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Jesuit Father Myron J. Pereira, based in Mumbai, has spent more than five decades as an academic, journalist, editor and writer of fiction. He contributes regularly to UCA News on religious and socio-cultural topics.
Catholic Religious: Charism, Institution, Community
The future of Catholic religious life surpasses our ability to imagine it
Published:
May 10, 2023 03:30 AM GMT

Updated:
May 10, 2023 03:39 AM GMT

For centuries, religious communities in their many forms provided pioneering leadership to the Church.

People looked up to the religious. They were innovative, inspiring, learned, focused — in a word “charismatic.”  In times of grave social change, they interpreted the Gospel anew for their world.

They planted the Church in strange cultures and often paid for this with their lives.

So did Benedict and Francis, Ignatius and Mary Ward, and Don Bosco and Angela Merici. They did so by starting “charismatic communities” —  small groups that were pioneers in their age.

The transition from a charismatic community to an organized institution is an inevitable historical development and is lucidly explained by social scientists. But whenever it takes place, running institutions,  and not pioneering work, becomes the most important task of a religious group.

This calls for administrative skills, security and a certain legal cohesiveness. Real power and influence in the religious group now pass from the pioneer to the administrator.

The Impact of the Institution

The first demand made by the institution upon its members is for money, lots of it.

All successful administrators become adept at raising funds, allocating budgets and making sure that their financial turnover stays ahead of current expenditures.

Money is usually invested in the purchase of land, buildings, and equipment, all of which are collectively owned by the religious group.

Evidently, such acquisitions do project an image of both institutional wealth and great organizational power and so set those religious apart from the poor.

It also makes it increasingly difficult to understand the poor and to be of service to them.

In fact, the opposite takes place: institutional work brings one inescapably to deal with well-to-do citizens, corporates and government officials whose values are not necessarily those of the Gospel.

The Ways of Institutional Power

As the religious institution grows, an ever-present temptation becomes irresistible: the desire for power. The institution begins to rely more and more on power to get things done.     

Soon enough power is equated with truth. In other words, he who has power, is right. He who has power prevails.

There are two consequences of this. The first affects relations between the superior and the members of the institution. If there are difficulties and tensions in the group, the critics are intimidated, and any meaningful search for the truth is aborted.

As a result the superiors hardly know what their members think, since dialogue has little place.

Even more, ordinary members are reluctant to challenge authority, unless their own private interests are at stake.

There is a second, more disastrous, consequence: the institution is so powerful that its members accept externally what they may reject internally.

In other words, what is practiced is not obedience, but compliance, external lip service.

Members of the group lack the courage to stand up for their convictions, but toe the ‘party line’ instead. They are effectively domesticated by the institution.

This is a form of hypocrisy Jesus encountered and severely rebuked in the Gospels.

Those in formation in religious life or for the priesthood, soon learn that the truth is dangerous and may be upsetting, and should not be disclosed easily.

Superiors, and even friends, must be told what they want to hear, not necessarily the truth.

As atrocious as this may sound, such an attitude helps enormously in the smooth running of an institution.

The formation of the members of the institution — especially its younger members — is training in “religious language,” whereby through regular spiritual exercises [like retreats, novenas, the study of theology, etc.] one comes to accept unquestioningly the ideals and the values of the institution. These are always promoted as the optimum.

At the same time, however, young members are also exposed to the behavioral patterns of senior religious which may be discordant, and at variance with the professed ideal.

But as actual behavior is seen and heard, they have a stronger persuasive force than optimum ideals merely preached about.

How is the tension resolved? Usually in favor of the institution, which compels external compliance, even when there is inner disagreement.

Dysfunctional Superiors

This brings us to a related issue: it’s not just individual members, but superiors too who may be dysfunctional. How to deal with these?

Years ago, such a statement would have been considered preposterous. A superior would be seen “as God’s representative,” an embodiment of virtue, and an exemplar of the ideals of the institution.

No longer. The pedophile crisis in the Catholic Church and the deception and lies of the hierarchy have shaken the faith of ordinary Catholics in their pastors and leaders.

Nor are religious men or women any different.

It is clearly seen today that so many of the clergy are obsessed with a  ‘sense of entitlement’ which comes from their sense of institutional power. Many are weak in ‘emotional intelligence,’ which in simpler terms means a lack of sensitivity and appreciation for the other, the ‘other’ being persons of another race, or of the other sex.

An Evangelical Sense

The institution gives one a juridical understanding of religious life. Infractions of the vows invite sanctions in canon law. But discipleship is much wider than legalities. It is the Gospels that reveal to us what discipleship means.

As the Gospels present it, discipleship means, first of all, a deep trust in God, and not in money; and then, a radical detachment from all family bonds.

These are not popular conditions by any means, and will never be.

This is why such conditions will only be met by small groups of men and women — not by large congregations — who live their faith steadfastly, and are often persecuted for doing so.

It is such small groups that are innovative, inspiring, courageous and focused. Such groups may even be inter-religious, for to them institutional religion is a relic of the past.

If this is so, then religious communities have a future — free, inclusive, unstructured and prolific. They surpass our ability to even imagine them.

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