Sunday, August 16, 2009

Is Consecrated Life Compatible With Studying Theology?

In response to my call for questions in June, here is a thoughtful one I received:

Interesting to read your story. I noticed you are studying theology. So it seems like you are thinking of teaching and contemplating the faith. Is it possible that what is needed here is an order of nuns that will study theology and then do ministry using their higher education? Did you find such an order and it just still was not a good fit? Or did you look and not find anything like that? Would one of you hopes or dreams be to start such an order?

I do wonder because I have a daughter who seems to have a disposition for religious life. It is hard to tell at 13 but it would not surprise anyone who knows her. But she has a great academic mind. I say “but” because most orders don't seem to focus on having their members possibly earn a post-graduate degree. So it seems like you can't have both religious life and high education. But you are doing it, sort of. –Randy

Dear Randy,
I think that you raise some great points, and ones which may not receive as much attention as they merit.

First of all, I would like to point out that the vast majority of women’s religious communities in the United State do take their Sisters’ general education very seriously. For instance, if a young woman hasn’t completed her college education upon entering the convent, the vast majority of the apostolic (a.k.a. “active”) congregations will send her to earn at least a bachelor’s degree.

But based on my own experience discerning religious life—which included researching various communities, visiting convents, and meeting a number of Sisters—it doesn’t seem to me that advanced graduate study is usually much of a possibility in most American women’s religious congregations. And in some communities, time constraints and certain applications of the vow of poverty (such as the inability to own one’s own books or lack of easy access to computers) would seem to make even personal, individually-motivated scholarship prohibitively difficult.

I think the reason for this is has to do primarily with the nature and structure of religious life. One of the most important things to understand when discussing these sorts of issues is that every religious community strives to be a faithful manifestation of their own particular “charism,” a word which refers to their foundational, identifying spiritual gifts and mission. Often (at least in the United States) the charism of an active congregation is closely tied to a particular apostolic work. And broadly speaking, the charisms and associated apostolates of most women’s religious communities are not such as would require that the Sisters achieve a distinguished level of academic accomplishment.

One example of this could be the Little Sisters of the Poor, who were founded in the seventeenth century France to serve Christ in the impoverished elderly. For hundreds of years, the Little Sisters have concretely lived out this charism by running free nursing homes for the poor. But while this is certainly a beautiful life and mission, it is clearly not one in which it is strictly necessary to study the Summa Theologica in-depth, or to learn Biblical Greek!

Of course, you could rightly argue that knowledge of academic theology is enriching in and of itself. Yet at the same time, the reality of the situation is that most religious congregations simply do not have the resources to send their Sisters for several years of advanced study which would not directly serve the needs of their community (though in most novitiates they do take some basic classes in theology, especially as it pertains to the spiritual life and the evangelical councils). More significantly, my impression is that most Sisters in active orders would much prefer to spend their time in the apostolic works reflective of their community’s proper charism, as opposed to in a lecture hall or at the library.

This lack of an academic focus doesn’t apply quite so much to men’s religious communities, since many male Orders—most notably the Jesuits and Dominicans, but others as well—do have scholarship as a part of their charism. Also, very often in men’s communities a large portion of their members are eventually ordained priests, and the universally required program of studies for priesthood encompasses a considerable amount of graduate work.

But this is not to say that American women’s religious life is totally incompatible with an interest in scholarship. One community, the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan, considers professional excellence as a major facet of their charism. Their community includes medical doctors, canon lawyers, and seminary professors. So in this community the Sisters are regularly sent for post-graduate degrees.

And although I don’t think they have the same focus on theological scholarship, the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist in Meriden, Connecticut also encourage a high degree of professional achievement for their members. Among other things, I think that Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist are responsible for the creation and maintenance of the Vatican’s website.

Although the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia (Nashville, Tennessee) and the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist (Ann Arbor, Michigan) have elementary and high school education, and not theological research or university professorships, as their primary apostolic work, I believe that these communities encourage serious reading and on-going intellectual formation among their Sisters. Similarly, the semi-cloistered, contemplative nuns of the Georgetown Visitation Monastery run a top-notch girls’ high school, which demands a deep interest in education in general.

Cloistered Dominican nuns (such as the “blogging nuns” of Summit, New Jersey) observe strict enclosure and therefore have no other apostolate besides prayer; but as members of the Dominican Order they hold study and the persist of truth as an integral part of their life and charism. In Dominican monasteries time is set aside especially for study, and there are several scholarly works which have been written or edited by a Dominican nuns.

