The Popes and European Revolution

By Owen Chadwick | Go to book overview
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3 Monks and Nuns


In the age of the Reformation monasteries and nunneries collapsed with hardly a noise in most Protestant countries. That showed how vulnerable was their way of life, and was taken to mean that they needed reform and supervision. Communities of dedicated prayer or good works might easily be found. But the Counter-Reformation laid a heavy hand on monasteries and a heavier on nunneries. Catholics suppressed some houses because they regarded them as useless, turned others into seminaries or gave their buildings to the Jesuits for colleges, revived still others by the insistent call to purity and prayer, ascetic life and meagre food, strictness of enclosure and severity of punishment. This reform varied in pace or effectiveness according to country, district, or even bishop. Into some monasteries, into a few whole orders, the Counter-Reformation hardly penetrated. They were as vulnerable, and perhaps useless, in 1750 as 300 years before—if not more vulnerable because meanwhile the world changed. But in other monasteries or orders, and by creating new orders, the Counter-Reformation refashioned the morale of the monastic movement and led to a new flowering of the religious life.

Inside the monasteries could be felt the tension which afflicts every impetus towards perfection. The religious life called to a higher way. Nearly all the saints canonized by Popes during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were monks or nuns or members of orders. The vow of poverty could mean little but simplicity of manners, the vow of obedience might be happiness in community, the vow of chastity sacrificed the family and may have had within the psyche consequences inaccessible to the historian. But if the religious life did not mean a mode of existence containing some element of self-sacrifice it meant little.

Monasteries and nunneries housed too many men and women for this high notion of vocation to be tenable universally. The number of monks and nuns went on rising. It rose irregularly, houses declined, new houses were founded, old orders stood still or faded, new orders were approved, but until the second half of the eighteenth century the general number increased:


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