Sacrificing Religious Life on the Altar of Egalitarianism

Young Catholics are spurning religious life.  According to the Official Catholic Directory, there were only 1,853 seminarians studying for American religious orders in 2011.  That’s less than half the number of religious seminarians that were studying in 1980 (4,674), and less than one tenth the number that were studying in 1965 (22,230), according to Kenneth Jones’ Index of Leading Catholic Indicators.  Even the most successful religious orders are suffering.  The U.S. Dominicans boast of increased vocations, but today they have only about 100 student brothers (compared to 343 in 1965).  Dominican vocations may have increased in the past few years—likely as a result of perceived orthodoxy, strong community life, and aggressive promotional efforts—but they are still anemic.  Orders like the Dominicans look successful only because everyone else has hit rock bottom.

According to Jones’ figures, the Passionists went from having 574 seminarians in 1965, to 5 in 2000.  The Vincentians went from 700 to 18.  The Oblates of Mary Immaculate went from 914 to 13.  The Redemptorists went from 1,128 to 24.  The same story holds for the Jesuits, OFM, Christian Brothers, Benedictines, Maryknoll Fathers, Holy Cross Fathers, Augustinians, and Carmelites.  American religious vocations have been decimated, and they remain decimated today.  Religious life in America, therefore, continues its precipitous decline: according to the USCCB, compared to the 214,932 American religious in 1965, there were only 102,326 religious in 2000; 84,918 in 2006; 80,137 in 2008; and now 69,405 in 2013.  Of the 69,405 religious who remain today the average age is close to seventy years old.

What happened to religious vocations?  Some commentators blame heterodoxy within American orders.  Others blame our glitzy, debauched culture.  Still others blame a prevailing spiritual malaise amongst Catholics.  But there is another cause for the vocations crisis that commentators fail to recognize: vocations directors, counselors, and authors, despite their best intentions, systematically undermine religious vocations.

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Suppose that you are considering religious life.  Today’s vocations counselors will advise you to search your heart for a desire to live religious life; and they will tell you that if you don’t find this desire you are probably not called.  For example, James Martin, S.J., prominent Catholic author and editor of America, writes in an article for the VISION Vocations Network, “God awakens our vocations primarily through our desires.”  He claims, “Henri Nouwen became a priest because he desired it,” and “Thérèse of Lisieux entered the convent because she desired it.”  Fr. Martin Pable, author of the widely recommended guide to religious discernment, A Religious Vocation: Is It for Me?, also focuses on desire.  He says that we are called to religious life by a “natural desire or attraction toward
the life.”  If we are “repulsed or just not attracted” by religious life, that’s “a sign we are not being called.”  Vocations directors across the country refer young Catholics to authors like Martin and Pable.  They also echo Martin and Pable’s discernment advice.  Sister Colleen Therese Smith, vocation director of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, says that when it comes to your vocation “your own deepest desires do in fact reflect God’s deepest desires for you.”  The Mid-America Cupuchins’ vocation team says that the first sign of a religious vocation “can be phrased by the question, ‘Do I have a desire for the life?’”  Sister Margie Lavonis, vocations counselor for the Sisters of the Holy Cross, says, “One of the best ways to discover what God asks of you is for you to listen to the deepest desire of your heart.”  Other examples abound.  The prevailing opinion amongst those who talk and write about discernment is that God calls men and women to religious life by placing an innate desire for religious life in their hearts.  If you have no such desire, it is unlikely that you are called.

This advice, although it looks harmless on the surface, ends up thwarting religious vocations.  Men and women who prayerfully examine their desires almost never find a strong desire for religious life lodged in the depths of their hearts.  Religious life, in itself, is not a desirable good.  Religious life is a renunciation.  It is a kind of death.  It involves turning one’s back on what is humanly good and desirable.  Consider the life of a Trappist.  A Trappist monk deprives himself of sleep, deprives himself of food, gives up a wife and children, puts aside the joys of conversation, gives up his personal property, rises at 4:00 in the morning every day to chant interminable psalms in a cold church, loses the opportunity to travel, and even relinquishes his own will.  The thought of being a Trappist is not an appealing thought.  It instills a kind of dread—the sort of dread that we feel when we contemplate a skull, or when we stand over a precipice, or when we look across a barren landscape.  All forms of religious life have this repulsive effect.  All forms of religious life, at their very core, consist of three vows—poverty, chastity, and obedience—and each of these vows is repulsive.  The vow of poverty means giving up money and property; the vow of chastity means giving up a spouse and children; and the vow of obedience means giving up one’s own will.  No one has an innate desire to sever himself from property, family, and his own will.  No one has an innate desire to uproot three of life’s greatest goods.  Such a desire would be mere perversion.

