerless (cf. Jn. 14:30) and will finally be judged (cf. Jn. 16:11). But until the consummation, the struggle against the evil world and its Ruler continues.

This evil world, then, is not a place nor a group of people; it is a construction of reality according to principles or coordinates that are the polar opposite of the central values of the Gospel. These opposing reality constructions, the Reign of God and the Kingdom of Satan, are produced by the moral choices of human beings under the influence of the Spirit of God or of the Devil and they come to expression not only in the personal behaviour of individuals but in the political, economic, social, cultural, and religious institutions of society. The Gospel project of self-transcendence toward God in Christ for the sake of the world, is directly opposed to the self-enclosed and divisive dynamics of oppression and domination inspired by Satan. All Christians at their Baptism are called to renounce “Satan and all his works,” to disaffiliate from the reality construction of the Evil One. But some Christians, namely, Religious, incarnate this world-renunciation in a particular way which we will shortly discuss as the creation of the alternate world generated by the profession of the vows.

My second presupposition is that the foundation of the Christian challenge to Satan’s evil construction, i.e., the negative “world”, is the Resurrection of Jesus in which the victory of God over Satan is realized in the person of the crucified and risen One. His paschal mystery is the principle of the Christian enterprise. It establishes definitively that eternal life comes through death, not the death which is a natural biological process but the death which results from the refusal to integrate one’s life into the reality construction of Satan. The followers of Jesus will risk and accept death in their effort to realize the Reign of God in this world. Until the will of God is realized on earth as it is in heaven, until all creation, and especially human beings, can experience the infinite shalom of God, the struggle between the Prince of this World and the true Prince of Peace will be waged in and by the followers of Jesus in collaboration with all people of good will. Different members of the glorified Jesus will participate in this struggle in different ways. The question for us is, what is the distinctive way Religious participate in this enterprise?

This brings us to the third presupposition, namely, that Religious participate in the struggle for the Reign of God by creating, living in, and ministering from an alternate world. Again, “world” is not the natural universe, a geographical place, or a group of people. “World” is a reality construction. When we say something like “My world fell apart when my mother died” or “I don’t know where she is coming from,” we use a material or spatial metaphor to reference a complex construction of reality within which we coordinate our thinking, feeling, choosing, acting. Specifically, the imaginative construction of reality, “the world”, is primarily a certain way of understanding, organizing, and operating within and upon the basic coordinates of all human life: material goods, power, and sexuality. Material goods which we relate to in terms of possession, power which we exercise through freedom, and sexuality which we construct and express through relationship are the raw material which humans shape into “world,” either the Reign of God or the kingdom of Satan, as they work out their destinies, personal and corporate, in history.

The distinctiveness of Religious Life as a life-form arises from the public, lifelong commitment of the members, as individuals and as communities, to a characteristic approach to material goods, power, and sexuality which creates a particular concrete realization of the Reign of God, on a 24 hour a day, 7 days a week basis. Because of the overlapping and intertwining of the Reign of God and the Kingdom of Satan in all human experience, Religious, in order to undertake a pattern of life in which there are to be no exceptions to the dynamics of Gospel life and no compromise with the dynamics of the evil world, actually construct an alternative to life in this world, in the saeculum. We need to recognize the utopian character of this project which is particularly challenged in the post-modern context by the suspicion of all unitary projects and meta-narratives.[5]

Prior to the renewal inaugurated by Vatican II Religious often tried to handle the ambiguous environment in which the Reign of God and the Kingdom of Satan are intimately intertwined by physical separation from the people and processes that surrounded their convents and monasteries. But as this “total institution” model of Religious Life was deconstructed,[6] as it had to be, in favour of the full involvement in the human enterprise that the Council recognized as the vocation of the Church and therefore of Religious,[7] the full gravity, scope, and difficulty of Religious Life as an alternate life-form has become much clearer. Because this project is no longer protected by physical and social isolation nor legitimated by a blanket rejection, if not condemnation, of everything outside Religious Life as “worldly,” Religious are challenged to re-articulate the nature of their venture, and to commit themselves explicitly to pursuing it in the very midst of this ambiguous situation, within human history, in cultures and social settings which are structured to a large extent by the satanic dynamics of sexual exploitation, political domination, and economic oppression locked in mortal struggle with initiatives, religious and non-religious, which promote right relationships among all God’s creatures.

Religious construct their alternate world by the profession of vows. Profession is the solemn and public act by which individuals integrate their life into the reality construction that began in the charismatic vision of a founder or foundress and has been lived into reality by generations of Religious within a particular community. By their personal and corporate living of the vows they create the distinctive and characteristic lifeform by which they participate in the Church’s mission of witnessing to and realizing the Reign of God in this world.

It is, therefore, crucial to rescue our understanding of Profession and the vows from the almost exclusively juridical framework in which they have been immured, especially since the 1917 revision of the Code of Canon Law.[8] Profession was seen as the assumption by vow of narrowly defined supererogatory obligations. In reality, Profession is a global commitment, an orientation of one’s whole person, life, and history toward the realization, by particular means, of the Reign of God. It is a specification of baptismal commitment which is courageously open-ended, not merely a restriction on specific behaviours. The vows, whichever ones are made in particular congregations,[9] are Gospel-based global metaphors for the stance Religious take toward the fundamental coordinates of human existence, material goods, sexuality, and power. It is through these metaphors that we imagine and construct the living parable of Religious Life as alternate world. Like Jesus’ parables the vows not only describe but narratively generate a different world, not just a different way of living in this world.[10] The world of Jesus’ parables, the Reign of God he presents, is a world of endless forgiveness, of abundant refreshment at the wedding feast of eternal life where the last are first and the marginalized included, of equality and dignity for all. In what follows, I will very briefly and inadequately explore how Religious, through two of the vows, poverty and obedience, try to tell this story into reality, to generate this alternate world and offer it in and through the Church as a real possibility, a future full of hope, to the world in which they live. Time will not permit dealing with the vow of consecrated celibacy (with which I have dealt at length elsewhere)[11] but I hope the consideration of these two will spark our creativity to continue this imaginative process in our discussions.

