Vocation or Exploitation?

By Mother Therese Ivers, JCL, JCD (Cand.), OCV, DHS

It is very rare for a contemplative community to be invited to a diocese for the purposes of exploitation.  The reason is quite simple.  The sole “apostolate” of the monks or nuns is to pray, to be united in a powerhouse of prayer.  In many areas, the practical disbelief in the power and utility of prayer makes it impossible for such a community to be adequately supported by the local Catholics from the standpoint of even bare survival.  The locals do not see the point of supporting contemplatives because they don’t get any tangible benefits out of the deal.  They may have the financial resources to support a community, but not the spiritual insight needed.  However, anytime an active community is “founded” or “invited” to a diocese, the faithful should always question whether it is primarily there for the salvation of the members of the community or if it is there to have a cheap source of labor in a particular field.  This applies in a particular way to both prospective donors and applicants.

The primary purpose of a religious institute is for the salvation of the souls of the religious.  Everything about that institute must be geared towards that goal.  Only when and if that fundamental need is fulfilled can a religious turn around and be a good public witness of the ability of God for the fulfillment of one’s whole life to others and devote time in the apostolate.  This principal is on the supernatural plane, what is imitated on a natural plane, e.g. the example of the instructions given on a passenger jet for people to first put on the oxygen mask on themselves and then on others.  One cannot give what one does not have.  

In practical terms, this means that the priority of the spiritual wellbeing of religious demands the curtailment of duties of the apostolate when the individual/communal needs of the religious as religious demand its curtailment.  This, however, is very rarely seen in real life, because the priorities are often inverted: the needs of the apostolate trump the needs of the religious.  Indeed, many active religious depend on the apostolate for their very liveihood, which make them especiallly vulernable to exploitation.  If the community needs to curtail the apostolate to nurture and protect the religious, they quickly find that they cannot do so because their financial support depends on performing the works of the apostolate full-force.  

For the benefit of those who are looking to support a new foundation financially or who are thinking of joining a “new” community, here are some things to consider:

1.  A Bishop’s (Priest’s) Decisions Are Not Infallible

One of the most egregious examples of the abuse of the episcopal office that historically happened in the United States was when bishops invited cloistered nuns such as the Benedictines over to the United States and then fundamentally changed them into active religious communities.  Far from valuing the contemplatives for being a source of prayer, the bishops wanted them to teach.  This was a horrific abuse, and an example of “exploitation”.  The religious were not actually valued for being religious, they were valued for being recruits for cheap labor for a need for Catholic teachers.  The magisterium has to repeatedly remind bishops that they may not tap contemplatives into service for their pet projects/apostolates.

2.  What is Done for the Laity?

If the stated purpose of having a religious community is to serve a certain population, how is the diocese helping the laity who currently serve that population?  E.g. If a teaching community is being founded, what kind of assistance is the diocese giving right now to lay teachers in Catholic schools?  Are teachers getting paid a living wage.  If not, then exploitation of men/women in the proposed active community is more likely as a source of cheap labor.  Are teachers getting a good formation in Catholic teachings?  Again, if not, why not?  If the point of dragging in religious is to provide vetted teachers of the faith, why are the lay teachers not given the formation needed to teach the faith correctly?  (Often the diocese will cite it is not their strict responsibility to provide a Catholic education or that it is too “expensive,” which brings us right back full circle to exploitation of religious for a cheap labor pool.)  If the reason given is to “expose [target group]” to religious in habits, then why do the habited persons need to be around that group full time?  It’s not as if we say that we need priests in their clerical garb teaching 3rd grade in parochial school or at the beside of patients Monday through Friday to expose them to the priesthood. Why the disconnect? Recall that the duty of the priest is primarily that unto ministry; the duty of religious is primarily unto prayer and penance.  In neither case is their primary duty give exposure by their garb to a set group of the faithful day after day in an apostolate.

3. How Will the Well-Being of the Religious be Protected?

Religious have certain needs given the demands of a religious vocation.  In many cases, religious have been recruited to do what should be undertaken by members of Secular Institutes.  Things that are very intrinsic to religious life include “communal life” and “separation from the world”.  For an adequate “life in common”, there must be enough people to handle the actual upkeep of the community in such a manner that does not entail “imbalance” for the individual religious.  Only after the internal needs of the community are actually met, can there be any thought to giving out assignments in a particular apostolate.  Unless the community actually has great numbers within its ranks, it is not possible for religious to work “full time” in an apostolate and still be true to an authentic religious lifestyle.  Not only should the community already be able to meet its internal needs, but it should have safeguards such that an individual religious can be either removed without violating any contract or replaced by one or more religious.  

Good stewardship demands as a principle of justice that the religious life of the religious be protected.  So, if all or a bulk of a religious community’s livelihood depends on the apostolate, then the religious community should never put all eligible religious to “work” in the apostolate: they must keep a reasonable number in “reserve” to replace or relieve a working religious.  If the religious community is unable to support themselves by having a “reserve,” then they must find a way to become financially viable without the need to put all religious to work.  This is not easy, but it is indispensable for authentic religious life.  Religious should not have to skip community retreats on a regular basis because they are “on call” or their presence in the apostolate is always needed to maintain financial stability.

If the vision of the community or bishop lacks such protections for the well-being of individual religious, then donors and prospective candidates should be aware that exploitation is most certainly a factor.  

