Did religious congregations exploit the faith of young novices?
Enthusiastic young people in orders were moulded to accept rules and practices
Religious congregations are in decline, some terminally, due to their failure to attract new young people to their communities. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
I was struck by the throwaway remark by Tony Fahey on how religious sisters and brothers contributed to the wealth of their congregations through a process of “Exploitation” ( Opinion, June 9th).
This tongue-in-cheek remark was nearer the truth than he realised.
While religious congregations began in poverty, they became rich and powerful not just through money and land donations but through the commitment of their members. This dedication was studiously developed in the formative years of entrants .
Upon joining a congregation, novices were so zealous that they readily accepted every rule and practice designed to mould these enthusiastic young people into accepting, under “holy obedience”, whatever their superiors ordered no matter how arbitrary it was.
Anyone with a spark of creativity had to comply or leave. Even identity became problematic. Novices had to take a new name themselves associated with the congregation. Parents, in a real sense, lost a son or a daughter to the congregation but many considered it an honour and privilege to have given over a daughter or son to God.
The social rewards of having a son or daughter in religious life were significant and gave an enhanced social status to the family, especially if they were from a poor background.
But the break with family was so firm that religious were not allowed to travel home even to attend family funerals. Homosexuality was euphemistically called “particular friendships” by the congregations and these were forbidden with religious prevented from entering each others’ rooms.
Poverty and obedience
Friendships were required to be centred on Christ with the women religious wearing bridal dresses and veils at their solemn profession as they became brides of Christ. At this solemn event, the religious took solemn vows of chastity, poverty and obedience which solidified them even more so to the congregation.
Many congregations developed a class structure of their own. In women’s congregations, choir sisters were regarded as superior to lay sisters, while in men’s congregations those destined for priesthood had a higher status than their lay brothers. The gulf was enforced by a system of apartheid which forbade any social interaction.
This form of religious discrimination ensured a continual source of free labour for the congregation. Lay brothers and sisters were assigned to “manual labour” tasks such as laundry, food preparation and general cleaning and maintenance, while their higher-status sisters and brothers were destined to become professionals thus ensuring a continuous stream of income for the congregation.
There was little or no choice within the system for personal initiative, and rebellious questioning was answered by expulsion. So positions were filled by willing subjects and obedience ensured the smooth operation of the system. Letters to and from friends and family were read and one person I knew was expelled from his congregation for a remark he had written in a letter home.
The real human personality which lay hidden behind the veil and the religious habit was rarely revealed, even to associates. Many were fortunate in their particular circumstances and found fulfilment in professional-type positions in outside society.
However for those who had become increasingly unhappy in their personal lives the thought of leaving was very daunting. There was a social stigma attached to anyone who left religious life. Such were considered to have turned their backs on their vocation as they had, in the words of Christ, “put their hand to the plough” and now were wilfully abandoning it.
Furthermore, they had to face a hostile society, penniless and isolated. It was far easier to remain in the security and relative comfort of the congregation, no matter how bad life had become, than face an unknown future outside
Currently religious congregations are in decline, some terminally, due to their failure to attract new young people to their communities. There is no doubt the past “success” of these congregations lay in the total dedication of their personnel to the ideals of their founder.
However the question remains to be answered: was this “success” achieved by the exploitation of zealous young people whose God-given right to happiness was unnecessarily sacrificed for the greater glory of the religious congregation?
Brendan Butler is a member of the We Are Church Ireland group of Catholics committed to the renewal of the church on the basis of the Second Vatican Council and the theological spirit developed from it