II. Evangelical Poverty : The Economy of the Reign of God

Poverty is the focus of a great deal of ambiguity and guilt among Religious. We often feel uneasy, even hypocritical, as we enjoy adequate material well-being in a world of widespread want and even destitution. Perhaps this malaise is an invitation from the Spirit to probe more deeply into the meaning of the poverty we vow.

Poverty is, first and fundamentally, about material goods, the resources without which we cannot live at all, much less live well. Thus, we naturally tend to think about poverty in quantitative terms. How much property or economic leverage should we, individually and corporately, have? By what standard should we measure our possessions? I suggest that our focus should be less on the quantity of goods with which we deal, something that necessarily varies enormously from situation to situation, and more on the economic system within and according to which we deal with material goods. And the standard for freely chosen evangelical poverty, which is very different from unchosen deprivation, should be derived not from a comparison of our standard of living with that of any economic class but from the Gospel. The Gospel says much about material goods, about our attitudes and behaviours in relation to them, and about the kind of world such attitudes and behaviours generate. But it does not say anything about actively seeking deprivation much less destitution or about comparing standards of living. This might suggest where we need to concentrate our attention.

Let me detour, for a moment, through the thought of an American culture critic, Lewis Hyde, whose oft-republished book, The Gift, is a profound reflection on our topic.[12] Hyde, probing beneath our surface typology of economies as barter, industrial, technological, and so on, proposes that there are essentially two types of economies, i.e., two ways of organizing the use of material goods within a society, namely, commodity economies and gift economies.

In a commodity economy goods are seen as objects of ownership and the primary economic activity is acquisition.[13] The object of economic behaviour is to take as much as possible of the available goods out of circulation into private ownership. Social status and power accrue to the person who owns more and, since material goods are intrinsically limited, what one person has another cannot have. In such a zero-sum economy the desire for more than one actually needs, saving against a possible future need, display of one’s possessions, competition for goods always perceived as scarce simply because they are limited, are considered natural behaviour required for survival. In other words, greed, covetousness, hoarding, conspicuous consumption, conflict, even the defense of one’s goods at the expense of another’s life if necessary are virtues in a commodity economy.

By contrast, in a gift economy, which characterized many primal societies and still characterizes some tribal communities, material goods are regarded first of all as that which we have received — from God, nature, family, community — and therefore as that which we, in turn, can give to others. The primary economic activity is keeping goods in circulation, contributing to the well-being of the community through one’s work, the use of one’s talents, the sharing of one’s material possessions. Ownership is relative to the needs of others and no one owns what all need such as land, water, food, and air. The highest status in a gift economy accrues to the one who contributes the most. Real poverty consists not in having nothing but in having nothing to give. Scarcity may be, at times, a community concern but it is not a personal disgrace. Greed and hoarding, even refusing to share what one actually needs, especially when other members of the community are in want, is dishonorable and ignoble. Conspicuous consumption is vulgar. Irresponsibility or refusal to work are disgraceful. The virtues that are admired in a gift economy are generosity, sharing, work, responsibility, simplicity, compassion for the less fortunate.

Needless to say, these economies are not morally equal. From the Christian standpoint one is clearly marked with the signature trait of the Evil One , namely, divisiveness; the other provides a fertile substrate for the Gospel values of right relationships in a community of shared life. Against this background, let us return to our consideration of the evangelical poverty Religious vow and by which they construct and live in the alternate world of the Reign of God.

In the Gospel story of the Rich Man (Mk. 10:17-22 and parallels) who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life Jesus says that all are called to obey the commandments. But when the man persists Jesus tells him that he lacks one thing. He should dispossess himself completely and join the itinerant band of disciples following the homeless Jesus. Notice that Jesus does not say he should become destitute and die of starvation, exposure, or disease. Nor is He proposing to the man an ascetical ideal. Jesus invites the man to join a community of disciples who are individually without possessions and who live simply, sharing a common purse and accepting the generosity of others even as they freely serve others through the preaching of the Gospel in word and deed.

Shortly before Religious make a vow of poverty they cede the administration of anything they own [patrimony], and renounce ownership of everything they will ever acquire by work, or gift.[14] Even if their patrimony is still legally owned by them the Religious renounces all the rights of ownership, the “use and usufruct” of the property, as well as independent control of anything she or he will acquire in the future. In other words, the Religious becomes functionally possessionless, totally economically interdependent within the community. If the vow is lived seriously by all the members of the community they are creating and living in a radically gift economy. All things used by any of the members are held in common, i.e., everyone puts everything into the common fund, and all receive from it according to need. They have accepted the condition the rich young man refused because “he had many possessions.” It was not difficulty or hardship before which he faltered. After all, he had kept all the commandments “since his youth.” What he could not embrace was being without personal, individual possessions. Jesus’ band of itinerant disciples lived a community of gift, of shared simplicity, in which private commodities had no place. For moderns to undertake this kind of economic life is to create an alternate economic world in the context of the globalization of market capitalism.

