"A Sure Compass: The Documents of the Council"

The Second Vatican Council
and the
Consecrated Life 

           Lumen gentium and Perfectae caritatis

1.    Introduction

It is in Lumen gentium  and Perfectae caritatis that we find the Council's teaching on religious life. It is placed within the Constitution  which shows the Church 's understanding of its identity in the modern world. Whilst it seeks to return religious life to its roots Lumen gentium  raises other questions that it left unanswered, which in turn required further explanation from Popes Paul VI and John Paul II. For a fuller understanding of the Council, reference needs to be made to these later documents: unfortunately space does not permit exposition here. 

This article has an objective to evaluate Pope John Paul II's claim, namely that the Documents of the Second Vatican Council are a sure compass for the Church, and therefore for the religious life. The aim here is to bring out the value of the Council and to accentuate central teachings in these two Documents.

Prior to Vatican II, religious life in the Catholic Church had under the pressure of canonical legalism succumbed to a certain amount of monastic uniformity. What occurred in Vatican II is in some contrast to the prevailing understanding in generations immediately prior to the Council (though not in the Church tradition as a whole).1 The Council's call for religious life to be more adapted to the modern world requires an understanding of the context of Modernity. The reform it put forward had some rather unfortunate consequences for religious, partly because of the speed at which it was expected to take place. This hastiness can be linked to a lack of correct understanding of Modernity, a subject which I will analyse before proceeding. 

2.    Catholic Modernity: Three Historical Questions 

Historians are still debating how to describe Catholicism in this period. As John O' Malley notes in his survey of the historiography in the early modern period, there is no neutral name for Catholicism. 'Catholic Reformation' suggests that Catholicism was in a process of renewal, and, 'Counter-Reformation' focuses more on the defensive means Catholics took against Protestants during the early modern period, on theological, political and military levels.2  This fact is important in developing our understanding of Catholic Modernity, because analysis is not as clear as it might seem. For most of the nineteenth and twentieth century the serious historical research on the early modern period had been done by Protestants and mainly from their point of view. Catholic theologians of the time tended to react to the Protestant reading of the period, which often depicted Catholicism to be reactionary and repressive. In short, the dominant scholarly reading of Catholicism was equivalent to anti-modernism.  In recent times, some scholars claim that one could detect significant features of Catholicism that were forms of modernisation , such as growth of bureaucratisation, social disciplining, and the spirituality and practices of the Jesuit order.3  Although this modernisation was not an intentional process of the Catholic Church, it contributed to modernisation of the western world in significant ways. Nevertheless, Catholic influence on modernisation has not been taken into account in theories of modernity. 

The second historical issue to consider in a Catholic theory of modernity is that of opening out of the Church to the modern world in the Second Vatican Council 1962-1965. The historical question must be asked here: to what extent does this transformation in the Catholic Church represent a new relationship of Catholicism with modernity? Vatican II's acceptance of a legitimate autonomy for the secular realm is in many ways a position grounded in  Thomas Aquinas' understanding of Aristotle's politics. Nevertheless, in coming to accept the legitimacy of liberal democratic government, human rights and other religious traditions, Vatican II ushered in a new rapprochement with the modern world. 

The third historical question raised by Catholic Modernity is that of charting the origins of its trajectory from Trent to Vatican II and beyond. This is a matter of tracing pathways that provide a coherent account of modernisation as it has been influenced by Catholicism. There are many possible ways to approach this task. In the area of spirituality, for example, it would be interesting to see how the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, was a real impetus to modernisation. Furthermore, the missionary strategies of religious orders in the early modern period also provide a wealth of material for analysing how Catholicism in this period was an agent of modernisation. In tracing the encounter of the individual with the Lord, the Spiritual Exercises effectively created a practice known as a retreat.Retreats had far reaching consequences in the areas of decision-making, social discipline and styles of apostolate. Louis Dupre in his study of the origins of modernity considers the Spiritual Exercises to be a particularly modern synthesis of nature and grace untypical of the Reformation understanding of grace of the time.