Likewise, the Brothers, Contemplative Sisters, and Apostolic Sisters of the Congregation of St. John consider study an important part of their spirituality (they’re the ONLY people I know who regularly use St. Thomas Aquinas' technical works as spiritual reading!). Although they generally don’t earn advanced academic degrees, all of the Brothers and Sisters of St. John take years of in-house philosophy and theology classes as part of their initial formation—so I think someone which a scholarly inclination would likely fit in well with them.

I do think it might be a good thing for the Church if there was a women’s religious community whose charism and primary apostolate focused on academic scholarship. However, I personally don’t have any ambition of founding such a congregation. Pioneering a “new” form of consecrated life is more than enough for one lifetime!

Also, I didn’t become a consecrated virgin because I couldn’t find a suitable community; I knew of several where I thought I could have been quite happy (and that I assume would have been willing to accept me). And although one community that I very seriously considered joining did not really encourage intellectual pursuits, I would have gladly sacrificed my interest in academic theology if I had felt that God wanted me in that congregation.

Instead, I became a consecrated virgin because I felt that God was calling to this vocation in particular. Specifcally, I was drawn to the spirituality inherent in the Rite of Consecration itself; to the solemnity and the spousal emphasis of this form of consecrated life; and to its connection with the early Church. I also sensed a particular call to dedicate my life to prayer for, and service to, my archdiocese. (Where women religious must in a sense “leave” their home diocese in order to join their community, consecrated virgins take on a deep spiritual bond with their local Church, and live their consecrated lives under the direct authority of their bishop.)

Likewise, even though right now I’m planning on and actively preparing for an intellectually-oriented apostolate, my first priority will always be serving the Church. So while I’m certainly glad to be studying academic theology, and while it’s very reasonable to suppose that I’ll eventually have a job that reflects my educational experience, I don’t think I would really be living my vocation fully if I based my career decisions primarily on my own personal fulfillment (no matter how pious a form my sense of fulfillment may take!). Speaking hypothetically, I would be much happier to spend my life teaching CCD to second-graders because my bishop asked me to, than I would be in accepting a prestigious university position across the country solely on my own initiative.

Yet with all this being said, I do think that studying theology is highly appropriate and should be encouraged for consecrated virgins. First of all, who better to take on the important work of theological scholarship and education than those who have married the Incarnate Word? :)

But even for consecrated virgins who aren’t called to academic work, I still believe at theological study on at least some level should have a place in their consecrated lives. Since consecrated virgins are called to a fairly intense life of prayer, theology can be a great help in understanding, and thus in prayerfully contemplating, the Church’s doctrines. And because consecrated virgins are public representatives of the Church who live “in the world,” it’s very important that they be able to explain, correctly and articulately, what it is that the Church teaches.

Also, I think a sufficient grasp of theology can help keep one’s spirituality healthy and “balanced.” I think this is a particularly vital concern for consecrated virgins, since they don’t automatically have in their lives the moderating influences that a religious community provides its members. (As anyone who attends daily Mass can readily observe, eccentricity can sometimes be an occupational hazard of a devote lifestyle, especially for unmarried women)

And if you were going to make an argument from history, it seems that study was a part of lives of the early consecrated virgins. Many Church Fathers, such as Sts. Ambrose and Jerome, directly recommend that consecrated virgins spend their time reading and pondering the sacred Scriptures—which I think is quite remarkable, since women’s literacy wasn’t exactly a high priority in the ancient world. Further, St. Jerome writes several letters to a consecrated virgin where he discusses, as though with an equal, some of his scholarly projects.

So although theological study for its own sake can never be the defining aspect of my vocation, I definitely feel that it’s compatible with, and beneficial to, my consecrated life.

(P.S.: Prayers for you and your daughter!)


E. B. said...

I've been pondering this so much lately. Expect an e-mail soon! Perhaps I'll write it tonight. I have some very good news...

Maria said...

I attended Georgetown Visitation. I am saddened to say that they have fallen away from the Magisterium. The school has now been infiltrated by lay instructors. I would venture to say that the world is unfortunately, too much with, these Visitandines.

Sponsa Christi said...


I know the Georgetown Visitandines personally, and the community IS indeed faithful to the magisterium. Even though they run a high-end girls' prep school, the nuns themselves live very simply. Actually, the difference between the school and the monastery is quite striking.

They do have a large number of lay teachers, but this doesn't automatically make them worldly or "less Catholic." Also, all of nuns who are able ARE involved in the school in at least some way (whether this is through teaching, administration, or supervising extra-curricular activities).

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