Studies Illuminate Trends in New Religious Life

By Beyer, Rebecca | National Catholic Reporter, July 29, 2005 | Go to article overview

Studies Illuminate Trends in New Religious Life


Beyer, Rebecca, National Catholic Reporter


Catholic religious life is created. It grows, flourishes and reproduces itself.

Or it sputters, idles and dies.

And on occasion, religious life spins off in unanticipated directions and has to be "suppressed."

A group of Franciscans living in trees. A woman claiming Jesus appeared to her in a dream with a bolt of green cloth--the mission of the order she attempted to establish could not be identified, but the sisters could be. They wore bright green habits.

"Like every other human endeavor and human being, ministries are born, grow and die," said Sr. Patricia Wittberg, a sociology professor at Indiana University and a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.

Wittberg knows a lot about religious life. She has written several articles on the subject in her academic work and is now working on the second edition of a directory of newly forming ministries with the Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate. The first directory was printed in 1999. The second edition is due out at the end of this year.

A very small percentage of these founders of new groups are honestly called by God," Wittberg said. "It's the diocese's job to sort out the legitimate orders from those founded by quasi-mentally ill people."

For example, in her work on the first edition of the directory, Wittberg received a call from a group of lesbian feminist witches in southern California. They wanted to be included in the directory but when asked about their affiliation with the local diocese, the group said they had not been approved although they did claim to be Catholic.

Stories like this have made Wittberg believe that a disproportionate number of efforts to create new forms of religious life are not legitimate--at least not in the eyes of the church.

In Catholic religious life, she said, people commonly refer to "re-founding waves" in which new types of ministries--different from the traditional eremitical, monastic, mendicant and apostolic orders--are started. Wittberg said new religious life is often not new at all but rather some variant on an established form.

The United States presents an even greater challenge for new forms of religious life. Religious plurality makes it more difficult for new groups to take hold because other denominations and faiths draw out a good number of religious seekers.

The trends of the current re-founding period are starting to identify themselves. Wittberg hopes that having two editions of the newly forming ministries directory will help her to identify certain patterns--what's working and what's not. She says the directory can be a resource for diocesan vicars for religious.

According to studies Wittberg has conducted on new religious life and data from the 1999 directory, four trends seem to be surfacing. First, around 30 to 40 percent of new communities are contemplative versus about four to five percent that were contemplative during the 1800s.

Second, Wittberg believes that new groups display a greater orthodoxy, including a return to pre-Vatican II traditions. This she attributes to the age of the new religious, who were born after Vatican II and so do not remember or associate negativity with the more traditional practices. New religious are so hungry for spirituality, peace and the certainty of Catholic traditions "they can taste it," Wittberg said. …

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