Individualism and life in common

V. A concrete case: the religious life (of women) immersed in a liberal society (USA)

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V. A concrete case: the religious life (of women) immersed in a liberal society (USA)

The cultural situation described above has different overtones depending on the historical and cultural context. The United States has a particular expertise in this notion of freedom, from its origins as a nation and throughout its history. There are also many elements of the “American” life style that have infiltrated other cultures and so a bit of a digression is in order. Globalization at present has led to an increase in this phenomenon. For that reason we will analyze the liberal individualism coming from the United States.

To do this we will follow Robert Bellah’s book “Habits of the Heart”, 2 where he proposes, among other things, that the US culture has the markings of a radically liberal society, composed of individuals who are psychologically sophisticated but morally impoverished. The result is “a narcissism of similarity”, where people associate with one another by the formation of life-style enclaves. These enclaves are composed of those who think alike, who share the same desires, the same way of spending their free time, of recreating and of consuming their goods. These enclaves are composed in the end of those who, in virtue of values that they have chosen for themselves, have cast off bonds of ethnicity and traditional religion, and in so doing self-justify their own preferences.

Bellah and his colleagues also propose that in US society, the ever evasive need of self-fulfillment that people feel, has led them to replace relationships of genuine and creative love with short-term “therapeutic relationships” between self-fulfilled individuals. A consequence of this is that obligation, duty and commitment is replaced by a new “virtue”:open and honest communication. Within that everything is negotiable at any time, except the values that the individual has chosen for himself and made objective.

We can also refer to the ego-centric psychology that seems to pervade US culture. In most cultures religion is considered as a primary source for the formation of character and the evolution of social behavior and customs. However it is not so with this kind of psychology, in which the primary reality is the Ego, created by the choices that one makes for oneself. The isolated and self-created individual commits to himself/to the decisions that his Ego defines and which define his Ego. In this climate, the development of the personality and the modification of behavior, replace the formation of character and social custom ordinarily coming from traditional religion. In this climate pre-existent principles for character formation or for regulating behavior or custom are perceived either as non-existent or irrelevant.

When a the ability to fulfill one’s duty, be patient, endure suffering and sacrifice oneself is lacking or deteriorated, ego-centric psychology displaces the responsibility and places the blame for this vacuum on the errors and obsessions of parents, siblings, companions or the environment. Ego-centrism also legitimates and perpetuates certain attitudes reflective of delayed adolescence such as rebellion against routine, rejection of authority and preoccupation with sex. In short, the sociology of US liberal individualism finds its inner justification in ego-centric psychology.

Elizabeth McDonough3, a Dominican sister, in her analysis of women’s religious life in the USA, says that there are great similarities between this analysis of US culture and the “liberal” model presently in vogue in the life of active women religious. As in the wider culture, they have abandoned tradition and see the past as oppressive. Institutes have become “business corporations” and their government “administrative management.” Structures have become participative and superiors are now mostly “managers.” Formation personnel and spiritual directors function more as therapists. Facilitators are experts in formation of consensus and are also catalysts of creative innovation. All the members are being empowered to make decisions, even though not many of the members claim responsibility to make any concrete decisions. Few dare to make decisions. Obedience has to do with finding situations where one can grow and personal fulfillment is the dominant motive for many decisions. Communities have become lifestyle enclaves and are made up of individuals who have similar mindsets and who are together by chance. Each person now is responsible in some way, but few sisters (if any) are called to responsibility for someone or concerning something. Communication is the new cardinal virtue and each one is progressing toward her self-fulfillment..

We do not intend to go any deeper into an analysis of women’s religious life in the USA. It is just interesting to note this evaluation and to be conscious of the influence it could have in other places.

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