A Modest Proposal for Dying Religious Communities

Over the last several years, I’ve come into contact with a number of dying religious orders: groups of men or women religious, dwindling in number, who haven’t had a new vocation in over thirty years. Some of these religious live in what is now the somewhat embarrassing palatial splendor of a convent or priory financed and built during headier days when vocations were many and the assumption was they would always remain that way.

Needless to say, they didn’t. Not only did the number of novices drop, in some cases, the better vocations these orders did get were often turned away, as being psychologically “unhealthy.” It reminds me of the old joke about the man who refused on principle to be part of a club that would take someone like himself as a member, only in this case the situation is reversed: the religious order won’t accept members foolish enough to want to belong to a club like theirs.

So now we have the rather awkward situation of a group of six or seven religious living in a building meant for sixty or seventy. If they wanted, they could live in a different room every day of the year. Usually they just close down whole sections of the building and leave them to the ghosts.

What many of these groups seek to do in order to rid themselves of these white elephants is sell them off in order to secure the comfortable retirement of the remaining members of the order. But there is often one group they refuse to sell to: namely other, more conservative religious orders or institutions.

They’re often desperate for buyers and want to get out from under the responsibilities of caring for a big building they no longer need. To developers who want to turn these houses of prayer and reflection into (A) condos, or (B) retirement villages for the elderly, the answer is always “yes” (if the price is right). But when a young vibrant conservative religious order or a start-up Catholic college comes their way looking to buy, then the answer is no, no, and by the way, did I mention, no!

These . . .

I even know of one case where the sisters inquired whether the members of the regional Indian tribe, who hadn’t actually lived in the local area for over 150 years, would take over the property. Not surprisingly, they weren’t interested.

But please understand, these people do have their scruples. They won’t sell to just anyone. They draw the line at selling to Catholics “of the wrong sort.” That would be Catholics who don’t share the same “spirit of Vatican II” that they do.

In Melville’s Moby Dick, Ahab, caught up in the ropes of the harpoon he himself has thrown, cries out as he is dying to the silent implacable foe he has spent his life obsessively trying to exterminate from the earth: “to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” Dylan Thomas begged his dying father to “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” These orders are determined to rage, rage, against the coming of the light.

Here is my modest proposal. These religious orders raised money from generous Catholic laypeople who offered up their pennies and dimes and dollars because they believed that these orders were engaged in a mission for the Church. If the remaining members of the order don’t want to carry out that mission, fine. It’s a free country. No one is going to force you. But you did take some vows, and you did pledge yourself to something, so now we’re going to hold you to those vows to this degree:

You’ve got to hand the building over to a Catholic organization or institution, no matter how conservative. Many of those old buildings would be excellent places for one of the younger, more dynamic religious orders. Some of them would be perfect places for young start-up Catholic liberal arts colleges or prep schools.

. . . not these

I know of a dozen different start-up Catholic schools trying desperately to get the funds to build needed facilities. And yet, there are perfectly good Catholic buildings out there ready to go as soon as the freeloaders who are now residing in them get out. Those buildings are Catholic resources held in trust. If the current residents don’t want to use them to support the mission of the Church, then let someone else do so.

Ironic, isn’t it, that after all their support for socialism, these religious orders should be so supremely grateful for the guarantees of private property. If this were the sort of true socialist haven they fought for, the government would just repossess the buildings and give them to those who would make better use of them.

From Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum to John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus, the Church has made clear that there are limits to private property rights. So to these dying religious orders, let us say: You don’t own those buildings; you merely hold them in trust for the next generation. They were built for the Church; so let the Church help you pass on what was entrusted to you. So if you can find one decent Catholic buyer, you’d better hand over the keys.

And given the fact that the money for building was donated in the first place, it might be best if you simply donated the building to a living religious community in need of larger facilities. Demanding they pay you millions is, shall we say, a bit unseemly.

There’s spirit in those stones. With a little life inside, that spirit would come alive again, and we’d see a flourishing of the sort the people who gave the money envisioned when they made the sacrifices necessary to build them in the first place.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.