Another Gospel story, the parable of the Eleventh Hour Laborers (Mt. 20:1-16), illustrates a second economic feature of the alternate world Religious create. The vineyard owner, clearly a God-figure, employs a series of workers beginning with a shift hired early in the morning and ending with a group hired an hour before closing time. He agrees to pay each what is just and at the end of the day he pays all an equal wage making sure that the earliest shift sees what the 5:00 p.m. workers received. They indignantly object. Should not people who work longer and harder be paid more than people who work less? Should not earnings be proportionate to labour?

The God-figure, however, claims to be operating according to a different economic system. No one earned anything; all is gift! Divine generosity, not personal effort, is the source of what each received. The vineyard owner asks, “Are you envious because I am generous?” All we have we receive freely from God’s largesse. Without our very being, our strength and talents, and God’s “employment” of us we could do nothing. Our system of acquiring through earning is a provisional human arrangement in a commodity economy. It does not express our true relationship to material goods which are always God’s gift to us and ours to each other.

But even more significant is the vineyard owner’s pay scale. He agreed to give each worker “what is just” and that is “a day’s wage,” in other words, what a person needs to live. The need met by “a day’s wage” varies enormously among individuals and is culturally conditioned.[15] But in any context, those who can work more do not need more than the necessary resources for life and mission. And those unable to work as much do not necessarily need less to live; indeed, they may need more.[16] All should contribute what they can to the common enterprise and receive what they need.[17] The vineyard owner does not want anyone standing around idle. But the right to life and the resources needed to sustain it does not arise from what we do. Rather, work is the overflow of life sustained at the appropriate level. This disconnecting of work from the right to life-sustaining resources is a fundamental subversion of our human illusion that we “support ourselves” by our work and its logical conclusion that those less able to work deserve to suffer want. Jesus says that all should contribute as they are able but all must receive what is necessary for life.

This is the approach to work in the shared enterprise of ministry that characterizes a Religious community which takes seriously its economic common life. Each Religious is to work as much and as well as she or he is able. Religious, therefore, do not “retire” from ministry at a certain age to live in leisure on the savings they have amassed from their earnings. They have not gotten rich by working and saving. Religious do not personally earn but act, and receive compensation, as agents of their congregation. But when, because of age or infirmity, they can no longer bear the “burden of the day’s heat” they continue to minister in whatever ways they can and to receive “the day’s wage” within the community just as they did in the prime of their work lives. In other words, in an economy of gift, especially the radical version of such an economy that involves complete possessionlessness and total economic interdependence, all things are placed and held in common, all work as much and as well as they are able, all are sustained and cared for according to need. There is no economically based social class, no status, power, or influence flowing from superior wealth, no dependence and shame attaching to poverty, no destitution as long as there are any resources to be shared. The gift economy is the material basis for the radically egalitarian community of disciples that Jesus founded.

Not only does such a community foster the right relation of members with God (that is, the joyful poverty of spirit that is expressed in dependence on divine providence and openness to others) and with one another (that is, a genuinely communitarian life of gospel friendship among equals) but it also enables the community to minister freely and generously, not as paid service providers in a consumer economy but as sisters and brothers to fellow humans beings in need. Religious congregations have traditionally chosen ministries to those who are under-served precisely because they cannot pay or pay well for the services they need. Religious can afford to serve the needy because they are not trying to get rich by their work. Thus, those they serve do not feel exploited on the one hand or diminished and patronized on the other by Religious who serve them out of divine compassion. The needy in body, mind, and spirit are not beggars but brothers and sisters, first of Jesus, and then of those who serve them in Jesus’ name. The salaries of Religious whose ministries pay well, the proceeds of prudent investments, the gifts of generous partner-donors, can help support ministries which are not self-supporting. However, it is easy for a congregation to get so caught up in the dynamics of a commodity culture that it loses sight of the real, indeed radical, difference between ministry and gainful employment even if the two coincide. Furthermore, Religious can be co-opted into ecclesiastical agendas that are foreign to their own charismatic identity so that they become a cheap job corps rather than ministerial agents within the self-determining congregation. But this need not happen if the community is reflective in its ministerial choices and decisions and understands the uniqueness of the economy created by the profession of evangelical poverty and its relation to ministry.

Finally, the authentic living of an economy of gift in the midst of a commodity economy can offer a prophetic witness that challenges the very foundational convictions of modern capitalism as Jesus challenged the Rich Man and the wage-earners in his audience. It says very effectively, and in a way that simply imitating the poor or practicing conspicuous deprivation cannot say, that material wealth is not the primary value in life, that all ownership is provisional and conditional, that all people have a right to what they need, that greed and hoarding and conspicuous consumption are not virtues but vices, and that violence against persons in defence of property is never justified. If the poverty Religious vow were lived seriously and consistently by every member of a congregation, no matter when or where that congregation found itself now or in the future, its spirituality, its community life, its ministry, and its witness would effectively challenge the world construction of the Evil One with the Gospel’s vision of the Reign of God.

III. Prophetic Obedience: The Politics of the Reign of God

I turn now, necessarily more briefly, to the second vow, obedience, by which Religious construct the alternate world that exposes and challenges the reign of Satan. This vow stands in need of massive reinterpretation today because the very concept of obedience has been seriously deformed and contaminated by the world’s politics of violence and coercive domination. Although an adequate treatment of obedience requires a thorough discussion of the meanings of the correlative categories of freedom and authority, we cannot engage these topics here. So, let us stay focused on the contribution of prophetic obedience to the political organization of Religious community understood as a particular realization of the alternate world of the Reign of God.

