A Comment on Vatican II’s Perfectae Caritatis and Its Aftermath

Elegy, by Karol Tichy (c. 1900).

Elegy, by Karol Tichy (c. 1900).

It has been 50 years since the close of Vatican II, and certainly the Church has found great hope for the future in the Spirit-guided accomplishments of that great ecumenical Council. The Church has experienced authentic renewal in her liturgy which has become much more participatory and understandable for the faithful. Great strides have been made to bridge the hostility and gap between the Church and non-Catholic denominations which have existed from the time of the Reformation. And, there has been a reconnection between the early Church and the Church of today, with a revival of ancient traditions, such as that of the catechumenate, and an understanding of divine revelation with its roots in a living oral Tradition upon which the inspired word of God was articulated in the Gospels, and other writings of the New Testament.

Since Vatican II, though, the Church has experienced a relative decline in Mass attendance and the celebration of the sacraments by the faithful, as well as an overall diminishment of catechetical training that once impressed on young minds the importance of the faith. Perhaps, a greater loss since the Council has been the overall reduction in the number of Catholic elementary and secondary schools caused, in part, by increases in tuition; this monetary factor itself has been fueled by the need for lay teachers. Lay teachers had to replace the religious orders that once ran a thriving educational system at the parish level. Considering this, one might legitimately ask if Vatican II failed in some way to anticipate the latter half of the 20th century, and its decline of religious institutions. This article proposes to provide a preliminary investigation of the conciliar document that was intended to renew religious orders, namely, Perfectae Caritatis, the Up-to-Date Renewal of Religious Institutions.1

Perfectae Caritatis
In his post-conciliar instruction of August 6, 1966,Norms for Implementing the Decree: On the Up-to-Date Renewal of Religious Life, Ecclesiae Sanctae II,” Pope Paul VI wrote:

If the fruits of the Council are to come to maturity, religious institutes must, first of all, promote a renewal of spirit. Then they should endeavor to affect the renewal and adaptation of their way of life and of their discipline, acting prudently but, at the same time, with energy.2

To understand in what this “renewal of spirit” basically consists, we should probably return to the actual conciliar document promulgated less than 10 months earlier on October 28, 1965, Vatican II’s Perfectae Caritatis which declared:

In order that the Church of today may benefit more fully from lives consecrated by the profession of the counsels, and from the vital function which they perform, the holy synod makes the following provisions. They deal only with the general principles of the up-to-date renewal of the life and discipline of religious orders. … Particular norms for their exposition and application will be determined after the Council by the competent authority.3

Perfectae Caritatis established five principles or rules that must be followed for the up-to-date renewal of religious life for all institutes and communities. The first principle which is quite simply “the following of Christ as it is put before us in the Gospel” is described as “the supreme rule.” The second principle reflected the fact that all religious institutions or orders have their own traditions, rules, functions, and spiritual history, which must be retained and renewed according to the spirit and aims of the order’s founder. The third renewal principle required all religious institutes to share in the Church’s life by promoting biblical, liturgical, dogmatic, and ecumenical matters. The fourth principle of renewal called for religious institutes to wisely train their members to the conditions of the times, as well as to the needs of the Church in those times.  The fifth principle for the up-to-date renewal of religious life was that it be ordered to the following of Christ through faithfulness to the evangelical counsels by its members.4

Much of the rest of Perfectae Caritatis provided pastoral guidance through an explication of the true spiritual nature of religious life, including the meaning and value of contemplation and apostolic work, as well as of each of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. It is easy to see that the Decree clearly and consistently reflected the principles of religious life as established in chapter 6 of Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, and so is solidly based in Catholic doctrine, and in the juridical oversight of the hierarchy of the Church.

In itself—as far as the Decree goes—it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find fault with what the Council Fathers promulgated. Perhaps, however, an argument might be made that what is problematic about  Perfectae Caritatis is not what is found in it, but what is not found. Vatican II was called in order to bring about aggiornamento, or updating, so that the Church might recognize new conditions in the modern world, and react with a Catholic, Christian resolve. Vatican II was also called to ressourcement, or “return to the sources,” or to the “restoration” of the Church, and to its authentic origins. This includes its religious institutions and religious orders.

