Sacrificing Religious Life: A Reply to Critics

In my December 31, 2013 Crisis article, Sacrificing Religious Life on the Altar of Egalitarianism, I argued that the decimation of American religious orders is partly self-inflicted.  Vocations directors, counselors, and authors make two mistakes: 1) they treat life in the world and the religious life as if they were equally effective means to growth in holiness, contemplation, and love, and 2) they tell young Catholics to find their vocations by searching their desires. Because religious life includes some tough renunciations, and because young Catholics have been told that life in the world offers equivalent spiritual goods, young Catholics see no reason to desire religious life. Understandably, they desire the option with fewer gratuitous costs. So, guided by the yearning of their hearts, they choose a vocation in the world.  Meanwhile, religious orders shrink and die.

This argument has provoked a number of critics.  I would like to explore some of their objections and offer responses.

The first objection is that I am wrong to claim that religious life is a superior means to Christian perfection.  Religious life is only superior in the sense that it more closely mirrors Christ’s life on earth. But it is no better, and no worse, at making us saints.  This objection seems to wilt when exposed to the light of tradition. Aquinas, representing this tradition, is very clear that religious life is a superior means to holiness—that the evangelical counsels are the perfect “dispositions to perfection” (Summa contra Gentiles 130.3). He says that we need the evangelical counsels in order to destroy the primary roadblocks to charity:

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

As regards the practice of perfection a man is required to remove from himself whatever may hinder his affections from tending wholly to God, for it is in this that the perfection of charity consists. Such hindrances are of three kinds. First, the attachment to external goods, which is removed by the vow of poverty; secondly, the concupiscence of sensible pleasures, chief among which are venereal pleasures, and these are removed by the vow of continence; thirdly, the inordinateness of the human will, and this is removed by the vow of obedience (Secunda Secundae, Q. 186, art. 7).

Religious life also prevents occasions of sin:

It is evident that the observances of the religious state, while removing the obstacles to perfect charity, remove also the occasions of sin: for instance, it is clear that fasting, watching, obedience, and the like withdraw man from sins of gluttony and lust and all other manner of sins (Secunda Secundae, Q. 189, art. 1).

Religious life opens the way to perfect charity, and it throws up a wall to sin.  According to tradition, it is a manifestly superior means to holiness.  It may seem strange to us twenty-first century Catholics, but the monastic fathers, the great ascetics, and the doctors of the Church, like Aquinas, all appear to agree: “the worldly life does not dispose one to religious perfection, but is more an obstacle thereto,” while “the religious state is a spiritual schooling for the attainment of the perfection of charity” (Secunda Secundae, Q. 189, art. 1).

The second objection to my article comes from Br. Gregory Maria Pine, who criticizes me for eliminating desire from the process of discernment.  He claims that we need desire in the process of discernment because desire is a precondition for action, and because the love that moves us to choose religious life is found “in the God-given desires of our hearts.”

I am inclined to agree with Br. Pine that all action requires desire.  We must desire the evangelical counsels in order to choose them.  We desire them, however, not for their own sake, but as means conducive to something greater.  Just as a martyr can desire death as a means to perfecting his love for Christ, so a religious can desire to sacrifice property, marriage, and his will as a means conducive to holiness, contemplation, and love.  If we can obtain a greater good by giving up a lesser good, then we should desire to give up the lesser good.

Although this logic preserves desire as a necessary precondition for choosing the evangelical counsels, it does not support searching one’s desires as a method of vocational discernment.  In fact, it does the opposite.  According to the above logic of desire, if the good obtained by giving up earthly things is greater than the good of keeping them, then we should desire to give up earthly things.  The Church teaches unequivocally that the spiritual good obtained by giving up property, marriage, and one’s will is greater than the good of keeping these earthly things (Council of Trent, Session 24; Vita Consecrata, 32; Summa contra Gentiles, 130.3).  Therefore, we should all have a strong desire to give up property, marriage, and our wills, in order to live the religious life. This spells trouble for any method of discernment that focuses on desire.  If properly ordered desire is the guide to vocational discernment, then it looks like everyone ends up being called to the religious life.  But not everyone is called.  Thus, it seems that desire should not be the deciding factor in vocational discernment.

This leads to a final objection.  Because my article edges out desire-introspection from the process of discernment, it seems that I leave young Catholics without a viable method of discernment.  In response to this objection, I would like to propose—to reintroduce—a very old method for discernment that has been pilloried and subsequently forgotten over past half-century. Here is the method: if you are able to live religious life, then do it.  Christ himself says, about celibacy for the kingdom, “He who is able to receive this, let him receive it” (Matthew 19:12, my emphasis).  Saint Paul writes, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman…. Are you free of a wife? Then do not look for a wife” (1 Corinthians 7).  Aquinas says, “It is certain that entrance into religion is a greater good, and to doubt about this is to disparage Christ Who gave this counsel.” Therefore, “it need not be a matter of deliberation whether one ought to renounce all that one has, or whether by so doing one may be able to attain to perfection” (Secunda Secundae, Q. 189, art. 10).  To paraphrase Aquinas, just do it.  God is your goal, and religious life is the best road to get you there.  If you can live the religious life, it’s the obvious choice.

So where’s the discernment in all of this? Perhaps the real deliberative work of discernment happens, not by considering your desires, but by considering whether you are capable of living the religious life. Capability is not guaranteed: “it happens sometimes that many cannot do this [the evangelical counsels], nor keep other religious observances” (Secunda Secundae, Q. 189, art. 10).  In fact, because religious life stands above the merely natural, no one has a natural capability to live it.  One becomes capable only by grace.  So each young Catholic must discern whether God has granted him the grace to live religious life.  If God has granted him the grace, then he should choose religious life without a second thought.  Perhaps this is true discernment.  Perhaps this is what we should be hearing from our vocations directors.

Editor’s note: The image above entitled “St. Hugo of Grenoble in a Carthusian Refectory” was painted by Francisco de Zurbarán in 1655.


  • Br. Justin Hannegan

    Justin Hannegan is a Benedictine brother at the Abbey of Saint Mary and Saint Louis in Creve Coeur, Missouri. He earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy from the University of Dallas and his Master’s degree in philosophy from Northern Illinois University.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

We must raise $60,000 to fund our work and continue offering the most incisive commentary in the culture wars.

Will you please make a donation today?

Share to...