ROME – Brazilian Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, the Vatican’s point man on consecrated life, has criticized what he said is a state of “dominance” that men often hold over women in the Catholic Church, and stressed the need for a deeper renewal of religious life across the board.
“In many cases, the relationship between consecrated men and women represents a sick system of relations of submission and dominance that takes away the sense of freedom and joy, a misunderstood obedience,” said Braz de Aviz in a recent interview.
Braz de Aviz is the prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
Speaking to SomosCONFER, the official publication of the Conference of Spanish Religious, an umbrella organization for religious congregations in Spain, Braz de Aviz noted that in some communities authorities are “too centralized,” preferring relationships with legal or tax entities and who are “little capable of a patient and loving attitude of dialogue and trust.”
However, that’s not the only issue Braz de Aviz targeted in his reflections, which were part of a wider reexamination of religious life in light of Pope Francis’s push for a renewal of structures aimed less at following outdated models and more on evangelization.
Numerous scandals inside religious communities and lay movements, a shortage of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, increased secularization and heightened pressure over the abuse and exploitation of consecrated women, have all contributed to an internal crisis within religious life that many are only beginning to grapple with.
In numerous countries throughout Europe, Oceania and the Americas, there is a shortage of vocations to consecrated life, which has “aged a lot and is wounded by a lack of perseverance,” Braz de Aviz said.
“Those who leave are so frequent that Francis has spoken of this phenomenon as a ‘hemorrhage.’ This is true for both male and female contemplative life,” he said, noting that numerous institutes “have become small or are disappearing.”
In light of this, Braz de Aviz said the change of age, which Pope Francis often refers to as an “age of change,” has led to “a new sensitivity to return to following Christ, to a sincere fraternal life in community, to the reform of systems, to the overcoming of abuses of authority and to transparency in the possession, use and administration of goods.”
However, “old, weak evangelical models still resist a necessary change,” in order to bear witness to Christ in the context of the modern world, he said.
In light of numerous scandals that have erupted in recent years involving priests, bishops and founders of consecrated communities and lay movements, “many consecrated men and women at this moment in history are trying to identify more precisely the core of the charism of the founder,” Braz de Aviz said.
Part of this process, he said, means identifying the cultural and religious traditions “of other times,” and allowing oneself to be “guided by the wisdom of the Church and her current Magisterium.”
To do this, he said, requires consecrated people to have “courage,” or what Pope Francis refers to as parresia, or boldness, in order to “identify with the path of the whole Church.”
Braz de Aviz also referred to a sense of “burnout” that many religious sisters, in particular, experience, and which was the subject of an article in the July edition of the Vatican newspaper’s monthly women’s excerpt, Donna, Chiesa, Mondo.
In an article highlighting the stress and even trauma that women religious often face, Sister Maryanne Lounghry, a psychologist and a member of a commission for personal care recently established by the International Union of Superiors General and the Union of Superiors General, representing women and men religious respectively, said the goal of the commission is to “build resilient communities” and to break down the barriers in talking about “taboo” topics such as the abuse of power and sexual abuse.
One of the things Lounghry said the commission is doing is writing a “code of conduct,” so that consecrated people understand their rights, limits, obligations and are more prepared for the tasks they take up.
Speaking of religious sisters specifically, who are often exploited and stuck in conditions reflecting something akin to domestic servitude with no vacations and no pay, Lounghry said that “It’s fundamental that a sister knows what she can ask and what cannot be asked of her.”
“Each one,” she said, “must have a code of conduct, a letter of agreement with the bishop or the pastor,” because a clear arrangement leads to more stability.
“A secure job for a year gives me peace and mental tranquility, as well as knowing that I cannot be sent to the other side of the world at any time, or when I can go on vacation,” she said, adding, “if I do not know the limits of my commitment, instead, I am unable to curb the stress. Not having control over your own life, not being able to plan, undermines mental health.”
Lounghry suggested creating standards, such as a salary, a fixed vacation every year, decent living conditions, access to the internet, and a sabbatical every few years.
“Always having to negotiate, feeling unheard, is hard,” she said. “With clear rules, they prevent abuse and you have clear ways to deal with” abuses when they happen.
She also underlined the need for clear standard norms inside of convents or monasteries on issues such as travel or study, to avoid the appearance of favoritism.
All this, Lounghry said, will help create a more trusting environment that will allow sisters who have been abused to come forward more easily.
“It’s difficult to understand when a sister has been sexually abused; it’s a daily reality, but we don’t talk about it out of shame,” she said, insisting that “a sister should be sure that the congregation will be able to help her to maintain her resilience, with understanding and sharing.”
A separate article penned by Sister Bernadette Reis, who works in the Vatican Press Office, noted that a decline in the number of women entering consecrated life recently is also due to a change in social factors that once made consecrated life seem more appealing, but which are obsolete today.
Girls no longer need to be sent to convents in order to receive an education, and young women no longer depend on religious life to provide them study and professional opportunities.
In his interview, Braz de Aviz said that in the context of the modern world, “the practice of many behaviors must change” in order to establish a “dynamic” time of formation for those who commit to consecrated life.
He also insisted that formation be a lifelong process, saying that gaps in either initial or ongoing formation “have allowed the development of personal attitudes little-identified with consecrated life in community, so that relationships are contaminated and create loneliness and sadness.”
“In many communities there has been little development of the awareness that the other is the presence of Jesus, and that, in relationship with him loved in the other, we can guarantee his constant presence in the community,” he said.
One of the first things Braz de Aviz said needs to be retaught in the formation process is “how to follow Jesus,” and then how to form founders and foundresses.
“Rather than transmitting models already made, Francis impels us to create vital processes marked by the Gospel which help us to enter into the depths of the charisms given to each one,” he said, noting that Pope Francis has also often stressed that all vocations are called to an “evangelical radicalism.”
“In the Gospel this radicality is common to all vocations,” Braz de Aviz said, adding that “there are no ‘first class’ disciples and others of ‘second class.’ The evangelical path is the same for everyone.”
However, consecrated men and women are specifically tasked with living “a lifestyle that anticipates the values of the Kingdom of God: Chastity, poverty and obedience in the way of life of Christ.”
This, he said, means that “We are called to greater fidelity and to enter with the whole Church in the reform of life proposed and carried out by Pope Francis.”
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