While Perfectae Caritatis obviously looked to see the attainment of both aggiornamento and ressourcement in its principles or rules for religious institutions, it should, perhaps, have explicitly acknowledged that, for many religious orders in the early 1960s, there was already being accomplished a high level of ongoing renewal, a faithful adherence to the evangelical counsels, and an ongoing accomplishment of efficient levels of apostolic work amidst the political and economic realities of the modern world. It is true that Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, chapter 6, entitled “Religious,” did state:

… this sacred council gives its support and praise to men and women, brothers and sisters, who in monasteries, or in schools and hospitals, or in missions adorn the bride of Christ by the steadfast and humble fidelity of their consecrated lives, and give generous service of the most varied kinds to all manner of men.5

Perfectae Caritatis, on the other hand, was more restrained in its praise of those in religious life when it stated at the very end of the document that:

(T)he holy synod holds in high esteem their way of life in chastity, poverty and obedience, a way of life of which Christ the Lord himself is the exemplar. It places great hope in their work which is so fruitful …6

But throughout Perfectae Caritatis, there is a lack of explicit reference to the large number of consecrated religious who were already, at that time, sacrificing their lives to faithful Christian service, especially in education, health care, and foreign missions. If not a display of gratitude (which most consecrated religious of that time probably were not expecting), perhaps what the Council failed to provide was a clear signal—a declaratory, conclusory statement in distinct and encouraging terms—that many, if not most, of the tens of thousands of nuns, brothers, and priests in religious orders, at least in the U.S., had, indeed, been following Christ, and had been faithful to their founders and to fulfilling their apostolates in the modern world, as well as remaining faithful to their evangelical vows.

If the preceding statements are true, Perfectae Caritatis might have created astonishment, or at least bewilderment, among many thriving religious communities, notwithstanding the Decree’s sound doctrine, and prudent juridical guidance. Is there any evidence to suggest that confusion may have resulted after the issuance of this Decree, and after the Magisterial instructions intended to implement its provisions, instructions that were issued by Rome in the Decree’s aftermath? Before attempting to address this question—at least, to partially answer it—it might be wise to add that Pope Paul VI’s Norms for Implementing the Decree: On the Up-to-Date Renewal of Religious Life, already cited, as well as other instructions on implementing the Decree, were arguably honest attempts to follow the Decree’s principles with specific directives that did not depart from the overall theme of Perfectae Caritatis. But, there may have been a deficiency or failure in the Decree itself to acknowledge the living faith, and the vibrant work of religious communities as they daily performed their charitable and medical and educational mission for many decades previous, and leading to the very time of Vatican II’s convening.

Some Post-Perfectae Caritatis Happenings
Establishing evidence that surprise or bewilderment among religious communities resulted after Vatican II’s 1965 promulgation of Perfectae Caritatis would most certainly have to take into consideration available statistics on consecrated religious beginning with the 1960s. In his 2003 work, Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America, John Fialka, an investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal, provides the following information about nuns in America: “In 1968, there were 179,974 sisters—convents had filled to an all-time high. The following year, the flow of young women into the sisterhood nearly stopped. It was as if someone had turned off a tap.”7  Fialka goes on to comment on the complexity of the changes affecting the United States at that time. He reports that: “(T)here are now about 65,000 sisters in America. Their median age is 69.”8  While it is true that the 1960s were a decade of radical changes in moral attitudes and accepted mores, as well as a time of rebellion against societal authority and institutional structures, nonetheless, a significant, undeniable decline in the numbers of women entering into religious orders probably requires some further examination as to the reason.

To repeat the questions: Was it the case that confusion within religious communities resulted from the issuance of Perfectae Caritatis? Or, rather, was it merely the case that the Decree helped to call religious communities to a spiritual renewal, at a critical time in our modern world, through an adaptation or variation of their traditional way of life, directing them towards acting wisely, but willingly, as they faced the modern world? Answering such questions usually necessitates an historical examination of religious communities at the time of the Council. Fortunately, there are still many contemporary eyewitnesses to the life and work of communities of religious in the pre-conciliar Church.

