Individualism and life in common

IV. The Religious Life Redefined in this Cultural Context

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IV. The Religious Life Redefined in this Cultural Context

The ideals of both Enlightenments can be well summarized in the slogan of the French Revolution: liberty, fraternity, equality. These ideals can also be seen as a reflection of the purpose and the scope of the three vows: (liberty) obedience, (fraternity) chastity and (equality) poverty. In this new cultural context, religious life (RL) realized that it had to redefine itself. In the post-Conciliar process of renewing RL there has been much good but also some things that have not been so good.

1. The first Enlightenment ideal to become part of our religious culture and religious life was the ideal of personal or individual freedom (its hero: Nietzsche). Previously in what we could call “traditional” RL, the very fact of someone really desiring something made his opinion and judgment in the matter suspect. It would be very difficult for him to be objective. However in this new stage, precisely because something was so important and by that fact alone, it had to be left to the free choice of the individual.

In the sixties and beginning of the seventies, society (especially in the US and Canada) and religious life immersed in that society, were invaded by an arbitrary kind of freedom, an exaggeration of the freedom born out of the Enlightenment, The primary concern of religious and seminarians at that time was self-fulfillment and the idea that they could not be self-fulfilled unless they made their own choices in the matter of lifestyle and ministry.

Everything that came before was distrusted and anything smacking of authoritarianism was suspect. (“Don’t trust anyone over 30!”) Superiors had to become coordinators who governed by consensus, people capable of applying principles of subsidiarity and collegiality.

Some critics distinguished between a liberal spirit, admirable for its emphasis on discussion and interchange of ideas and a liberal dogma, pernicious given its exaggeration, not allowing the creation of community on the basis of social values accepted by all.

2. The second Enlightenment ideal used to redefine religious life was fraternity, interpreted as intimacy (its hero: Freud; its favorite book: The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm) Fraternity comes to be seen as the need for intimacy and community. The prevailing conviction is that without sexual-affective relationships (at least at a psychological level) one could not really develop as a person. Efforts made toward a more fraternal and intimate form of community life found a paradigm in the verb “sharing”. “Sharing” was had in celebrations, meetings, ministry etc.

Along with its positive aspects, this period of individualist freedom and fraternity-intimacy-community was also “the period of the divided heart.” Intimacy not found within the community was sought outside (departures, “the third way”). Absorption in oneself, one’s personal plans and affective needs, rejecting traditional practices without replacing them with new communal forms, sapped the energy of the religious community. Shared mission was said to be important but in many cases there was no real desire for unity of mind and vision, at least not one that could real become part of one’s personal life or interfere with it.

3. The third ideal that became part of our religious life as we tried to redefine it, was equality (its hero: Marx). It was the same ideal that allowed for the development of liberation theology and the preferential option for the poor. Analyses of reality and socio-political analysis came to the fore. Apostolates with a long tradition were dropped, such as education and hospitals and people went to work among the poor and oppressed of the third or first world. Soon they became involved in questions of justice within the Church and outside it, in the first and the third world. Within communities many questions were also interpreted in terms of power-equality.
This aspect of redefining our identity, was (is) somehow more seductive, more prone to become an idol, because it is per se deeply rooted in the Gospel (a constitutive part of it) and it calls for great sacrifice. However it also has its dark side. It’s true that it marks an advance in overcoming individualism, but with the individual subject, the Ego, now replaced by the social subject, (the Gattungswesen de Marx), or by one part of society (the poor, the oppressed of the human race) you run the risk of giving primacy to the created not to the creator (the Kingdom without the King). Defining religious life principally in terms of social justice can end up replacing evangelization with the task of forming socialized men and women for evangelization.

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