There are particular disadvantages in having been a student in a Catholic (women's) college, a church professional, and an attendee at many a 'workshop' (everything there from early pop psychology to distorted theology to pointed agendas) by the 1970s. There was far more zeal than prudence. A 'go with the crowd' flavoured sense of democracy was mistaken for the rare gift of discernment. To this day, though (as regulars may have noticed) I indeed am one to speak my mind, I am hampered not only by the influences of that period but the recognition that, thirty-odd years later, excessive political correctness and a culture of taking offence makes anything one might say very liable to lead to weird detours of logic.
There are major difficulties in writing of consecrated life without extending it to book length. :) The history of how vowed life was lived, manner in which is was approach, what specific vows were taken, is massive. From the earliest years of the Church, the holy solitaries were outnumbered by unscrupulous 'confessors' (those who had managed to escape martyrdom... or who signed documents with names of those killed) selling 'pardons for sin' during persecution. Benedict, Francis, Dominic, Ignatius, Vincent de Paul, all had distinctive elements in their approaches.
During the past week (and this on a theology forum), there was some discussion of vowed life. (I prefer 'consecrated life,' but the RC legalists would say that applies exclusively to those who make vows in a congregation constituted under this or that provision - so the Daughters of Charity, Filippini Sisters, solitaries, hermits, whatever, would seem to be excluded. I am referring specifically to vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience - and not 'according to state of life.') For all my years of study, I've seen only one book on the topic written during the past 40 years, and, though it contained various fine quotes from the writings of Pope John Paul II and the Second Vatican Council, it had a huge stress on accountability and hierarchy. (...such as who can be considered in 'consecrated life.')
I'll never live to see this (my estimate of the concept's being recovered three centuries from now is highly optimistic), but I regret both that there seems to be no solid theology of vowed life, and I doubt that (yes, even before 'the changes') many religious had a clear picture of it in the first place.
Emphasis on work, service, obeying superiors, sacrifice, reparation - replaced by being 'community minded,' 'professional women,' non-judgemental, committed to social justice - there was in abundance. It is unfortunate that centuries of Roman Catholic tradition (the focus I shall use here), which brought forth a huge richness of diverse forms of vowed life, seems to have lost much of this.
Please bear in mind that this is just a blog entry - reflections, not a scholarly work, and some based on personal contact I had with various Religious, not on the many documents that I'm not going to look up for the moment (lest my next blog entry be published three hundred years from now...) What I see as lacking is a proper understanding and valuing of eschatological emphasis, ecclesiology (in a sense that goes beyond hierarchy or obedience), and a genuine asceticism (aimed, as Margaret Funk explains very well in her books, at removing distractions from prayer and service, not fashioning some figurative or literal hair-shirt, whether in the old style of 'atonement' or the new one of 'we're too comfortable....")
I referenced elsewhere how Pope Benedict XVI, in his brilliant work "Eschatology," accurately showed how the "Marantha" of the early Christians sadly gave way to the "Dies Irae" by the early mediaeval period. I often wonder if the concept of eschatology (and the Incarnation in its fullness - where Jesus did not merely get born then manage to go to the Cross) wasn't neglected all the more in my own adult years because, with its having been focussed on an after-life (I won't even get into avoiding hell), the valuable idea of social justice made the thought of an after-life a vague embarrassment.
Those who criticised religion, and some in the social sciences, disliked the idea of after-life as a carrot to dangle before the poor, as indeed it often was. In my own youth, I myself was uncomfortable with the idea of this 'vale of tears,' and a God who seemed only concerned with our happiness after we died (eternal notwithstanding... and He was only inclined to perform miracles either to prove his own divinity when on earth or to show who should be raised to the altars.)
Vowed chastity (as opposed to the virtue of chastity, to which all are called - and this distinguished the Hebrews from pagan neighbours centuries before Christ) was not valued in Jewish tradition. It was only in light of the resurrection, and the recognition that, beyond a sense of an ultimate resurrection, there is more than just this life - more than living through one's children, but an eye to deification and the parousia towards which the new Maranatha would look - that Paul could speak of celibacy as a charism.
By the 1970s, as I well remember, eschatology not only was in the closet overall, but ecclesiology on the 'grass roots level' was flawed. We are one Church - it is not a competition. The emphasis on the universal call to holiness (hardly new - holiness was the topic of many disputes in the early Church) unfortunately was often presented as if it were newly minted, and as if the only vocation is baptism, rather than as if our worship, sacraments, and states of life were not expressions and extensions of baptism. I doubt that the 'new theology of marriage' would come as a surprise to any couple in history, but it was over-emphasised as well, the more by many authors in magazines who were laicised priests. Our individual value is not compromised by recognition that all vocations enrich the Church, but those in vowed life often acted as if it were an embarrassment - not to be mentioned, lest the idea of the 'universal call to holiness' be compromised.