These historical questions concerning origins, entry points and pathways of modernisation raise important hermeneutical questions concerning the meaning of the term 'modernity'. As we shall see later in section six of this paper, it does have a bearing on understanding the hasty implementation of the Documents of the Council. Returning to the main topic of this paper on the 'Consecrated Life', we will commence by treating two essential points of the Council's doctrine: first, religious profession constitutes a special consecration; second, the divine origin of religious life is attributed to the inspiration granted to the founders by the Holy Spirit and recognised by the authority of the Church, and so return to the founder's inspiration is a source of true renewal for service in the Church. 

3.    Religious profession and consecration

In Lumen gentium, the Council asserts that the Christian who professes the three evangelical counsels by vows "consecrates himself wholly to God, his supreme love. In a new and special way he makes himself over to God, to serve and honour him" (44a). Despite its theological importance, Jean Beyer S.J. rightfully finds this statement about consecration as overly limiting. It would seem not to be possible to construct a whole doctrine on this basis, because one fact is certain: it is God who has the initiative and it is He who calls the person to the consecrated life. Again, Beyer correctly states: "In actual fact consecration by God is carried out in the call, if it is perceived and received as it should be."The divine initiative calls forth a response that Lumen gentium did not pursue. If God's choice is motivated by love, the response to this choice is a response of love. 

Since consecration is central for a correct understanding of the religious life, I will examine this question in more depth, and by general reference to the Council's documents.  Four texts in Lumen gentium, three in Presbyterorum ordinis, and one each in Perfectae caritatis and in Optatam totius clarify that God is the agent of consecration, who transmits gifts and graces. This allows us to speak about 'the effect of consecration' and the purpose for which God gives these graces. Moreover, the Second Vatican Council often links 'consecration' and 'mission', as is evident in Ad Gentes 38: "[...] all bishops are consecrated not just for one diocese, but for the salvation of the entire world". We also have the text Lumen gentium 44, which regards the religious as one who obliges himself to observe the three evangelical counsels for the sake of sanctification and mission. 

Baptism is the fertile soil from which the vivifying sap of 'religious' consecration must arise. 
The consecration made by religious involves the person placing himself into God's hands on entering his service. But the text of Lumen gentium goes further in explaining 'the service of the Church'. As an act of a member of the Body of Christ, religious profession is consequently of a salvific order, and under the influence of the Holy Spirit. The consecratory action of the Holy Spirit is perhaps only suggested, but no room for serious doubt is left. The professed are instruments of the Holy Spirit and their profession is the instrument of their non-sacramental consecration. 

Chapter VI of Lumen gentium, presented the three evangelical counsels as a kind of lived anamnesis of the virginal and poor life that Christ chose for himself and his mother (46 b). The vows must also be seen as a unified attitude like that of Jesus in His single love for the Father lived out in dependence on, and in full obedience to the will of the One who sent Him. This filial aspect is suggested by Lumen gentium (44c, 45b), although the document did not develop it. 
In what way do the counsels make up consecration? And why do we speak of consecration by the counsels? 

Consecration by the counsels: return to the Christian sources of vowed living

Perfectae caritatis first directs religious to the New Testament and the light it throws on the positive meaning of vowed living, when it tells us that the "fundamental norm" and the "supreme law" of every religious order or congregation always remains "the following of Christ as proposed by the Gospel" ( 2a). It is a foundational grace given to those whom God chooses: to leave behind what most roots a human being in life - family and possessions - and, following Jesus in consecrated celibacy, to live with Him in obedience to the Father and the Spirit until death. The relationship of friendship with and a love of Jesus that strives to give Him first place, are clearly central, and through several years of prayer, one can begin to discover some of the deeper implications not only of the vows but also this relationship with Him. Such friendship entails putting on His mind, learning to see the world with His eyes. Moreover, in the teachings of Jesus - as they are preserved in the New Testament - one can discover a coherent moral vision. He spoke little about poverty, but long about the willingness to share one's bread, one's material possessions, with others, especially with those in need. Such sharing should express trust in the Father's providential care of each of His children. It should initiate the gratuity with which He sends the good things of this life to saint and sinner alike. Christian sharing should reach across social barriers. It should welcome the sinner and the outcast. One can begin to think of the vow of poverty as a particular strategy for bringing into existence such communities of faith. 