As poverty is about material goods and therefore about the economic order so obedience is about power and therefore about the political order. As poverty is not about renouncing material goods but about establishing a Gospel relationship to them, namely, possessionlessness that helps constitute an alternate world of the gift economy, so obedience is not about renouncing power but developing a prophetic exercise of power as genuine freedom which will make Religious community life and mission an alternate political world, namely a discipleship of equals in community and mission. Our question is, what does the Reign of God look like, politically?

Despite the fact that Religious Life, through much of its history, has organized itself and functioned in imitation of available secular political models, especially those of empire or divine right monarchy, and today to some extent in some countries quasi-democracy, one of the striking facts about Religious Life is that it is not a natural society and, therefore, organizing it politically according to such models does violence to its very being. The assumptions of all forms of hierarchical political organization, especially those believed to rest on ontological inequalities, demand that some, e.g., royalty, whites, men, clerics, free people, etc. rule others, e.g., commoners, people of colour, women and children, the non-ordained, slaves, etc. by divine necessity and decree. But the ontological inequalities which are thought to ground hierarchy and its governmental expressions in secular and even ecclesiastical societies do not, in fact, exist in Religious community. Nor is the kind of equality underlying the democratic notion of majority rule established by “one person one vote” verified in Religious community. In other words, Religious community by its very nature is neither hierarchical nor democratic.

Religious Life is not a natural but a voluntary society. First, in the Religious community, there are no children to which parents have a natural, and perhaps the only genuine (though temporary) hierarchical relation of authority. Everyone enters Religious Life as a free adult.[18] Second, Religious communities are generally single gender societies and thus the fallaciously asserted hierarchy of male over female is not operative.[19] Third, the vow of poverty abolishes class, the hierarchy based on material wealth. Fourth, Religious leave their families of origin so that nobility or lack thereof become irrelevant, even to the point, in times past, of suppressing family names. Finally, no one is born into Religious Life and no one is obliged to enter for the sake of salvation or sanctification so the community has no non-negotiable hold on the members. The Religious community, in short, is a society made up of equal, free adults who choose to come together, not primarily for each other (as in marriage) nor primarily to do something together (as in a business venture), but because their love of Christ and desire to live the Gospel in a particular way draws them together to pursue that ideal.[20] The relation of community members to each other and the ministries they undertake together flow from this particular commitment to Christ in response to a personal vocation over which no one has control.

But the horrors of the Holocaust pursued in blind obedience to state authority, and the feminist analysis of hierarchy as a fundamentally dysfunctional system of domination based on dichotomous dualisms, have illuminated our reflection on what kind of society, what kind of political order the Gospel challenges Christians to imagine and effect. The community of disciples which Jesus gathered around him was not a revised version of either the religious establishment of institutional Judaism or the Roman empire. It was something radically new, a kinship of faith, not blood (cf. Lk. 11:27-28) in which there are to be no fathers (cf. Mt. 23:8-10) and all who hear and do the will of God are brothers, sisters, mothers of Jesus (cf. Mk. 3:35). It is a community of believers in which there are to be no rabbis or teachers who bind impossible burdens upon people, for all are disciples of the one teacher, Christ (cf. Mt. 23:6-11). It is to be a political entity in which there are no rulers lording it over others and styling themselves benefactors (Mt. 20:24-28) for all are called to mutual service in imitation of Jesus who laid down his life for them. Jesus stated categorically that domination by the powerful is the way of the world and “It shall not be so among you” (Mt. 20:26; Mk. 10:43). Jesus’ community is, in the felicitous phrase of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, a discipleship of equals. The development in the institutional Church itself of a pervasively hierarchical structure that resorts to the use of coercive power as a normal mode of control often renders this Gospel version of Christian community virtually invisible and creates an imperative for prophetic witness to the new kind of political order that Jesus called into being, a witness not only to the world but to the institutional Church itself. .

Jesus’ murder by the collusion of the state and the religious establishment testified to the subversive nature of what he proposed and to the fundamental agreement about power of the two institutions. Jesus’ vision of relations among his followers fundamentally subverts the political systems, whether religious or secular, which operate through coercion of the disempowered by the powerful. Religious Life, if it took seriously its own constitution as a purely voluntary society of those who hear the word of God and do it, as a discipleship of equals united in mutual service, could become the alternate political world which would announce to secular and ecclesiastical power alike the possibility of a truly non-hierarchical community of sisters and brothers united around Jesus the risen victim, of the power structures of this world.

