1967. It is paradoxical that even as Blessed Paul VI acknowledged and ratified Maria Fortunata Viti’s choice of what he called “the lowest level of the religious life” — referring here to the vocation of the converse monk or nun (laybrother or laysister in English Catholic parlance) — that unique, distinctive, and eminently evangelical form of life was being suppressed by hasty legislation and this, more often than not, with little consideration for the wishes of those men and women who, having made profession of this form of life, expected, in good faith, to persevere in it until death. The dicey bit was article 15 of Perfectae Caritatis, The Second Vatican Council’s Decree On the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life, promulgated on 28 October 1965:Share
That all the members be more closely knit by the bond of brotherly love, those who are called lay-brothers, assistants, or some similar name should be drawn closely in to the life and work of the community. Unless conditions really suggest something else, care should be taken that there be only one class of Sisters in communities of women. Only that distinction of persons should be retained which corresponds to the diversity of works for which the Sisters are destined, either by special vocation from God or by reason of special aptitude.One of the problems with the redaction of Perfectae Caritatis is that articles such as the one cited above were applied across the board with broad brush strokes, paying little attention to the rich diversity of each Order’s unique charism, history, and development. Monks, canons regular, mendicant friars, clerks regular: all of these found themselves challenged by a mandate that could be applied neither wisely nor uniformly without suppressing a treasured expression of holy diversity and a vocation that had proven itself, over centuries, to be a school of the highest holiness. Article 15 is a prime example of trying to say too much to too many people in one shot. Not exactly helpful.
A Hermeneutic of Secular Class Struggle
Sadly, the implementation of article 15 of Perfectae Caritatis was highly coloured by a hermeneutic of secular class struggle and, not a little, I think, by ghosts of the French Revolution still whispering “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death”. In more than one monastery, the chilling sentence was handed down from on high: “It has been decided that the laybrothers are to be suppressed as a distinct category and, insofar as possible, united to the choir monks to form a single expression of one common vocation”. Overnight, or so it seemed, the uniqueness of the converse (or laybrother) vocation was awkwardly abolished, mutated out of existence, or relegated to some dark corner of the archives.
Is this, in effect, what the three sentences of article 15 of Perfectae Caritatis called for? The directives given in the text are very spare. The door is left open to a reasonable interpretation of the text and to more than one application of it. The overarching principle is that “all the members be more closely knit by the bond of brotherly love”. The concrete goal is that “those who are called lay-brothers, assistants, or some similar name should be drawn closely in to the life and work of the community”. Nowhere is there any mention of suppressing the unique vocation of the above–named lay–brothers or assistants. One garners from the tone of the text, rather, that while continuing in the grace of their own vocation, the lay–brothers are not to be marginalised, instrumentalised or, in any way, exploited, but honoured as members of one single family in which they play a distinct role. The third sentence, dealing with religious women — a topic I do not want to touch — offers criteria that would justify a certain diversity within the larger religious family: “special vocation from God or special aptitude”.
The Suppression of Legitimate Diversity
One of the most curious developments in the evolution of consecrated life since the promulgation of Perfectae Caritatis in 1965 and the beatification of Maria Fortunata Viti in 1967 is a steady trend towards dull uniformisation and the suppression of legitimate diversity from the top down, especially when the top tends to be of a more progressive persuasion. The whole question needs, I think, to be revisited not in reaction to Perfectae Caritatis, but in the light of a more serene and disinterested appropriation of the text.
Now there are diversities of graces, but the same Spirit; And there are diversities of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but the same God, who worketh all in all. And the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man unto profit. (1 Corinthians 12:4–7)(Read more.)