Consecration by the counsels can be understood then, as a deep participation in Jesus' unswerving fidelity to the mission given Him by the Father.   
Religious consecration is grounded on baptism, and accomplished in the Eucharist. Lumen gentium refers to this union with the sacrifice of Christ without any explanation (45 c).
Perfectae caritatis expresses an even weaker link between the consecrated life and the Eucharist (6b). But  the 1983 Code is more explicit: 

Religious life, as a consecration of the whole person, manifests in the Church the marvellous marriage established by God as a sign of the world to come. Religious thus consummate a full gift of themselves as a sacrifice offered to God, so that their whole existence becomes a continuous worship of God in charity (Canon 607, #1). 

From Baptism and the Eucharist flow the ecclesial nature of any consecrated life.7 

4.    The divine origin and identity of Religious Orders is located in the inspiration of the founders

The kernel of the Council's teaching is explicit: each religious order or congregation finds its Spirit-filled origin through the founder. The founder provides the distinctive spirit and purpose for the institute on mission in the Church. This teaching governs the doctrinal principles, that are to direct the renewal of religious life found both in Lumen gentium (VI) and Perfectae caritas, (1,2,3). 

The founding-time represents one pole. The institute's sense of apostolic purpose and corporate spirit today constitutes the other pole. An institute is to pursue, through every apostolate undertaken, practical dedication to the spirit and aims of the founder: this is an essential requirement and commitment for all the members. The central theological insight is that the specific identity of a religious congregation is constituted as the founder remembered Jesus as lived anamnesis expressed in values and specific commitments, given in response to needs in his society (Lumen gentium 44b). 

God's design for each institute is that it constitutes its own identity, or its corporate vocation for the sanctification of the members and for mission; this inner dynamism is integrally connected to the spirit of the founder. Each member of a religious order or congregation has his own personal vocation. Before the Second Vatican Council this alone was considered the basis of religious life. The Council, however, understood renewal as a "continual return to the individual spirit of each institute, and simultaneously adaptation to the changing circumstances of our time" (Perfectae caritatis 2). This means that each congregation is to have the same spirit and focus today as in the founding-time. Within this corporate vocation and spirit each member is to responsibly live his own personal vocation of chastity, poverty and obedience. This is not meant as some form of autonomy that places the religious beyond the framework of the institute. Rather, it is within its corporate vocation that the religious embraces "poverty", thereby as one "who more closely follows and more clearly demonstrates the Saviour's self-giving" (Lumen gentium 42). It is in the pursuit of the purpose or mission of the institute that religious "subject their own will to another person on God's behalf [...] likening themselves more thoroughly to Christ and his obedience" (Lumen gentium 42).  

In the Menzingen Institute of the founding-time we witness this teaching. The members lived the vows in ways that served holiness of life and they furthered the mission of the Church. The poverty lived by the sisters was to a large extent the consequence of their commitment to the formation and education of the young.  During the founding time obedience consisted mainly in acceptance of the life of being a pilgrim for the sake of the mission. It required flexibility on the part of the leadership of the institute, availability (transfers) on the part of the sisters in their service of evangelisation through education. This spirituality required the attainment of a delicate balance, between not nesting or settling down and at the same time remaining free to give oneself fully in each local school and parish, between being in the world and not being of the world. This balance had to be always newly sought after. 

If each institute has its own identity, life and purpose through its specific founding inspiration, it must express this as spirit, mission and structure, which constitute elements of any ecclesial community (Lumen gentium  8a).  However, the founding inspiration is not to be limited to the spirit of an institute, but the structures express its spirit. 
5.    Lumen gentium and Perfectae caritatis: "A sure compass" for consecrated life? 