The recourse, in secular society, in the institutional Church, and often in Religious Life, to worldly political structures of hierarchy and coercion is based on a fear that any other political arrangement will inevitably degenerate into a chaotic war of all against all for personal advantage. Only a hierarchical structure in which the powerful, claiming to speak for God, assign control to themselves and their surrogrates, can prevent such a catastrophe. This is not a phantom fear but it is a counsel of despair that nullifies resurrection hope. Human nature is indeed deformed toward violence by what tradition calls Original Sin, that is, the influence of the Evil One, the Prince of this World. Even in Jesus’ lifetime he had to intervene in the power dynamics among his disciples jockeying for prestige and power over each other and trying to control the relation of others to him. But Jesus did not accept these power dynamics as inevitable or invincible. He refused to assign places of preference in the Reign of God (cf. Mt. 20:20-28 and parallels), to command one disciple to restructure her discipleship according to the pattern chosen by another (cf. Lk. 10:38-42), to repulse children (cf. Mk. 10:13-14 and parallels) or women or Samaritans or pagans or the ill or the handicapped as inferiors, to close his inclusive discipleship to society’s (cf. Lk. 19:1-10) or the religious establishment’s outcasts (cf. Lk. 7:36-50), or to let his disciples call down fire on those who did not have their permission to preach (cf. 9:51-55). He insisted that the first be last and raised the last to first, demanded that his disciples be servants of all. Jesus continued to his last breath to accept the condemned as fellow citizens in Reign of the one he called his “father”, refused to retaliate against his persecutors, or even to condemn the unrepentent (cf. Lk. 23:32-43). He exercised no power over, no coercion. But Jesus was not naïve. He did not say that this would “work” in the worldly sense of that term. The politics of domination has always been the way of the world. What Jesus did say is, it must be different among you who are called together by one who washed your feet (cf. Jn. 13:1-15) and who refused recourse to power even to save his own life (cf. Mt. 26:53; Jn. 18:19-11).

Obviously, if Religious Life is to be a peaceful, orderly, and ministerially effective life-form that bears prophetic witness to the possibility of an alternate form of community in service of the Gospel it must develop criteria and procedures by which to decide what to do and how to do it. Obedience, whose etymological root is “to hear,” is the principle of this non-hierarchical Gospel organization. Religious vow to attend, always and first, to the voice of God, to seek explicitly for God’s will in this world. Obedience is a vow, not about submission to heteronomous control, but about listening to the intimate voice of the only One who truly commands our obedience. The practice of obedience in community is the specific and concrete way of attending that characterizes Religious Life.

In the past Religious tended to locate the voice of God exclusively in the Rule and the will of the superior. The working assumption was that, as long as one was not doing one’s own will but the will of another, God’s will was being done. Modern psychology as well as the disasters resulting from blind obedience make this approach highly questionable. At best such “obedience” is infantilizing; at worst it promotes real evil. Vatican II, especially in Gaudium et Spes and Perfectae Caritatis, urged all Christians, including Religious, to widen our focus in the search for God’s designs. We must attend to the “signs of the times,”[21] a fortunately imprecise notion that embraces historical and cultural developments, social changes, scientific advances, and the deepening awareness of the cosmic context of the human adventure. We may and must attend seriously to our own personal and corporate experience of what fosters and what hinders life in Christ and the coming of God’s Reign. The Gospel is to be the ultimate norm of all Christian life, the perennial fount of spirituality, and the heart all theological reflection and ecclesial practice.[22] The charism of founders, the needs of the Church and world, the gifts and initiative of members, as well as constitutions and legitimate traditions, and the authority of leaders are to be heard and heeded.

But how is such a welter of incoming information to be processed so that, rather than being paralyzed by a flood of incoherent data and polarized by numerous and conflicting agendas, the community can live peacefully and minister effectively. The answer, of course, is “discernment.” Rather than evading the difficult work of discernment by passive abdication of personal authority to rule, tradition, or superior, Religious must vigorously exercise discernment in an atmosphere of equality and freedom in the effort to hear the voice of God in the din of the world and in the still small voice speaking in prayer. And this is the work of the whole community, not merely of the leaders even though different members have different roles in the process at different points in time.

Over its long history Religious Life has developed a wisdom tradition, enshrined in foundational documents, in wholesome traditions and customs, and in valuable experience, that plays a privileged role in the work of discernment. That tradition must continually develop because even the best human wisdom is not divine.[23] But we do not have to start from scratch each time we face decisions. Furthermore, Religious have developed ways of selecting leaders who, while in office, exercise a privileged role in relation to the common good, including articulating the corporate vision and decisions. Leaders and members must be able to distinguish megalomania or ideological fixation, as well as external intimidation, from the genuine leadership that helps to keep the common good in focus as discernment proceeds, without ever assuming that concern for the common good is the exclusive charism or contribution of office-holders.

If, in the past, obedience has been understood as submission or compliance, perhaps today it is better understood as responsible participation and whole-hearted cooperation. To cooperate is to work together. Religious Life is a working together in the Spirit of all the members in the construction of their life and the effecting of their mission. By vowing obedience every member commits her or himself to that enterprise, in season and out of season, when convenient and inconvenient, when one’s own ideas and projects prevail and when they do not. To vow obedience is to commit oneself to participate in the process of discernment and in the work of embodying the fruits of discernment in life and mission. To stay at the table of discernment, to come back from temporary disillusionment, dismay, or even despair, to speak with courage and listen with vulnerability, to respond responsibly to decisions flowing from communal discernment and/or articulated by legitimate authority are all part of obedience.

To regard obedience not as an alienation of one’s freedom and responsibility through submission but as an exercise of freedom through participation and cooperation is to recognize and affirm certain principles which have emerged in practice in renewing congregations in the wake of the Council. However, although many congregations have moved instinctively, in the spirit of the Council and the Gospel, toward a de-hierarchicalizing and de-militarizing of obedience, they have sometimes failed to articulate and fully appropriate the real Gospel valence of these principles. This can result in an uncertainty that is exacerbated by the rejection in theory and attempted suppression in practice of these priniciples in some hierarchical circles within the institutional Church. What I am describing as a contemporary understanding of obedience that is emerging in renewing congregations is not a rebellion against past dictatorship nor a rejection of legitimate authority. Nor is it the quiet withering away of authority and obedience as everyone does her or his own thing occasionally informing superiors of one’s decisions. Religious congregations have not adopted a sacralized democracy where one casts one’s vote (or does not bother to) and lives with the will of the majority. I am talking about a Gospel-based prophetic organization of the exercise of power within a community for the maximizing of freedom in the service of personal holiness and ministry. It remains to offer a partial list of these principles of obedience with an indication of their Gospel roots and their prophetic potential.

