In a post about marriage a couple weeks ago, I said that our modern way to look at marriage tends to be in terms of self-fulfillment. This is actually a form of selfishness, which makes it difficult to accept children and nearly impossible to truly love. A very clear portrayal of where that attitude leads showed up recently on the Internet: a woman who divorced a kind and patient husband because she was unsatisfied with her life (I link to the Catholic who comments on the post). Self-fulfillment is a way that leads to death: the death of every relationship around you as you consistently put yourself first in front of friends and family, and ultimately the death of yourself because as your relationships dry up, there is nothing left of your life. Because self-sacrifice for the good of others gives them life, the more authentic our sacrifice is, the more we end up fully living, because we are thriving in the midst of flourishing friends and family.

The shift from self-sacrifice to self-fulfilment also explains the way nuns gradually vanished from the Catholic scene after Vatican II. Catholics have a tendency to blame the Second Vatican Council for the disappearance of nuns, because its desire to update and renew religious life, but without a clear idea of what needed to be changed, opened the door for sisters to swap out the habit for secular clothes, to stop praying, to stop living in community, and to find themselves in social justice advocacy and massage-ministry.

The truth is that the Second Vatican Council is not really to blame for this disappearing act. Just as the Church opened the windows, the “Spirit of ’68″ swept through Western civilization. I recently found a rather dark article commenting on this cultural tsunami. Describing the summer of 1968, the author said, “A second hideous year of hippies with their ‘summer of love’…was just an excuse for selfish, spoiled college kids to get high, fornicate and think they were some how doing a noble thing”. Out-of-control hippies, along with protests and demonstrations, assassinations, riots, and “wars and rumors of wars” made it feel like society was collapsing.

In fact, society was collapsing. A good part of the social structure of every human society (before the present one) is the bulky but necessary walls and dams mantained by our ancestors; moral laws and social conventions designed to keep us and the people around us from doing whatever we feel like doing. There is a darkness that lurks in the human heart, and we are capable of incredible acts of destruction, and people have to be carefully formed to know what is right and prevented from doing what is wrong. This protects all of us from being damaged by the people around us and by our own bad inclinations. The “Spirit of 68″ is exactly the attitude that these moral and social restraints don’t matter, and a person should be free to do whatever feels good. The terrible truth is, sometimes it feels good to do evil.

I am not saying that nuns were running wild, but the same spirit blew through a lot of religious orders, bringing the attitude that the old ways of doing things didn’t matter any more. Why pray if I didn’t get anything out of it? Why not help the poor instead? Why live a hidden life in the cloister when I could be teaching theology to undergrads? Besides, why should all the sisters in the order teach? Maybe I don’t feel called to teach, maybe I want to do something else…

Nuns chose to do whatever seemed like a good idea, adopting the same clothing as lay people so as not to feel different, choosing ministries where they felt like they were making a difference, or giving up community life because it was not a good fit for them. Having the freedom to do what they felt like doing allowed sisters to “follow their heart” and to “be themselves”, and this was supposed to make them happier…because we thought happiness came from self-fufillment. As soon as nuns tried to find themselves they lost their vocation, and many left religious life completely:

The number of religious sisters and cloistered nuns in the United States was almost 180,000 in 1965. In 2009 there are just over 59,000, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. A steady decline in the number of women religious, together with the fact that their median age is 75, is a sign that religious life in the United States is a dying institution. Yet new communities have sprouted up in which women religious don a traditional habit and follow a daily schedule of prayer and service. These communities are attracting youthful, vibrant vocations.

That quote is from a 2009 article written by a sister who wears no habit, whose community is one of the dying ones, but who does not understand why vocations are going to orders with habits because she has found this secularized form of life more fulfilling. Once sisters began thinking in terms of self-fulfillment, their communities lost the capacity to generate life.

Once I begin to focus on getting what I need, I turn my life inward, focusing on myself. Even if my ministry is helping many people, it is ultimately serving MY need to be fulfilled, and so it is not giving to others but it is taking from them. At best it might be a kind of 50/50 exchange. Soon the ministry becomes sterile, and so does the minister. Only when I give so that others can have life do I find life for myself.

