Professor Italo de Sandre

Challenges to Christians and those living
a Consecrated Life in a Troubled World[1]


The Lord said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying for help because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings.’ (Exodus 3.7)

1. To see and listen in order to know: Christians should know that these are the first steps in any work of mercy, and that mutatis mutandis this is also the heart of the social sciences. A first problem, and a question not always solved in the Church of today, is to be truly available and ready to see, to hear and to understand the reality of the life of persons and of society, and not only what is going well and satisfactorily and beyond question. Sociological observation does not put forward an ideology of society (as certain Catholic milieux, even of the highest status, express it and understand it) but seeks to contribute by seeing things as far as possible in their complexity, with recourse to trustworthy (repeatable), valid (capable of representing the reality which is being studied) and transparent criteria, subject to control and criticism. It was in this spirit that, to give an example, in the 1990s the religious institutes, both masculine and feminine, of the North-East of Italy linked up with the Socio-Religious Observatory of the Episcopal Conference of the Three Venices to set about an ‘Observatory of the Consecrated Life’. This published, among other papers, research on ‘Young People and the Consecrated Life. Another Way’, which was published as a collective work. The representations made by the young people among religious and priests were already disenchanted and in conflict with the more institutional aspects of the consecrated life, especially the priests (‘They have the answer ready before you put the question’). But even this period of listening and of openness in the world of religious was rapidly closed again. Another example: recently, to prepare a Church Congress of Aquileia (in the North-East of Italy) in 2012 the bishops of the Three Venices asked the Socio-Religious Observatory of the Bishops’ Conference of the Three Venices (OSReT[2]) for an important and complex socio-religious enquiry, whose results, no less critical than interesting, were presented and seriously discussed by many of those responsible for pastoral discipline; but the bishops did not think it wise to publish them and hardly took note of their final conclusions. Many Catholics, bishops, religious and lay, reckoned that they ‘already knew’ them and that they had no need for ‘sociological complications’. In our day, by contrast, the Pope, as Cardinal Bergoglio, was eager that, before and between the sessions of the Synod on the Family, all the Churches and all those who were willing to voice their own witness to this life should be heard. This was an unprecedented and important decision, perhaps more for its method than for its contents, which corresponds to the results produced. Who knows when and who would make this decision and so give full value to the experience of faith and life played out in the consciousness of the faithful? This was a complexity of experiences which cannot be neglected without doing violence. Personally I judge that even monastic ommunities should set up, in their various countries, little groups of researchers among the monks and nuns (or more generally, religious) to establish and understand their changing reality.

2. For some time now various studies have shown that between parents and children an important intergenerational slippage occurs in the values accepted on faith (for example, the truth of the Gospels and Christ) and in practice, especially in the domain of morals in general and particularly in the realm of affectivity and sexuality. The image of the Church was already very problematical because of its message of austerity. Nor should one suppose that the personal sympathy enjoyed by Pope Francis extends to a sympathy and a generalised confidence in the Church as an institution. Religious practice is finding ways which imply a reduced presence of the Church (‘not too much Church’), though stopping short – for the moment – of ‘no church required’. Take note of the crowds in special sanctuaries or place of cult, thronged not only with inactive and poorly instructed people, according to the canons of popular piety, but also by active and well-instructed people who are looking for a personal path, founded on confident faith in the variously welcoming places.

The attitude of women is not much different from that of men. All the same, as the level of instruction becomes higher, so do the critical positions towards Catholicism and the Church. This implies that the traditional transmission of the faith by women cannot any more be taken for granted. The active presence of women, both consecrated and lay, more critical and more mature, requires a dialogue of reflection, shared and profound. All the same, the traditional sense of ‘service’ must be intelligently revisited across the board among both men and women.