Everyone, however, has an innate desire to get married.  Religious life is a renunciation, but marriage is a positive good.  So, if we ask people to decide between religious life and marriage on the basis of their desires, they are going to choose marriage every time.  And that’s what’s happening.  Vocations directors tell their advisees to prayerfully search their desires in order to find their vocation.  The advisees search, and what do they find?  An aversion to religious life and a desire for marriage.  So they choose marriage.  Meanwhile, religious orders shrink and die.

If we want to revitalize religious life, we need to rethink our methodology.  We need to stop telling people to look within their hearts for an innate desire for religious life.  They have no such desire.  Instead of asking people whether they desire religious life, we should ask them whether they desire salvation—whether they desire to become saints.  If sanctity is the goal, then religious life and all its harrowing renunciations begin to make sense.  Although religious life is the hardest, most fearsome way to live, it is also the most spiritually secure, most fruitful, and most meritorious.  Saint Bernard of Clairvaux tells us that because they renounce property, family, and their own wills, religious “live more purely, they fall more rarely, they rise more speedily, they are aided more powerfully, they live more peacefully, they die more securely, and they are rewarded more abundantly.”  According to Saint Athanasius, “if a man embraces the holy and unearthly way, even though as compared with [married life] it be rugged and hard to accomplish, nonetheless it has the more wonderful gifts: for it grows the perfect fruit, namely a hundredfold.”  Theresa of Avila even tells us that she became a nun, against her own desires, because she “saw that the religious state was the best and safest.”  Religious life is daunting, it is tough, and it requires us to give up many good things.  But, according to the Church and her great saints, it is the surest road to holiness.  And that is why we choose it.  The only way to increase vocations is to tell young Catholics the truth about religious life.  Religious life is the most effective means to sanctity—more effective than marriage, and more effective than any other calling.

Vocations directors, however, are unwilling to talk about religious life as the most effective means to sanctity.  One reason for this unwillingness is their fear of contradicting the Second Vatican Council’s universal call to holiness.  According to Lumen Gentium: “All Christians in any state of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love.”  This message is both true and good.  But many Catholics take the message a step farther than it was intended to go.  They infer that because all people are called to become saints all vocations must be equally effective means to sanctity.  This is a great error.  The view that marriage and religious life are equal paths to holiness is contrary to the writings of saints like Bernard, Athanasius, and Theresa, but it is also condemned by the Council of Trent and contradicted by John Paul II in Vita ConsecrataSession XXIV of the Council of Trent declared: anyone who denies that it is “better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony; let him be anathema.”  Pope John Paul II reaffirmed this teaching in Vita Consecrata: “it is to be recognized that the consecrated life… has an objective superiority.”

Today’s ubiquitous assumption that marriage and religious life are equal paths to holiness is not merely bad doctrine.  It is also a deathblow for religious life.  Once you accept that religious life and lay married life are equally effective means to sanctity, you undercut the only compelling motivation for becoming a religious.  If lay married life provides an equally effective means to sanctity, plus the goods of pleasure, family, property, one’s own will, etc., then it is irrational to choose religious life.  Choosing religious life over marriage would mean punishing yourself for no good reason.  It would mean turning your back on—showing contempt for—the goods of God’s creation while gaining nothing from your sacrifice.  If lay married life gets you to sanctity just as easily and reliably as religious life, then all that religious life amounts to is a kind of masochism.  In the words of University of Washington sociologist Rodney Stark, “what does a woman gain in return for her vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience, if she… acquires no special holiness thereby, while spending her working hours side-by-side with married women who now are officially seen as her equal in terms of virtue, but who are free from her obligations?

Well, therein lies the problem.  In order to protect an imagined equality between vocations, today’s vocations directors and counselors are selling masochism under the label ‘religious life.’  No wonder there are so few takers.  Even secular sociologists—after closely examining the data—recognize this as the primary cause for the vocations implosion.  Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, in their joint paper, “Catholic Religious Vocations: Decline and Revival,” claim “the data are conclusive that the collapse of Catholic [religious] vocations was self-imposed, not merely incidental to the process of modernity.”  The decline in religious vocations “was in response to a cost/benefit ratio that had suddenly gone from positive to negative.” “[T]he doctrine denying that special holiness attached to religious vocations transformed the remaining sacrifices of the religious life into gratuitous costs.”  In light of these costs, and “in the absence of the primary rewards of the religious life, few potential recruits found it any longer an attractive choice.”  Young Catholics have been offered masochism under the label ‘religious life,’ and they have wisely rejected it.

If we want to revive religious vocations, then we have only one option.  We must tell the uncomfortable truth.  Religious life is the most effective, reliable means to sanctity and salvation—more effective than marriage, and more effective than any other calling.  This is a tough, unpopular message.  But if we refuse to speak this message, religious life will continue its inevitable decline.  If we refuse to speak this message, then we have chosen to sacrifice religious life on the altar of egalitarianism.

Editor’s note: The photo above, dated June 29, 1951, depicts Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber blessing Joseph Ratzinger during his ordination to the priesthood in the cathedral at Freising in southern Germany.

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  • 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.

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