This truth is all the more intense in religious life, because it was never the nuns who brought new vocations, who touched the minds and hearts of students, and who transformed the world. Their work made a difference because it was Jesus Christ who worked through them. Sacrificing themselves so that Jesus could be present in the world, they lived from a life-giving relationship with Him, united to His sacrifice for the salvation of the world. Once nuns begin thinking in terms of self-fulfillment, they make the ministry about themselves, and lose contact with Jesus. Only self-sacrifice allows nuns, or priests, or lay people, to draw from the abundant life that flows from the cross. +

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8 Responses to Hippies, self-sacrifice, and disappearing nuns.

  1. jeanette says:

    Hello Father,
    I had wanted to comment on your “Madonna” for Jan 1st last year – but found this post interesting – I had thought it was a comment on the recent series on “Catholics” by the BBC.
    I looked at your equation that nuns had supplanted self-giving for self -fulfillment, thereby loosing the true meaning of religious vocation. I agree. Having attended convent school ran by salesians,even as a young girl I felt disappointed when they swapped their long habits (which conferred a sense of virginal modesty for us girls to aspire to)for “modern” equivalents.
    The word “Love” was bent out of shape in the sixties; its real meaning needs resurrecting. Being married myself with children, I have found that the more self giving spouses become, the happier the marriage. That makes for happy children too.
    Your site wouldn’t let me comment on your post 1st Jan 2011, so can I say here that the statue is a representation of the Glykophilousa icon (Virgin of tenderness, who embraces gently)Its very beautiful, and I hope God willing I might acheive something near to its loveliness in my own work one day.

  2. Katney says:

    This clause: “and people have to be carefully formed to know what is right and prevented from doing what is wrong” spoke volumes to me about the needs of youth and all of us in today’s society. It addresses life, not just in terms of religious vocation, but in terms of anyone living successfully in society. Successfully? Wrong word as it bears too much of the connotation of self fulfillment that negates the joy. Fruitfully? Joyfully. That’s it. Joyfully!! We must strive to help supply and support that formation. It would do a lot to combat the gangs and disillusionment of the world. Something definitely to pray over and seek ways to implement.

  3. Cindy K says:

    I attended Catholic School for 6 years and had nuns there serving as principal and teachers. That was 4o+ yrs ago. It saddens me to see much fewer of them. I attended a Koininia recently where a gal who had served in community had their ordered ended by the bishop. I didn’t understand what happened but she was very distraught about it where it brought her to tears to tell me the story. She would like to join another order but is still healing from the first scenario. I just wondered being uneducated how the structure works how these are regulated.
    Peace be with you always,
    Cindy

    • jeanette says:

      Hello Cindy, as I understand it, orders can be dissolved if there is some irregularity in their rule or practices. Your freind may not have been informed by her superiors of the reasons.
      My children attend a school which (as most now are) is now Catholic in Name only. We need the religious teaching orders back – if only to confirm that stable moral presence young people need in their lives, as it is often lacking these days.

  4. Fr. Benjamin says:

    Cindy, only the Vatican has the authority to end a religious Order (can. 584 of the Code of Canon Law). Often a new community is only recognized as a lay association but given permission to live like a religious Order, wearing a habit and accepting new members, so it can develop on a trial basis in the hope of being approved as a religious Order. The bishop can end this community, but only for serious reasons.

  5. Jude says:

    I couldn’t agree with this article more! I was one of those ‘peace and love hippies’ (without all the marches and protests). Thank God I had enough religious training by nuns when in grammar school and still had nuns in high school. I had a huge conversion in 1990 in Medjugorje and since then, I find life with God great! It’s to be HIS way or no way.

  6. Lee Picton says:

    What a total crock of bull puckey. The Catholic Church has only three missions in this life: control, control, and control. Sisters provided free teaching for thousands of young people, indoctrinating them in the pervsions of Catholic dogma. The church is slowly losing this control and it doesn’t like it one little bit. A life of prayer is a totally useless one, producing nothing. The only way to provide meaning for one’s life is to find it for oneself. I won’t live long enough to see the total demise of religious orders, but I will be here to see them rendered irrelevant. Religion poisons everything.

  7. Fr. Benjamin says:

    Lee, I competely agree that you will not live long enough to see the total demise of religious orders…like the wildflowers, they never seem to completely disappear.

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