I would like at this point to refer to the metaphor of the compass as applied to the documents of the Council. 'A compass is an instrument for finding direction, having a magnetized needle which points to magnetic north.'8  It points us in a direction, but it does not tell us about the snares on the way. Nor does a compass tell us how to make the journey.  It does not advise on how to pace ourselves, so that we will safely reach our true destination. From a theological point of view- a posteriori - if it is true that Vatican II is a 'compass' for the future of the Church (as it is claimed in the spiritual testimony of Pope John Paul II), then we need to ask what effect have the documents had?  What value do they still have for us today?

It is arguable that Lumen gentium and Perfectae caritatis provide adequate direction for renewal of the consecrated life. However, it may be wondered whether Pope Paul VI's directive for their implementation, requiring the convocation of a special renewal chapter within three years was too much too soon for the religious orders and congregations. With the hindsight of fifty years that have passed since this directive, this is now a legitimate question. The high-speed response seems to be a fault-line running through the implementation of Vatican II in general. Perhaps because the time for Vatican II was over-due, for sociological reasons and for other reasons, there was a sense that reform was urgent. The subject analysed in section two of this paper played a role here, namely, misunderstandings on the part of historians concerning the significant contributions already made to modernity by the Catholic Church. 

Pope Paul VI's Motu proprio, Ecclesia Sanctae was issued in 1966, one year after Perfectae caritatis. With this, the reform of the consecrated life began as an act of authority, but the consultation of all the members of an institute, required by these guidelines for renewal, would seem to be a mistake. A fair number of misjudgements followed, especially in the evaluation of the results of such consultation, and under the direction of "certain sociologists and psychologists who were acting as their technical advisers in this delicate process."9 Such free consultation organised on such a vast scale and embracing a wide range of subjects introduced a democratizing sense. This is not what was intended; but once walls were breached, the whole edifice was threatened. Once it happened, the democratizing  process would, in some institutes, become an end in itself, initially as a means of educating religious in more participative forms of decision-making. Furthermore, research shows that at subsequent chapters and meetings, institutes began to reflect on their type of authority and governmental structures on the basis of 'outside' ideas that were circulating in the air around them and not primarily in the perspectives of their own specific identity and vocation.10   Faith in the transcendent origins of the religious life seemed to lose clear focus. While not automatically implying cause and effect here, I give some indicators. 

Their history and tradition contained little that prepared religious for this Vatican II challenge. The rule or constitutions, regulating the life, and presented to them at their profession, had been material for personal prayer and reflection, and the basic reference point for all decision-making, that is, having the status of a quasi sacred text. With Vatican II, they were required to re-write this document, in the form of new constitutions. James Sweeny C.P. notes correctly: "The psychological effect of this, begun by an extraordinary general chapter of renewal, was that it made a break with a lived tradition." Yet, it was the Holy See which required that a new text be drawn up to accommodate the theology of Vatican II (Ecclesiae Sanctae, nn. 12-14).11   

Moreover, a pre-conciliar lack of formation in theological, scriptural and doctrinal matters in many women's religious institutes12 meant that the whole dynamic of Vatican II reform could   soon get out of control. The fruits of renewal were being sought at breakneck speed, under pressure from grassroots ferment in favour of change, and even while the constitutions were being re-formulated at a general chapter.13  Practical decisions were being made without adequate theological basis. For instance, research into Apostolic -Activities of institutes show that at their special renewal chapters many had adopted a new but wise approach, "always remaining faithful to the traditional mission as defined in the previous constitutions", yet many others had systematically abandoned the tasks proper to the character and purpose of their institute, so that the range of the ministries of the members was imprudently broadened. In this group of institutes, research also shows that it was not possible to correct these mistaken orientations at intermediate chapters, and "in some cases they were in fact confirmed and reinforced."14  Lack of clear profile or identity ensued.