3. The centrality of the individual, at least in the West, has led people to feel and claim to be autonomous with regard to institutions social, civil and religious (but not economic, since the market strikes consumers in a thousand and one ways). Communication technology has led to an explosion in this phenomenon. The maturing of persons functions across a course longer and less certain, encouraged by a longer period of study and rendered less directive by the multiple choices and unlimited aspirations which have become possible. More and more, vocations to the consecrated life emerge at any age where the person has aleady acquired a mature personality, less (or with more difficulty) adept at accommodating the institute entered, making the identification and organisation of the common life more complex. The unity of personal life, both for a monk and for a nun, can no longer be taken for granted, and is not obvious in roles or behaviour. This autonomy of the person, felt and claimed, is centred on the body. The body is no longer considered as something negative, to be hidden and devalued in relation to the ‘spirit’. On the contrary, it is closely linked to the spirit and reason in an active and positive sense. The consumer society encourages experiences, trying out the five senses in the most numerous possible circumstances. Thus purchases are no longer made simply for possession and use, but in order to be lived with in an emotional, physical experience, either alone or with others.

Body-spirits have a sexuality and a role which are partially transformed. This applies not only to homosexulity (as is the case with opposing ideologies in Italy). The traditional inequalities between man and woman are no longer accepted either in society or in any particular sphere of life. Discussion and confrontations (even certain manifestations of street politics), which are emerging in the framework of the debate raised by the recent synod, have shown that even in the bosom of the hierarchy and among the Catholic ‘faithful’ there exist sometimes radical differences in the way of thinking, of governing, or living out the body and the type. Bodily types which concern also the consecrated life of women and men, priests and religious, including the choice of celibacy and a virginal life, were not thematised, perhaps deliberately. This remains the case even though in lived life they interact with male and female lay people, whose perception of body and gender is different, which raises problems for the elaboration of relationships and of education in the Church and in society. In relationships between religious institutions and society, between consecrated people and lay people, the way in which personality is expressed covers non-verbal dimensions in which the body is central, either for its richness or for its weakness, both in life and in communication and in existence in general, in help given and help needed.

4. In every society styles of life (ways of being, of thinking, of believing, of acting, of relating) become a central reality. They constitute a fundamental medium of verbal and non-verbal communication of personal values in the way life is lived. The importance of styles of life lies in the personalisation of belief and action in daily life. It must not be forgotten that in actual reality those who count themselves Catholic in fact adopt styles of life which are extremely diversified or even contradictory. In fact, many of those who call themselves Catholic observe neither the social morals nor the sexual morals taught by the Church, hold different political opinions, etc. This makes it necesssary to have, especially in the religious domain, a realistic estimate and a serious dialogical discernment about daily life in order to be mutually responsible towards one another, rather than merely reprimanding ‘the others’. This must take into account the increasing decline in the religiosity of the Church as well as a serious discernment of the faith which is truly present but often confused, especially among the young. Some theologians have described the simplistic attitude of the young as ‘the first generations of unbelievers’ or ‘little atheists’. This has led a large number of them, even among priests and religious, to say that nothing more can be done. This perspective does not give enough weight to the problem of the existence of a new spirituality (not necessarily anti-religious) which it is worth living and expressing, a spirituality to be studied, understood and dialogued. A very large number of people have already left the Church because the Church has turned its back on their way of life.

5. When I recall the reflections we used to make in the 1990s I find it apposite to recall the paradoxical invitation addressed to religious institutes of men and women not only to ‘come out’ as Pope Francis has encouraged them to do, but also – and even first – to open up, in an appropriate but concrete way, not only their ‘museums’ but also the doors to their daily life, so that a greater number of people may know the styles of life, human and Christian, not only the identity of the consecrated communities (the back office not only the front office), their inner courtyard, not only their outward façade, so that their humanity and their proximity may be appreciated – proximity also in the transparency necessary in a witness. Proximity also between religious institutes, between monasteries which should share more openly their experiences and the witness of their lives, both contemplative and active. Perhaps there are here ways of co-operating which are desirable or indeed necessry. In the past these were unthinkable because of the care to safeguard the identity of each institute, which made much of the witness of the choice of the religious and monastic life, if not of Christianity itself.

This need is reinforced (at least in the West) by the diminution or indeed extinction of vocations, by the ageing and numerical reduction of the members of many communities, which is approaching closure for some communities or religious families, or at least a reduction of life within the communities.

