1.1.1. The documents from Vatican II and the consequences
The highest aim of the consecrated life is the imitatio Christi, the imitation of Christ, in the love of God. This rule yields a variety of lifestyles that Perfectae Caritatis sees as the wealth of the tradition. There are the contemplative communities that devote themselves completely to prayer and to the love of Christ, and there are communities that strive for a clear apostolate for advancing the Kingdom of God in the world. All – in their own way – advance the life of the Church and are, in their own way, living centers where traditions can be lived and renewed. All live according to the three vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience and share a common life that becomes visible in daily practices of prayer, clothing, formation, etc. The council calls the religious to be renewed and adapt to the world in which they live and carry out their mission. To that end, they have to learn to understand the signs of the time, develop a missionary mindset, and also renew themselves spiritually. This rethinking also needs to be reflected in their external forms: their clothing (especially the women religious), the training they undergo. Here, it is indeed important that they remain faithful to their vocation and calling and sincerely continue to search for God. In that way, they serve the Church. They show Christ in the world and make the Church more authentic. They are a sign of the holiness of the Church without their being part of the hierarchy of the Church.
This call to renewal and reconception of their life thus still occurs in a clear framework that is the Church. In Lumen Gentium we read, for example:
[S]ince it is the duty of the same hierarchy to care for the People of God and to lead them to most fruitful pastures. The importance of the profession of the evangelical counsels is seen in the fact that it fosters the perfection of love of God and love of neighbor in an outstanding manner and that this profession is strengthened by vows. (LG 45)
At the same time, the religious,
in fulfilling their obligation to the Church due to their particular form of life, ought to show reverence and obedience to bishops according to the sacred canons. The bishops are owed this respect because of their pastoral authority in their own churches and because of the need of unity and harmony in the apostolate. (LG 45)
These quotes inform us that the expected renewal of the religious is conceived in a lucid and clear framework that the institution of the Church is, in close interplay with its hierarchy and representatives of that hierarchy. The creative and prophetic dynamic, which is characteristic of the consecrated life, is thus strongly limited. The adaptation to the world thus should thus primarily promote the credibility of the Church. That is the priority of the council fathers.
Perfectae Caritatis goes further in this perspective with respect to the various forms of the consecrated life and new, lay and secular, institutions. Although spiritual renewal has priority, attention is also bestowed on the clothing of the religious, the isolation of the contemplative orders, and the organization of the religious in unions and conferences.
The call to renewal initiated a process of reflection in many communities on the inspiration and identity of the religious, of their mission and translation of the vows. That optimistic start, however, soon revealed a shadow side. The decrease in the numbers of the religious was striking. People left the orders, and there were fewer and fewer candidates for this way of life. While the call of the council meant a liberation for some from an all too constricting framework that no longer fit the time and mentality of many religious, others experienced this as the removal of a framework that gave their consecrated life form. The way of life and the experience of spirituality were so closely attuned that the removal of the one led to the severe tottering of the other. Sandra Schneider remarked at the end of the previous century that the religious were asked to catch up on 400 years of history in three decades.i Aware of the dangers of the periodization of history, she argues that the consecrated life took shape when the Church was a dominant player and provided an unambiguous worldview in which the hierarchy of the Church was also mirrored in family, political, and cultural life. This unity has been under pressure since the fourteenth century through the development of modernity in which the world was viewed more and more as a separate entity that could also exist apart from God (and his guardians on earth). The Church responded by building a wall around itself. For believers, this quickly meant a spiritual life within the walls of the church and a secular life in the world outside. For the religious, however, that life within the walls went on for centuries in the form it had acquired in the Middle Ages. When the windows and doors were opened in Gaudium et spes, it soon became clear that no fresh wind could be expected from modernity. That period then came up against its own limits by the experience of two world wars, the growing social malaise and poverty that divided the world into North and South, into the Third and Fourth World, the ecological crisis, the ethical developments, etc. This all occurred within the extremely protected space that the Church had been until then. The disorientation of the religiousii has to be placed in this light, even though the Vatican attributed the malaise to, among other things, the laxity or lack of faithfulness of the religious.iii The focus from the Church agencies would then also be directed at the spiritual aspect rather than the form of the consecrated life.