 The quest of some religious to be more like people in society was being tested. Such developments were hard to evaluate in the 1960s and 1970s, because Vatican II also required religious to re-express the founding inspiration according to the needs of the times, with the aim of up-dating  religious institutes.  Implicitly this signalled a re-evaluation of the religious life-forms, because a subtle shift in world-order had already become perceptible by the mid 1960s. The old was departing and something new was clearly beginning.15  Moreover, this shift in self understanding of society would prove to be uncommonly deep, powerful and universal, as even an outline of developments of the remaining decades of the twentieth century would show.

Religious life: A human institution of divine origin

Each authentic religious institute, present in the Church throughout the centuries, is a work of God and has its source in the Spirit. This Perfectae caritas makes clear. It is part of the mystery of God's salvation into which baptism has drawn the religious, and because of a further call from God he leaves all to exploit this intimacy and to continue the mission of Jesus (P.C.5). Nevertheless, fifty years later, belief in the religious life as an incarnate spiritual reality seems to have gone down the ladder. The horizontal dynamic has come to the fore during the Vatican II reception history, involving a loss of faith in the transcendent. Yet, a religious order or congregation is a transcendent living form. If we take it apart, we have either a corpse or a monster. The latter has life, but it can be very dangerous!

6.    Conclusion

We have seen that the Council opened up debate on the consecrated life that is not yet ended, setting in motion a theological renewal, the full impact of which we do not yet realise. To return to the primitive inspiration of the founders encourages a true renewal, to an inspiration given by the Spirit for the mission of the Church. An analysis of the nature and value of consecration highlights the divine vocation. The vows are lived for the sanctification of the members and for the mission of the Church. Christ is given a central place. The charisms of the founders lead to more faithful imitation of his mission, mystery, and his consecration provides the basis for that of those who consecrate themselves to Him in order to consecrate themselves to the Father through the action of the Spirit.  

Sr M. Finbarr Coffey


1Perfectae caritatis, 2. 
2See John O' Malley, Trent And All That. Renaming Catholicism in the Early Modern Era, (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 3, 126-134.

3See Wolfgang Reinhard, 1977, pp. 231, 240. Here Reinard is drawing on an earlier work produced by the English historian H.O. Evennett in his The Spirit of the Counter Reformation (Cambridge, CUP, 1951), pp. 3, 20). 

4See John W. O' Malley, The First Jesuits, (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1994, pp.46-47). 

5See Louis Dupre, Passage to Modernity. An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1993), pp. 224-226

6Beyer, "Life Consecrated by the Evangelical Counsels", in: Volume Three Vatican II Assessment and Perspectives Twenty-five Years After (1962-1987), Rene Latourelle (Ed.), Paulist Press / New York/ Mahwah, 1989, footnote 26, p. 82

7I am grateful to Antonio Queralt, S. J. and Jean Beyer S.J. for pointing out the need to emphasise the forgoing points in: "Religious Consecration according to Vatican II", pp. 31-48, and, "Life consecrated by the Evangelical Counsels", pp. 64-83

8Collins Concise English Dictionary (Third Edition, Harper Collins Publisher, 1992)

9Dortel-Claudot, S.J., Michael, "Revising the Constitutions of the Institutes", in: Volume Three Vatican II Assessment and Perspectives Twenty-five Years After (1962-1987), p. 96

10Dortel-Claudot, "Revising the Constitutions of the Institutes", p.102

11Sweeney, James, The New Religious Order: The Passionists and the Option for the Poor, ( Bellow Publishing, London, 1994), p. 76

12Foley, Nadine OP, (ed.), Journey in Faith and Fidelity, Women Shaping religious life for a Renewed Church, ( Continuum, New York, 1999), pp. 19-24

13Sweeney, James, The New Religious Order, pp. 76-78

14Dortel-Claudot, S.J., Michael, "Revising the Constitutions of the Institutes",pp.99-100

15Hanvey, James, "Refounding Living in the middle time", in The Way Supplement, p. 30