6. As for the Church in general, we may pick up the theme of ‘service’, already touched upon. Once more the words and actions of the Pope – whom it is not rare to see strongly criticized – seem to direct us nowadays to a true and effective service more than to the imposition of authority: real help to the weak, the poor, the marginalized, those who know suffering and also those who have abandoned the ‘regular’ path. ‘Authority’ in the institutional sense, both religious and moral, is normally understood as a legitimate form of the power to command, to make others do what the holder of authority considers
just and good, shared actions and structures which function exclusively from above to below, in the form of order, rules, duties. In reality this is not the only form of power; it has a tendency to be rigid and at most only partly controlled. From the sociologiccal viewpoint it seems that there is frequent recourse to the rhetorical expedient which consists in associating a priori the term ‘service’ with this vertical model, even though it is not so perceived by others. In fact in our day, on the basis of everything that has been said, such a legitimation cuts across a total questioning, evident in the civil sphere, less shrill but also present in the religious world, as research has shown. But, when authority is neither recognised as legitimate (and so no longer enjoying confident acceptance) nor liked, what this authority does is interpreted and eventually accepted with a different force. The fact that it ‘serves’, lays down actions and pronounces words which ‘serve’ the life of persons and communities, will in fact be interpreted, even by interested parties. Authority must be recognised in a new way in a relationship which is no longer top-down, a command to obedience, as in former times, but in a relationship of respect free of humiliation, a reciprocal listening and so a dialogue on the needs and expectations, the possibilities and limits. In these days between authoritarianism and authority comes, for example, competence which must be granted its value (and in many spheres lay people are at least as competent as religious), empathy, the conviction that a capacity to work together and travel together is a richness. Service must be more easily recognisable as such, must give reason for its own validity without dressing up in the clothing of non-authenticity.

7. Everything we have said so far subtends a red line, a way of thinking of things and persons which must be described as ‘complex thinking’. Throughout the twentieth century science has cultivated a methodical and systematic sense of the complexity of knowledge and of life. In this domain maturity is reached essentially precisely at the moment of analysing with these new instruments society, persons, our world and the universe as a system. Pope Francis himself – though of course in theological and pastoral language – has implicitly expressed it in his own way in his first apostolic exhortation, and continually and increasingly given it to us in his discourses delivered in the United States, in Africa, in his Laudato Si’, in his post-synodal exhortations, in the dialogues with the press, given in the course of his journeys. To speak of complexity means to avoid reductionism and over-simplification, to avoid short cuts of the kind which accepts only what is convenient to us. It means knowing how to include in our reflection the implications of action taken. This implies eagerness to show how order and disorder, good and evil, justice and injustice are interwoven, how to look at things with realism, to map out where it is necessary to exercise discernment in order to be able to project and complete something better, to know how to recognise also the limits and conflicts in order to build bridges, to know that the whole is greater than the parts which make it up, but that – when for example it is a quesstion of persons, families, societies – paradoxically the whole is still less than the sum of its parts because each person and each family has its proper value, quite apart from the values of the group to which it belongs. A whole (for example, a family, a religious community, a Church) has its own DNA, its specific source-code, which is present also in each of the parts of the whole (such is the Christian conception of the person). The real complexity of religious experience is (as we have tried to explain) the fruit of a succession of mutations and of enormous importance: the absolute centrality a) of the subject, of the autonomy of the choices made by the person, b) of the technological innovations available to the person, which are also directly and indirectly linked to c) the limitless variety of millions and millions of persons, and so d) the simultaneous existence of a great plurality of experiences and religious institutions, e) always more dependent on the acceptance or refusal on the part of the individuals.

If one prefers to stick to a simplified vision, one will have the impression of being safe, but inevitably one will be shut in; one will not listen to oneself, but neither will anyone else.

[1] A contribution to the General Chapter of the Congregation of Subiaco-Monte Cassino in September 2016. Italo de Sandre is professor of sociology at the University of Padua. He teaches sociology of religion at the faculty of the Three Venices and at the Institute of Pastoral Liturgy of Padua. He is a member of the scientific committee of ORSeT, the Sociol-religious Observatory of the Three Venices. In recent years his research has been primarily directed to the fundamental problems of social action, and in particular the analytical implications of the processes of solidarity and communication, and the transformation of symbolic codes in the framework of a growing cultural, moral and religious pluralism.

[2] Osservatorio Socio-Religioso Triveneto, a centre of research formed in 1989 as an association between the dioceses of the Three Venices and an organ of the Episcopal Conference. Cf.