This article’s writer, for example, attended St. Catherine Labouré School in Wheaton, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., from 1955 to 1963. The school was part of St. Catherine Labouré Church, and was staffed by a religious community of 20 Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul who lived in a small convent next to the school on parish grounds. The Sisters were assigned tiny rooms, ate their meals in a communal refectory, and (this article’s writer having been an altar server and thus a witness), they attended daily Mass as a community after reciting morning prayers in their convent chapel. As teachers at St. Catherine’s, the Sisters could fairly be said to have followed after the example of St. Vincent de Paul—who “built free schools for working-class children, founded houses for deserted children, (and) arranged vocational training for young lads and girls.”9

At its peak in 1960, the school had approximately 1,400 children in grades 1 to 8. Most of the Sisters who taught at St. Catherine’s, many of whom were young women, had received their college education at nearby Catholic University of America. They received little or no salary as teachers at St. Catherine’s. Each day, the nuns would begin class with prayer, had the students recite the Angelus at noon, and always ended the academic day with prayer at 3:00 p.m. The nuns were always attired in their religious habit with its distinguished white headdress shaped in a winged formation. Concerning the religious habit, Perfectae Caritatis states that it is “a symbol of consecration” which “must be simple and modest, at once poor and becoming” and “it must be suited to the times and place, and to the needs of the apostolate” or, if it is “not in conformity with these norms, (it) ought to be changed.”10 To many, if not most, of us students, the habit which the nuns wore was a sign of their courage, authenticity, and commitment to their way of life. By the mid-1970s, the distinctive habit of the Sisters of Charity at St. Catherine Labouré had disappeared.  Without attempting a strict causal relation between the drop-off of new sisters at St. Catherine Labouré, and the discarding of the habit, one could, at the very least, establish a correlation between these two events on the basis of the belief that the habit was the external sign of the nuns’ consecration to Christ, and to the rule established by St. Vincent De Paul, and to their teaching apostolate.

At St. Catherine’s, tuition was $7 per month until 1961, when it was raised to $15 per month. During his eight years of attendance, this writer knows of no fellow student who was turned away by the school for an inability to pay tuition. Despite the large class sizes (as many as 50 or 60 in a class), discipline was strictly enforced at all times. This writer can readily attest that the nuns had a proper understanding of girls, and especially boys, and their misdeeds. And, St. Catherine’s was noted for the proficiency of its students in language arts, history, geography, and mathematics.  Local employers, looking for part-time teenagers to employ, preferred those students who had attended Catholic schools, such as St. Catherine’s, because of their noted language ability, their honesty, and good manners.

As for the adaptation of religious life to the needs of modern times, Catholic elementary schools saved local governments of the county, township, and municipality, several millions of dollars in property taxes, which burden would have fallen on middle-class homeowners. Arguably, throughout two-thirds of the 20th century in America, the existence of these Catholic schools, teaching millions of Catholic school children, and run by non-salaried nuns trained in Catholic universities, provided some of the financial means for local jurisdictions and states to build the huge public school systems that exist today. The orders of teaching nuns were a tribute to the Catholic Church to which non-Catholic America, whether consciously or not, owed a great debt of gratitude. Was this not already meeting the Decree Perfectae Caritatis’s call for the adaptation of religious life to the needs of our modern times?

Although the teaching skills and dedication of religious orders of nuns in the past, such as the Sisters of Charity spoken of here, can be extolled and celebrated, this in no way suggests that the tremendous contribution of Vatican II in bringing about renewal and updating in the Church, is to be in any way minimized. The role of the laity in apostolic ministries was greatly enhanced by Vatican II, as well as the laity’s liturgical participation, thanks in large part to the use of the vernacular in the liturgy, the repositioning of the altar so that it faced the congregation, and the reception of Communion under both kinds. And, Vatican II’s Dei Verbum provides the Church with a much fuller understanding of the centrality of God’s Word in the life of the faithful, and how sacred Scripture and sacred Tradition are part of the same wellspring of God’s revelation with the Magisterium as the final interpreter of this revelation.

So too, Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium provided doctrinal development of subtle theological issues, as well as pastoral guidance of how everyone in the Church, including the laity as well as the religious, are called to holiness. But long before Vatican II, Catholic elementary school nuns taught their students that they receive an indelible seal in baptism which marks them for Christ, and allows them to assist with the priest in the holy sacrifice of the Mass. The nuns taught their students how to offer themselves back to God daily, along with their sufferings and struggles, as well as joys and successes. The nuns celebrated the lives of the saints, and encouraged their students to emulate the saints, and to discern whether or not God was calling anyone to a religious vocation. While the nuns’ theological conceptualization and expression may have been simplified for the average 10-year-old Catholic school boy or girl, it was, nonetheless, orthodox and profound, even if it did not climb to the sophisticated level of Vatican II.