First, the foregoing description is based on the premise that Religious Life is a lifeform bringing together in voluntary community free, responsible, and committed adult Christians who are radically equal as human beings and especially as children of God, and whose equality is not abolished or compromised by the always provisional leadership arrangements which the community creates to foster its discernment and commitments.

Second, prophetic obedience involves a prodigious act of faith in the power of grace working in people of good will to overcome in an ongoing way the will to dominate, the quest for privilege, the recourse to coercion that are endemic to the human situation still under the influence of the Prince of this World.

Third, it affirms that human intelligence and goodness, when placed in the service of the common good and motivated by the urgent love of Christ, can and will discern the designs of God at least to the extent necessary for the decisions that must be made here and now and that the community will have the courage to rectify its mistakes as well as execute its valid decisions.

Fourth, such a vision of obedience is based on a belief in the inalienability of freedom, the primacy of conscience, the acceptance of responsibility for oneself and the other(s), a humble realization of the intrinsic limitation of all human effort to know and do, and a commitment to the processes and the results of discernment.

Finally, it recognizes the full seriousness of making such a commitment by profession, of vowing in perpetuity to actively participate in this Gospel form of political life as a constitutive dimension of one’s own growth in Christ and one’s commitment to the Reign of God. Religious do not simply cooperate out of passivity or amiability when and if they have the time or inclination to do so. They take on, by vow, all that it means to participate fully in the life and ministry of the congregation. Living on the margins of the community, minimal participation, are not a legitimate choice but a violation of vowed obedience. Participation includes the major requirements and annoying details of financial and ministerial accountability as well as the investment of time and energy in such things as committee work, consultations, and chapters, and sometimes even the major self-gift of holding office or undertaking some other full-time community service. It includes the sometimes onerous task of working out differences with other members and leaders. At times it will demand genuine self-abnegation for the sake of the common good. Like evangelical poverty and consecrated celibacy, prophetic obedience characterizes every moment of every day in the life of the vowed Religious, not because one is fulfilling the rule or doing the superior’s bidding at all times but because one lives with one’s ear ever attuned to the slightest indication of God’s will and work in the world and a heart ever disposed to embody that will in one’s life and ministry. It is my conviction that living the politics of the Reign of God can and will move Religious Life into a future that is full of hope.

IV. Conclusion

Let me conclude by returning to our premise, namely, that by their vows Religious create an alternate world which, on the basis of the Gospel, prophetically challenges the power of the Prince of this World. This alternate world is not a place or even a group of people. It is a reality construction, a way of imagining and handling the basic coordinates of human life (material goods, power, and relationships) that expresses and fosters the Gospel values of the Reign of God. Religious not only create this world as their own environment but act out of it in their efforts to create a different future.

The conference icon, the Samaritan Woman in John 4 and the Samaritan Man in Luke 10, is a powerful symbol of this new world. Samaritanism, a religio-ethnic identity marker in Jesus’ time, was a principle of alienation, marginality, exclusion, inferiority in relation to the Chosen People. Jews and Samaritans had nothing in common, used nothing in common, did not worship in the same place, did not accept the same canon of Scripture. But both Gospel vignettes are about crossing artificial boundaries, breaking down walls of separation, subverting power structures, dismantling privilege, putting the private and exclusive in common to build community in this world.

The dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan Woman starts with Jesus’ request for a gift of water. And when the woman invokes the exclusivity that forbids her to respond to his request Jesus offers her a gift, the wellspring of eternal life. This invitation to mutual gift-giving, to an economy of gift rather than of possession, leads to a discussion of the theological basis of the divide between Jews and Samaritans over patriarchal origins, true worship, and the identity of the Messiah. Jesus’ subversion of biological, geographical, historical, or even ritual criteria of true religion in favor of worship of God in Spirit and in Truth, sets a new standard for inclusion. Jesus says all who believe are welcome in his new family of faith, in a discipleship of equals, not because of their patriarchal genealogy, their orthodoxy or orthopraxis, their Scriptural warrants, or their traditions. Jesus’ proclamation, “neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” but “in Spirit and in Truth” relativizes all human litmus tests in favor of divine inclusivity and equality based on faith, i.e., on free receptivity to the free divine gift. And the image of this new dispensation is mutual gift between between man and woman, Jew and Samaritan, In this scene that images the new dispensation there is no sexual exploitation, neither domination by the man nor manipulation by the woman, but mutual respect between equals. There is no economic brokering as Jesus freely shares his very identity and divine gifts (cf. Jn. 4:26) with the woman who freely receives and then becomes the one who freely shares what she has received with her fellow townspeople (cf. Jn. 4:29). There is no exercise of dominative power between these two who relate as equals discerning through dialogue God’s will and work in this world in openness to a genuinely new possibility. In this tiny locale of Sichar, sexuality, material goods, and power have been integrated into a new creation. A new world in which the Prince of this World has no part is coming into being.