Many Religious hesitated to speak of anything except their work, and (though I'm not suggesting they were unfaithful to vows) were likely to reduce any sense of commitment beyond baptism to commitment to their congregations and corporate identity. As more liturgical ministries became open to those who were not ordained (and this led to further conflict, over whether distributing communion or serving as lector 'clericalised' laity who were supposed to 'sanctify the marketplace,' another topic for another post), there were more complications.
I worked in a parish staffed by Franciscan friars for some time. Though the parishioners indeed seemed to value the priests and Brothers, those avid about the age of the laity (particularly some Secular Franciscans) seemed to take it as a personal insult if, for example, a young man from the parish sought to join the Order as a vowed member. Ideas of vocation could become very confused amongst those who were especially involved in things parochial.
Ironically for a time of wonderful emphasis on liturgical reform, worship made some of the devout uncomfortable - what a tiresome business it was dealing with those who insisted that the Church previously 'sacramentalised instead of evangelised,' as if this somehow set goals at odds. Here and there, prayer, even in Religious life, could be seen as selfish - a distraction from time for service. As well, many Religious congregations became exceedingly secular, while married people (members of third orders or associations) could insist that they were the 'Franciscans of today.' (May I add that I am not suggesting this was universal. I am speaking of much that I personally witnessed, amongst those known to me.) Certainly, the third Order was active even in Francis' time, but the distinction with vowed life was ignored or deplored. Vowed chastity (if not 'according to state') was equally seen negatively, as if it were a denial of the value of sex in marriage.
The mass exodus from religious life during the same period was greeted with joy by many of the married, who'd thought entering a religious congregation was insane from time immemorial. Yet it is seldom explored that Religious were not only faced with the 'new theology of marriage,' or larger professional opportunities overall. The misinterpretation of the universal call to holiness, and extension of this to mean there was no vocation except baptism, had a dimension of giving the message that those in consecrated life were of no particular value to the Church. Religious had long been amazing in their assumption of professions in which one found few women at the time - but, depending on what workshops one attended, one could receive a dose of distorted feminism, wherein the oppressed women hadn't realised the selfish men were using them as indentured servants. Sisters and Brothers who had served in missions in very deprived areas were confronted with everything from an idea that their nursing the lepers took responsibility away from the government to that it deprived tribes of their culture with the many conversions to Christianity.
Human minds instinctively simplify! Nearly all religious had learnt that 'the voice of the superior is the voice of God,' and that admission to vows was the only indicator of a vocation to the life (back when the only vocation wasn't baptism...) With Religious exiting in droves, many to marry, had God changed his mind? Was religious life obsolete? (Indeed, there were the workshops here and there that gave the impression that religious who remained would ultimately be forced out by its demise.)
Genuine asceticism is about removal of distractions to love of God and neighbour (in the fullest sense - I am certainly including prayer and sacrament in this, and see our prayer lives, however suited a means to this is in an individual case, as the cultivation of love of God that allows one to serve those created in His image.) As I've mentioned elsewhere, Margaret Funk explains this impeccably in recent books. Those in religious life too often had a distorted view of 'sacrifice' for its own sake - not that which comes naturally out of fulfilling responsibility or practising virtue. Occasionally, one could meet a former Sister who left to marry thinking that God might be asking her to sacrifice her vowed life to take on motherhood!
There needs to be a respect for distinction in vocation. "Chastity according to state of life" already is a commandment (...not that this is generally recognised nowadays.... violation of that commandment has been just as common as violating the others from time immemorial, but it used to be more discreet.) Poverty according to state of life is nothing new to those faced with the responsibilities (and natural, not self-imposed, sacrifices) of marriage and parenthood. True asceticism disposes one to the intimacy with God, the 'listening,' that makes worship a dialogue - and I think it no accident that the root of the word obedience refers to listening. Yet we must not lose the value of vowed life in an attempt to produce a quasi-version for married third order members - or in an embarrassed effort from the few remaining religious to not seem different and therefore insult the married.
There is far more I can write on this topic - in fact, I once considered using a theology of consecrated life as the substance for a dissertation. I shall not live to see this, but I believe that the eschatological dimension of the vows, respect for ecclesiology and our redemption as Church (not a competition), healthy and humble asceticism, and service to others in light of the dignity all of humanity has in the Incarnation, would need to be faced without a blush before the value can be recovered.