Sign of Hope
If you listened to certain Catholic thinkers and apologists, you’d think that the most urgent task facing the Church is to figure out ways to become more “relevant.” Especially when it comes to the youth. We need more “youth masses” with rock bands and hip, joke-cracking priests; more retreats and conferences filled with fun games, good food, and diverting entertainment; more slick websites and marketing materials; less overt religious symbolism, like cassocks on priests, or habits on religious sisters, which are “clerical” and “alienating” for the youth; and, above all, way, way less talk about morality, especially sexual morality.
There are so many things that are wrong with this kind of thinking that it’s hard to know where to begin. But if I were to make one point, it would be simply this: it hasn’t worked. Not even a little bit. Since the 1960s, when this “strategy” (if it can be called that) was launched in a big way, things have gotten worse on just about every possible metric by which we could gauge the health of the Church. We have way fewer Catholics attending weekly Mass, plummeting vocations, plummeting catechetical knowledge, widespread dissent from even the most basic moral teachings, and a huge rise in young people who identify as “nones” – i.e., who adhere to no specific religion.
Video: Courtesy of Donjojohannes/Kathmedia on Youtube
The dismal state of the Church in the U.S. was illustrated recently by the truly discouraging findings of a Pew Research poll. That poll found that fully 69% of self-described Catholics believe during Holy Mass that the bread and wine used for Holy Communion are just “symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” In other words, seven out of ten Catholics do not believe in one of the single most central tenets of the Catholic faith – that during Holy Mass, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ. Ouch.
Now, the proponents of a more “relevant” Church could try to argue that it’s not their strategy that is to blame, but rather the culture. In fact, they might well argue, if the Church hadn’t gotten with the times as it did, the numbers would be way, way worse than they are. After all, it’s not just the Catholic Church that is losing believers; it’s just about everybody.
Well, they could say that. But in order to make that case, they would have to ignore the growing body of evidence that not only are their preferred methods not working, but that pretty much the only signs of health in the Church are found in communities that are doing the exact opposite of everything they recommend – that is, communities that uncompromisingly and unapologetically preach the Church’s hardest and most unpopular moral teachings, and going back to the more formal liturgical practices that we are so often told are a major barrier to growth.
Boom in Traditional Religious Orders
Nowhere is this made clearer than in the case of religious orders. Since the 1960s, the numbers of priests and professed religious (i.e. monks and nuns) has collapsed in the United States. And I mean collapsed. As Catholic News Service reports, since 1965 the number of women religious in the U.S. has fallen by 75% – from 181,000 to just 47,000. Furthermore, and what is worse, many of the remaining 47,000 are rapidly aging, with 77% of women religious being over the age of 70. According to the National Religious Retirement Office, as many as 300 of the current 420 religious institutes in the U.S. “are in their last decades of existence because of aging membership and declining vocations,” as reported by CNS.
However, despite the fact that there doesn’t seem to be much hope that the overall trend of decline will be reversed any time soon, there are some notable exceptions. As Joanna Bogle recently reported in the Catholic Herald, traditional Catholic orders are “booming.” By “traditional” Catholic orders, she doesn’t necessarily mean “traditionalist”. While some of these booming orders do use the Latin or Tridentine Mass, most of these growing orders are conspicuous simply for the fact that their members always wear a habit, live in community, pray the Liturgy of the Hours together, and are committed to promulgating and defending the Church’s doctrinal and moral teachings without compromise. Basic stuff, really.
This is in contrast to the many aging and dying orders, which long ago gave up wearing the habit, whose members often live scattered in private apartments and residences, and who have often committed their time to fighting for trendy feminist or social justice causes that have little to do with the faith…or are even opposed to the faith. While orders like this are rapidly dying, rarely boasting even a single new vocation, the younger orders have become – in the words of one sister who researches religious orders – “the only thing going.”
That is to say, they’re the only orders that are attracting new vocations. Consider the Sisters for Life. According to one fascinating investigative piece in the National Post, the Sisters for Life doubled in size between 2006 and 2016. The average age of women joining the order is just 25. Notably, the Sisters for Life exist primarily to support one of the Church’s most unpopular teachings – its teachings on the sanctity of life, especially of the unborn. Another booming traditional order – the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, Michigan – also doubled in size during the same time period.