Verse 27 of the pericope reveals just how radical Jesus’ revelation is. The male disciples returning from town are shocked that Jesus is talking to a woman, and even, as will soon become clear, including her in his mission. Neither discipleship nor mission, it appears, is exclusive to males nor are these men in charge of it (cf. Jn. 4:37-38). They are called to reap what others have sown and labored to raise, to enter into a work they did not originate and do not control.

The returning disciples are also disturbed that their role as exclusive providers for Jesus apparently has been usurped by someone [the woman?] who apparently has “brought him something to eat” without their knowledge or permission (cf. Jn.4:31-33). But Jesus is looking beyond the physical hunger that preoccupies his disciples toward the horizon of the new dispensation he is inaugurating, the time for which he hungers with God’s desire, when the universal salvific will of God will be realized well beyond Israel. The Savior of the World (Jn. 4:42) sees the harbinger of this new day in the Samaritans, the despised outcasts, coming to him through the witness of a woman (cf. Jn. 4:39).

Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan carries a similar message of crossing artificial boundaries. Hierarchical boundaries of purity, prestige, and power are imaged by the two clerics who pass by the mugged man on the other side of the street. But the Samaritan, himself a religious outcast in this Jewish environment even though he seems to be financially well off, reaches out in compassion, literally lowers himself to the level of the victim and treats him as an equal, a fellow human being. He freely shares with the victim all that he needs (Lk. 10:33-35). And Jesus says he does so precisely because he recognizes the less fortunate, even the enemy, as neighbor. Clearly, this Samaritan who ignores all the boundaries set up by society and religion to treat as an equal someone he had every reason to despise and hate, who neither rejoices in nor ignores the misfortune of this member of the oppressor class, is an image of the one who, being divine, did not consider divinity something to be clung to, but emptied himself to become one of us, our equal (cf. Phil. 2:5-7).[24]

