Book notes: Religious life book shows today’s tensions are not new

Book notes: Religious life book shows today’s tensions are not new

By Sr. Mary Charlotte Chandler R.S.C.J.

What is very clear from the highly footnoted pages of Religious Life and Priesthood (2008, Paulist Press) by Sister Maryanne Confoy, RSC, is that the tensions experienced in the church today were present throughout the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II was not simply an event in church history but a microcosm of the church universal grappling with the essentials of its life, not in concerted harmony but in ongoing debate. Each document went through multiple drafts, and the final texts reflect difficult compromises.

Sister Maryanne Confoy, RSC is a Sister of Charity of Australia and a professor of pastoral theology at the Jesuit Theological College and the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne, Australia. She is director of the Kilbride Spirituality Centre.

Her book is a study of three documents from the Second Vatican Council on priesthood and religious life—Perfectae Caritatis (On the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life), Optatam Totius (On the Ministry and Life of Priests) and Presbyterorum Ordinis (On the Training of Priests). The book:

• walks the reader through each document’s development at the Council, draft by draft,

• highlights the main points,

• chronicles its implementation in the life of the church from the close of the Council until the current day, including additional documents promulgated by the church on the topic, and

• explores “the state of the question” today, that is, the directions the church appears to be heading, or should be heading in Confoy’s opinion.

The actual documents are not included in the book. The reader is referred to copies of them on the Vatican Web site.

When this series is completed, there will be eight volumes covering the documents of Vatican II. Confoy’s book is a resource for those who have heard about the Council but actually have little knowledge of it, as well as for those wish to understand the present conversations on priesthood and religious life in the context of the last 50 years. Those serving in vocation ministry may be in one or both categories.

The church controversies that vocation ministers encounter today were fully present during the Council. Some of that story is communicated in the title changes that occurred in new drafts of the documents. The schema on priesthood was successively titled On Clerics (clericis), On Priests (sacerdos), On the Life and Ministry of Priests (sacerdotium) and finally On the Ministry and Life of Priests (presbyterorum).

How the section on celibacy in this same document was shaped and formed is an example of the diversity of perspectives present at the Council. A section on celibacy had been omitted in an early schema partially in sensitivity to the fact that the document was for both the Eastern and Western churches, but it was added in additional drafts. There were those bishops who wanted a reaffirmation of celibacy’s primary importance to priesthood and another group of bishops who wanted clarification that there was no incompatibility between priesthood and marriage. A number of Latin American bishops supported a married clergy. At one point rumors circulated about the possible relaxation of the law of celibacy. These were picked up by the media. The debate was brought to a halt when Pope Paul VI wrote a letter to the Council requiring that any further discussion on the topic be halted. The final document affirms that celibacy is a gift received by the church and a requirement of candidates for priestly ordination in the Latin Rite.

The history of Perfectae Caritatis begins before the Council. During Pius XII’s papacy there were numerous recommendations to religious for updating— including the necessity of adapting to the present times—secular institutes were formally recognized, and the World Congresses for the Lay Apostolate were convened in Rome in 1951 and 1957. The first draft of the Vatican II schema on religious life, according to Confoy, is a compendium of the state of the questions about religious life in the pre-conciliar period.

Part of the complexity in the development of this schema, which went through many and massive revisions, was that at the Council religious life was the responsibility of two commissions, the commission for religious and the doctrinal commission, and they differed in their understanding of religious life. There was great tension in the discussions on the chapter on religious life in Lumen Gentium, which influenced the discussion of this document.

The schema on the training of priests went through six drafts. Some of the issues debated concerned the proportion of pastoral work and studies during seminary years, the importance of St. Thomas, and formation based on a diocesan (not monastic) spirituality.

This book is not a casual read. Great attentiveness is required to keep up with the various bishops being quoted, the multiple changes being made to each draft of the document, and the spectrum of perspectives being presented on topics central to each document. But one does come away with an appreciation of the variety of perspectives present at the Council and to what degree each document is a compromise. It is also clear that many of the debates that took place during commission meetings, sessions of the Council or private gatherings continue today but perhaps without the forum for various sides to be heard.


Sister Mary Charlotte Chandler, RSCJ is the former director of the Center for the Study of Religious Life (CSRL). In August 2009 she begins a three-year term on the U.S. provincial team of the Religious of the Sacred Heart. Prior to her work at CSRL, she was a research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.


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