What can be said about St. Catherine Labouré could be said about thousands of Catholic schools throughout the United States that were taught by myriad Catholic religious orders and, as noted before, provided education for millions of schoolchildren throughout much of the 20th century in America. Much more could be said about Catholic hospitals, which were founded and staffed by nuns who worked as nurses and administrators, and provided high quality healthcare, even for the poor and indigent. Much more might be said about the missionary orders of brothers and priests, as well as nuns, who worked in foreign countries throughout the world. It is, ironically, many of these countries which are sending today their priests and consecrated religious back to America, which itself has become missionary country to some extent.

It most likely required a supernatural degree of courage, self-sacrifice, and dedication for these men and women of mid-century America to carry on the apostolates of their religious orders. Could it be that Vatican II created a questioning in the minds of these religious that what they were doing was somehow deficient in view of the demands of the modern world?  As Perfectae Caritatis called on the religious to “be properly instructed—each according to his intellectual caliber and personal bent—concerning the behavior patterns, the emotional attitudes, and the thought processes of modern society,”11 could such directives have led many religious, who were already giving their ministries all the energy they had, to begin to have doubts about themselves, and to scrupulously question the purpose and validity of their apostolates?

An infamous episode in the late 1960s concerning the Immaculate Heart of Mary order of teaching nuns resulted in dozens of nuns abandoning their vows, and in the virtual collapse of the order after “self-actualization” psychology seminars, and sensitivity encounter groups, conducted by psychologist Carl Rogers and his colleagues, apparently brought these nuns to doubt their vocations, their vows, and their very apostolate.12 Although an evidentiary cause-and-effect relationship may be missing here, one justifiably can question what really happened, or what intellectual and/or spiritual reasoning affected this group of nuns.

Our Future Hope
It is a theological axiom of soteriology that “grace perfects nature.” Practically speaking, the grace of Christ seems to work most effectively on a person who has a faith-centered singleness of mind, a virtuous disposition and awareness of his/her own faults and limitations. When any person sacrifices him/herself to follow Christ, as it is put forth in the Gospel, that person would seemingly need a community of support and, where appropriate, the understanding and support of the Church to help him/her persevere in his/her commitment. Hopefully, this support is surfacing—again and as always—in the post-Vatican II Church with the rise of revitalized religious orders, such as the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, the Parish Visitors of Mary Immaculate, and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation, or with the branches of contemplative orders, such as the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, and the Carmelite Monks of Wyoming, and other vibrant religious orders throughout the world.

  1.  Vatican Council II. Perfectae Caritatis, October 28, 1965, appearing in Vatican Council II, Volume 1: Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, at 611-23. Austin Flannery, O.P., general editor (Northport, NY: Costello Publishing Co., 3rd printing, 1996). All Vatican II citations come from this edition.
  2. Vatican Council II. Ecclesiae Sanctae II, August 6, 1966, appearing in Vatican Council II, Volume 1: Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, p. 624.
  3. Perfectae Caritatis, §1, p. 612.
  4. Perfectae Caritatis, §2, p. 612-13.
  5. Vatican Council II. Lumen Gentium, November 21, 1964, appearing in Vatican Council II, Volume 1: Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, §46, p. 407.
  6. Perfectae Caritatis, §25, p. 623.
  7. John Fialka. Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003), at 15.
  8. Fialka, at 17.
  9. Fr. John Laux. Church History: A Complete History of the Catholic Church to the Present Day. (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., original publication 1930; republication 1989), at 499.
  10. Perfectae Caritatis, §17, p. 621.
  11. Perfectae Caritatis, §18, p. 621.
  12. William Kilpatrick, “How the Sensitivity Movement Desensitized Catholics to Evil,” appearing in online Crisis Magazine, November 25, 2014.
Michael Petruzzelli About Michael Petruzzelli

Michael Petruzzelli holds a B.A. in political science from St. Vincent College, a M.A. in philosophy from Duquesne University, as well as another M.A. in religious studies from the Catholic Distance University. He has served as the director of religious education at St. John Baptist de la Salle Parish in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., before going on to teach theology for ten years at Academy of the Holy Cross, Kensington, Md., a private Catholic high school in the Washington, D.C. Archdiocese.