Jesus did not come to establish a new religion with new boundaries, new litmus tests, a new caste system based on gender, power, or wealth. He came to inaugurate a new world, to give the power to become children of God to all those who believe in him regardless of human origin, social status, gender, or any of the other markers humans have created to divide humanity into the dominant and the oppressed (cf. Jn. 1:12-13. It is this new world, this discipleship of equals in which there is no Jew or gentile, slave or free, man or woman and, we might add, no royal or common, rich or poor, cleric or lay, white or colored, straight or gay, and so on, that Religious aspire to create by their way of life. By perpetual vows of consecrated celibacy, evangelical poverty, and prophetic obedience they establish an alternate world which they live into being on a twenty-four hour a day basis, witnessing against the Prince of this World’s version of a hopelessly divided human race and to a people whose hope springs from the Resurrection that universal shalom in the Reign of God is possible. They seek to announce in every culture and every age that the Savior of World has come that all may have life and have it to the full (cf. Jn. 10:10).
Back to Talks from the World Congress on Religious Life
[1]. I am not here suggesting that Religious Life is some kind of unchanging and uniform Platonic “essence” which is realized differently in different contexts but is always essentially the same. Cultural and ecclesial contexts vary enormously and will in the future. Religious Life is always a contextualized project in which context affects Religious Life as well as affecting it. I am trying to discern the specifically Religious “take” on the Gospel dynamics which Religious will have to find a way of embodying in their lifeform no matter where or how it is lived.
[2]. The pre-eminent exponent of the “universe story,” an attempt to situate humans within the larger cosmic context, is probably Thomas Berry. His influence among first world Religious, especially women, has been enormous. At times Religious have over-reacted by calling for a virtual moratorium on the specifically Christian story while we immerse ourselves in the “world” we have so long ignored or rejected. The over-reaction needs to be recognized but the necessity of attending to the issue is not thereby abrogated.
[3]. The term kovsmo~ occurs 78 times in the Gospel of John and 24 times in the Johannine epistles (92 times in total) in contrast to 14 times in the Synoptic Gospels and 47 times in the Pauline literature.
[4]. I cannot enter here into the question of the nature of the devil whom John calls Satan. The Fourth Gospel assumes, indeed affirms, the existence of this evil power and clearly regards “him” as a personal agent. This captures the important point that moral evil is not simply “what happens” as nature and history take their course but that personal volition in opposition to God’s salvific will is at work in the world. Jesus is said to overcome both “the Prince of this World” and “the world.” Thus, there is a meaning of “world” which is synonymous with the embodiment or symbolic expression of the principle of evil at work in human history.
[5]. We cannot go into a discussion of postmodernism, which increasingly is the context of first world Religious Life and is making inroads, through globalization, into other cultural situations, but the fragmentation which is characteristic of this worldview poses special problems for any theory of Religious Life as a unitary project. A good introduction to the characteristics of postmodernity is Paul Lakeland, Postmodernity: Chrisitan Identity in a Fragmented Age (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997).
[6]. The sociological category of “total institution” was proposed by Erving Goffman, “The Characteristics of Total Institutions,” A Sociological Reader on Complex Organizations, edit by Amitai Etzioni and Edward Lehman (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1980): 319-339.
[7]. See Gaudium et Spes [The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World], 1 and 3.
[8]. The juridical, indeed legalistic, understanding of the vows that was adumbrated in the Catechism of the Vows (for example, Pierre Cotel, A Catechism of the Vows for the Use of Religious [Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1962, c. 1926]) was somewhat offset by the treatment of the “virtue of the vows” which tried to express the ideal embraced by the one making profession but, in fact, most Religious who went through formation prior to the Council equated the vows with the assumption of carefully specified legal obligations that exceeded those of other Christians.
[9]. The distinction between Profession as a global life-orientation and the vows as specific expressions of this orientation is clear from the fact that one can undertake Religious Life in different congregations and orders by Profession of a variety of different vows. Some groups, e.g., male Dominicans, make one vow. Others, e.g., Jesuits, make numerous vows. In most congregations the members make three vows and sometimes a fourth pertaining to a specific ministry. Profession, in other words, is the act by which one becomes a Religious. The vows are ways of unfolding the potentialities of the act.
[10]. The vast amount of work on the parables in recent biblical scholarship was launched by the pioneering work of scholars like Amos N. Wilder, Early Christian Rhetoric: The Language of the Gospel (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999). A particularly enlightening treatment is that of Sallie McFague, Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982), esp. chapter one on metaphorical language and chapter two on parables. See also John R. Donahue, The Gospel in Parable: Metaphor, Narrative, and Theology in the Synoptic Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988).
[11]. I have dealt with the vow of consecrated celibacy extensively in Selling All: Commitment, Consecrated Celibacy, and Community in Catholic Religious Life [Religious Life in a New Millennium, vol. 2] (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 2001), pp. 117-274.
[12]. Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (New York: Random House, 1983). First published in1979.
[13]. American free market capitalism is probably the most striking example in modern times of this aspect of the commodity economy. For a very sobering description of how rampant acquisitiveness and naked greed on the part of less than 1% of the population sentences most of the population to increasing poverty, see Charles R. Morris, “Economic Injustice for Most: From the New Deal to the Raw Deal,” Commonweal 131, no. 14 (August 13, 2004): 12, 14, 16-17.
[14]. Canon 668 (see New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, edited by J. P. Beal, J. A. Coriden, T. J. Green [New York, NY/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 2000] for the English translation of the canon and commentary on it.) The ways different orders and congregations handle the question of patrimony, earnings, gifts, etc. vary enormously and most renewing congregations probably need to devote serious corporate attention to how previously clear policies and shared understandings have evolved over the last forty years. Especially in what were previously called “congregations of simple vows” (the 1983 Code of Canon Law no longer distinguishes simple from solemn vows but particular law of some Orders may specify the practice of poverty in the way that solemn vows did in the past) there is currently considerable lack of clarity and even abuse due, probably in most cases, more to ignorance than malice.
[15]. The Greek actually says the owner agreed to a dhnarivon which is a day’s wage rather than a specific sum. This opens a literary path to reflection on the diversity of value in diverse cultural contexts. It is not the absolute sum but the needs of people in a given context which should determine what a person should receive. For a first world professional to try to live on the resources that sustain well a farmer in a third world country is the kind of fruitless “imitation” poverty that creates such unease in contemporary Religious congregations without helping to clarify policy or improve practice.
[16]. Augustine, in his Rule which was written in 400, handles the question of need vs. want in ch. 3, par. 5: “Melius est enim minus egere, quam plus habere.” (“It is better to need less than to have more.”) The Rule of St. Augustine in modern translation is available on line at
[17]. This is by no means a new idea. Augustine, whose Rule has supplied the basis of numerous ancient, medieval, and modern rules and constitutions including those of both monastic and ministerial congregations, wrote, (ch. 1, par. 3) “Call nothing your own, but let everything be yours in common. Food and clothing shall be distributed to each of you…not equally to all…but rather according to each one’s need. For so you read in the Acts of the Apostles that they had all things in common and distribution was made to each one according to each one’s need (4:32,35).”
[18]. Historically there have been children in Religious congregations, usually consigned to a convent or monastery by parents or guardians. Such arrangements are no longer possible. A candidate cannot be admitted to the novitiate until the age of 18 (Canon 643) nor to perpetual profession until the age of 21 (Canon 658). Furthermore, profession requires freedom on the part of the one making it (Canon 656).
[19]. Historically, there have been double monasteries of women and men and some very new communities are experimenting with “branches” of married members and celibates, priests and Religious, in the same community. There have also been some experiments in recent times with male and female Religious of different communities or congregations living together because of shared ministry. Discussing these arrangements is beyond the scope of this paper. However, it should be noted that double monasteries were precisely that, not two-sex single monasteries, and often the head of the double monasteries was a woman.
[20]. Although I cannot develop it here, this means that consecrated celibacy — the expression of the particular and distinguishing relationship to Christ — is the foundational motivation of Religious Life itself and therefore of community and ministry.
[21]. Gaudium et Spes, 4.
[22]. Cf. Perfectae Caritatis 2a; Dei Verbum VI,21, VI, 24.
[23]. In the past there was a tendency to regard rules and constitutions as quasi-revealed. The oft-quoted dictum, “Keep the Rule and the Rule will keep you,” captured this exaggerated notion of the divine authority of the rule. The participation by most Religious today in the process of revising their foundational documents, often very extensively and profoundly, has demythologized the rule and constitutions. This poses a problem we cannot address here, namely, how to understand the real authority of the congregation’s particular law and valid traditions when their origin in “mythical antiquity” no longer cloaks them in an unquestionable aura holiness. But the point here is that these documents enshrine a valuable wisdom tradition that unites and guides the community but for which the community must assume responsibility.
[24]. A remarkable reflection on how Jesus’ revelation of God as “fraternal” rather than “paternal” empowers us to move beyond hatred and retaliation against oppression into non-resentful love is James Alison, “Jesus’ fraternal relocation of God,” Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay (New York: Crossroad, 2001): 56-85


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