But perhaps nothing illustrates this counter-intuitive trend more than the growth being experienced in the U.S. by the Discalced Carmelites – arguably the strictest female religious order in existence. Women who join the Carmelites will spend the entirety of their lives within the confines of the convent, receiving visitors only once or twice per year behind a metal grille, and spending their days in hours of prayer and arduous manual labor. However, despite the fact the life of a Carmelite is perhaps the single most counter-cultural life imaginable, they have experienced a remarkable boost in vocations. For example, the Carmel of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in Elysburg, PA, located in the Diocese of Harrisburg, experienced such growth in vocations that it has warranted the construction of a new convent in Fairfield; it’s being designed to last hundreds of years. This will be the second monastery in the Diocese. Mother Stella-Marie of Jesus, the prioress, attributes the growth to the convent’s decision to re-embrace the traditional Latin Mass in 2000 – in other words, to make their highly non-relevant lifestyle even more non-relevant.
“One of the unique aspects of our monastery is that we do have the extraordinary form of the Mass,” she said. “We also have the traditional Divine Office. We pray the Office in Latin. We have permission also to pray the traditional form of the Carmelite Office, and young women are very much drawn to that.” Indeed, the average age of women seeking entrance to the monastery is between 17 and 24. She added: “[E]ver since then, we’ve had a great increase in vocations, and the spirit of the community has been one of joy and growth in the spiritual life.”
Jordan Peterson and Bishop Barron are Right
So, what explains the boom in traditional orders, compared with the drawn-out death of the old, progressive orders? The full answer would be complex and long. However, I think that Dr. Jordan Peterson and Bishop Robert Barron put their fingers on the heart of the matter in a recent conversation. Dr. Peterson, of course, is arguably the single most famous and influential academic alive right now. But what has always struck anybody observing the Peterson phenomenon is that a large percentage of his audience is young men. And this, despite the fact that Dr. Peterson spends most of his time telling them both how wretched and selfish they are and urging them to start doing the difficult things necessary to put their lives together. One of his mantras, for instance, is that we need to stop talking so much about rights and spend way more time talking about responsibilities.
Now, talking about responsibilities is not a very “relevant” thing to do. Or, at least, that’s what we’re constantly told. Young people don’t want to talk about responsibilities – they want to know what their rights are, and to fight for them. However, Dr. Peterson has proved that, in fact, we have things exactly backwards. As he told Bishop Barron, “You know, I can attract audiences of 5,000 people and tell them that the problem with their lives is that they’re not bearing nearly enough responsibility and that’s where they’re gonna find the meaning that sustains them. It’s a pretty rough message.” Rough it may be, but Dr. Peterson himself isn’t surprised. After decades as a clinical psychologist, he has a huge amount of first-hand experience showing that happiness and self-fulfillment are not to be found in accepting ourselves “as we are,” but rather in the selfless and painful effort to make oneself a better human being – above all a human being who spends his time helping and providing for others.
At one point in their conversation, the pair hit the nail on the head. Bishop Barron had just finished lamenting that the Church, influenced by psychologists like Carl Rogers, has become so afraid of “offending people” or hurting their feelings, that it fails to tell them the truth of their condition (they’re full of sin) and how to fix it (to become holy). Instead of preaching both mercy and justice, “we’ve become just too much of a mercy Church in a way,” said Bishop Barron. “Well, that’s what I think!” responded Peterson. “I don’t think you guys ask enough of your people! You’re not, you’re not giving them hell!”
I think that’s true both literally and figuratively. On the one hand, we’re not telling the faithful that hell exists – which means that we’re not telling them that the choices they make in this life matter. But we’re also not presenting our flock with the noble ideal of holiness – the high state of moral goodness and intimate communion with God that everybody deeply yearns for. We’re not giving them hell in the sense of chastising their sins and demanding more of them. And as it turns out, that’s what people actually want!
There’s a lot more in their conversation worth talking about. Peterson isn’t Catholic and doesn’t get everything right. But somehow, he has seen exactly what so many in the Church are blind to. People don’t want to be told that they’re fine as they are. Most people know they’re not. They know they’re lazy, weak, and selfish, and that too often they’re leaving a path of destruction in their wake. They have a profound yearning for something higher, and better, and nobler. And they want to be shown how to attain it.
This, I believe, is one central reason why the traditional religious orders are growing. These religious orders aren’t “relevant.” And that’s precisely the point. They’re radically counter-cultural. They demand enormous sacrifices. They demand obedience, and poverty, and chastity. And young people are flocking to them because they’re tired of being pandered to. Jesus Christ said, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” Many of the dying orders are dying precisely because they replaced this high ideal with the celebration of mediocrity and trendiness: because they became indistinguishable from the world.
As Bishop Barron put it, we now have a “generation of Catholics that felt like, okay, God is love. I’m okay. Everything will be fine.” The result is that, “there’s no energy. There’s no direction. There’s no sense of purpose. There’s no sense of spiritual struggle.” Thank goodness for the new religious orders that are reversing this trend and giving our young people the spiritual food they need. The whole Church needs to pay attention to and learn from this trend.