Sandra Schneiders’ new book on religious life in the Catholic community is a veritable buffet feast of data, reflection, analysis and opinion; there is plenty here to make many people uncomfortable and some probably irritated. But there is even more that will give hope to manyboth inside and outside of religious communitiesand much that will direct conversations about the topic in challenging and rewarding new directions.
The metaphor of the buffet feast could be misleading; it was meant to imply the riches offered, but should not be construed to suggest a haphazard presentation. In fact, the very opposite is true. It is the sheer architectonics of the volume (the first of a projected two-volume work) that immediately captures the attention. The language and method of its overall design are taken from the scholarship of social analysis. Schneiders, who teaches at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., speaks of locating the phenomenon of religious life, of situating the life in relation to a variety of realities. It is within this framework that she raises the questions and issues one traditionally associates with discussions of religious life: the vows, relationship to the institutional church, consecrated celibacy and apostolic mission. Also within this framework are to be found the practicaland thornyquestions of membership (how many and who) as well as of economic viability. As you read, therefore, you get a growing understanding of the essential interconnectedness of all the many issues confronting contemporary religious life, of the unified reality that is religious life.
The present volume is divided into two parts. Part One, the first third of the book, locates religious life in its human context. Here Schneiders discusses the larger human phenomenon of those in many religions who devote themselves to full-time living of the characteristic spirituality of the religion and to that which distinguishes the Christian manifestation of this monastic vocation. She then discusses religious life as an organic life form and the aggregate of questions that have come to be identified as the membership issue. These are questions of boundaries and self-identification. The question of who is in the community and who is not, critical to a communal sense of identity, is also problematic in a world that seeks to eliminate those boundaries that divide and wound. Finally, she discusses the permanent commitment of religious life in relationship to the fragmented postmodern world in which it now finds itself, pointing to the countercultural character of the very notion of permanent commitment.
In Part Two, Schneiders locates religious life in its ecclesial context. In this trajectory, she first considers the theological meaning of a life of consecrated celibacy, which she considers the foundation of all that is specific to Christian religious life. Then she provides a theological interpretation of the struggles for renewal that have marked all forms of Catholic religious life since the Second Vatican Council, following the pattern of John of the Cross’s dark night of spiritual purification. This analogy allows Schneiders to account for the paradox of present experience: religious communities show all the sociological signs of a declining institution, but they do not, as a whole, exhibit the attitudes and actions of those who watch the dying of their way of life.
This analysis, with its explicit possibility of a genuine spiritual transformation for religious life, leads into four chapters that consider actions and visions for shaping the future. The first two of these chapters consider religious communities vis-à-vis the hierarchical church and postconciliar ecclesiology. Here are to be found discussions of the canonical status (what is gained and lost by holding onto it), the importance of consecrated celibacy in a church where power...is distributed sexually and the ways in which the issue of women’s ordination both sharpens these questions and further complicates them. In the last two chapters of Part Two, linked together under the notion of charism, Schneiders analyzes, first, the distinct form of religious life that is simultaneously ministerial without being ordained and Religious without being cloistered. Finally, she brings together all that has gone before in order to locate the prophetic vocation of religious life in the intersection where God, people...and culture meet and interact. Without a doubt, this is an uncomfortable place in which to live and work, as Schneiders freely acknowledges, a place to which one can be invited only by divine call, where the discomfort remains a perennial goad to plunge more deeply into the mystery of love.
I began by marveling over the architectonics of this book and the impressive scope and variety of its discussions. And that is the basis of my only caveat. In an effort to keep the framework consistently in view, Schneiders must regularly summarize what has been said and lay out the next section of the whole. This is necessary so that the discrete elements of the whole work may be properly understood, but it also gives the reading a somewhat labored quality. The consistent return to the design of the work also dissipates some of the passion. The academy requires such academic distance, but the church itself, being much too bereft of passion, needs the work of theologians to keep the fires burning.
Nonetheless this book well repays the effort it requires. Religious life is critical to the life of the church; the questions Schneiders raises are of vital importance, not only to the religious themselves, but to all who identify themselves as Catholic Christians.