4.  Fidelity to Charism

Another common form of disrespect to religious, especially religious women, is the desire of bishops and priests to recruit religious to “work” that is not included in the founding charism of the institute.  A male religious institute may decide to “import” a group of religious sisters from a foreign country to be housekeepers and cooks for them instead of either assigning their own members to shoulder the work or in lieu of paying just wages to lay persons to undertake the work.  This is outright exploitation.  Most religious institutes are not founded with the “charism” of being unpaid servants to clerics or fellow religious.  Often, this outright form of exploitation takes the form of a male – even a diocesan bishop or parish priest – wanting to assign a religious sister to serve as his personal housekeeper/cook or to assign the religious (individual or group) to a pet apostolate that is not in line with their actual charism.  Not only will these pet projects go against the founding charism of the religious institute, but the religious themselves are often not given the opportunities to develop as religious.

5.  Putting the Cart Before the Horse

The canonical procedures for the founding of religious institutes are put there for a reason.  Bishops and “founders” often try to take “shortcuts” because they don’t understand the wisdom of said procedures.  Actions like creating a “public association of the faithful” with grandiose plans for building huge motherhouses when only one person is involved in the fake “association” (bishops who attempt to establish an “association” with only one committed individual should reexamine the canons on associations of the faithful… ) or abusing canons 603/604 to try to circumvent an authentic development of a religious community can constitute serious red flags.  The founding of a religious institute is not the same thing as putting together a plan and then recruiting warm bodies to execute the plan.  A community must grow organically, within the parameters provided for in law.  There must be time for it to develop its own peculiar way of following the Lord in poverty, chastity, and obedience.  Donors must be aware of the very fragile nature of associations of the faithful and the statistical likelihood of failure for the majority of such associations before they rush to support them. Religious are real people and communities are comprised of very real people.  Personality differences alone can cause an association to disband, not to mention disagreements on how things are to be done.  It is encumbent upon the man or woman discerning membership in an association of the faithful to ponder whether they are really happy to undertake the risks involved; they are not given the same protections in law that are accorded members of religious institutes.  They may live and die as lay people instead of religious.

6. Does the Diocese Value Consecrated Life?

The success of a new foundation can be dependent on the diocesan attitude towards consecrated life in general, especially its long term attitude. If the atmosphere is to support the community de jour, then what is a new foundation today, encouraged and supported by the diocese and/or bishop will be the discarded community down the road when the diocese finds another more exciting apostolate to recruit people to.

Donors and aspirants should look at how existing communities and forms of consecrated life are currently treated by diocesan officials, the bishop, and clergy. Is there a competent delegate or vicar for consecrated life? Are chaplains and confessors appointed by the bishop who actually know consecrated life and its forms? Is there any meaningful relationship between the bishop and the existing forms of consecrated life or are they ignored or given mere token acknowledgement of their existence? What level of involvement do actual religious have in diocesan and parish structures as laid out in Apostolorum Successores? Are diocesan sponsored monk/nun runs geared primarily to communities and forms of life who exist outside of the diocesan boundaries when there are communities and forms of consecrated life within the diocese? Is there actual warm and constructive dialogue between the consecrated persons of the diocese and the bishop and clergy or are they completely left out of the picture? E.g. Does the bishop solicit advice and/or help for adding personnel to an apostolate from consecrated persons in the diocese or does he arbitrarily “import” or found a community and let the existing consecrated persons find out after the fact through the diocesan paper or other channels?

The (mis)behavior of a diocese and its people towards already existing or past forms of consecrated life in its boundaries should be taken quite seriously when evaluating the viability of a new foundation from the standpoint of the donor or prospective candidate. If a contemplative community was founded and then had to leave because of the lack of stable funding, then it is good to be cautious because such a situation may be ripe for exploitation of active religious. If hermits and virgins are sneered at or forbidden by diocesan officials, then exploitation is possible because the diocese is more likely to objectify religious life for its visible service and desired for cost-cutting measures.

Promising signs of a healthy diocesan attitude towards the consecrated life are the inclusion of consecrated persons in the diocesan and parish structures, a good relationship between the bishop and delegate towards all forms of consecrated life, opportunities for formation and culture given in abundance towards consecrated persons, etc. Because religious participate in the maternal mission of the Church, it is of grave importance for a healthy diocese to promote the feminine dimension of the Church so as to avoid the distortions that arise from a unilateral focus on the priesthood and male values to the practical exclusion of the Marian dimension of the Church. Lip service is insufficient; by deeds and attitudes shall the truth be known.


Catholics, especially bishops and priests, must avoid the “heresy of activism”.  They must stop valuing things solely on the masculine value basis of “productivity”.  Religious must not be objectified by the faithful, clergy, or fellow consecrated persons as merely “doers” of a particular apostolate.  They are not only people, but people willed by God to be first and foremost steeped in an atmosphere geared towards their sanctification and well being.  Exploitation is a real evil, made more evil by disguising it under the cloak of religious life.  Religious life does not exist to ensure the “perpetuity” of devoting warm bodies to an “apostolate” no matter how good the apostolate or pressing the needs of its recipients.  Religious life exists first and foremost for the benefit of the religious and only secondarily for any apostolate.  If it is clear that a bishop or founder principally intends the perpetuity of the apostolate, then it is clear that exploitation is the primary goal.  When the needs of a stable, balanced life in religion conflicts with the demands of the apostolate, the needs of the religious as a religious must always be prioritized.

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