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Divorced from religious life?

Do seminaries and religious orders have a responsibility to the young men and women who have entrusted their spiritual lives to them if and when they decide to leave?

A young member of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich., prays in 2014 at the order's chapel in St. Louis. (CNS photo/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review) See CMSWR-SURVEY-YOUNG June 8, 2016.

I’ve seen it too often. A young Catholic man or woman leaves the seminary or novitiate and then leaves the Church altogether. Why does this happen? The priesthood and religious life are noble vocations, but they are not the only vocations in the Church.

We likely do a great disservice in the way we sometimes allow ourselves to use the word “vocation” to refer to the specific vocation only some men and women have to the priesthood or religious life. Our vocation is to be members of the Body of Christ. And as St. Paul teaches us, the eye cannot do what the arm does, nor can the arm do what the leg does. And yet all are united in one Body. You may think you are a strong pair of legs to run like the wind. But perhaps you will find instead that you are an especially strong set of arms to lift heavy burdens. We are called to be what we were created to be, not to be something we’re not but wish we were. We should encourage men and women who feel called to the priesthood and religious life to explore that option, but we will do them and the Church a great disservice if we pack them off and treat them as though the call were definite, when it may only be the pious exuberance of youth.

I was privileged recently to hear a talk by Dr. Jennifer Muñoz, whose research at the Institute for Psychological Studies in Washington, DC—the only avowedly Catholic institute of psychology in the country—was on the sense of pain and loss young women experience when they leave the religious life before taking their final vows. Dr. Muñoz found that this is a problem almost no one has written about, even though the problem and the pain are very real. The closest one can come to describing it, suggests Dr. Muñoz, is by analogy with the pain and loss a person feels in a divorce. So much of one’s sense of self and the vision of one’s future is tied up with this relationship that, when it is over, there is a deep sense of emptiness. Some women will express a sense of sadness and loss, a feeling that God is no longer present to them, for years, sometimes decades, afterward. For some, the pain and confusion are so great, they will simply choose to shut the door altogether on the Church, perhaps even on God.

Many religious orders work hard to get vocations, especially in the modern world. Good religious orders direct their novices through a healthy period of discernment, guiding them step by step into a deeper connection to the order. But if religious superiors are not careful, novices can be convinced they must “give themselves totally” when they are not ready. And then, too often, when a young man or woman decides to leave the seminary or religious life, there is little or no attention given to what will happen to them emotionally and spiritually afterward. It’s as if the person leaving is no longer their concern.

Often the manner in which the person is separated from the community can be disturbing in its suddenness and mystery. When I was a tutor-in-residence for two years in a major diocesan seminary, one would come to lunch, realize someone was missing, and be told: “I saw him loading all his possessions into his car last night at 2 am. He’s gone. That’s all we know.” “Is this Communist Russia?” I thought. “Do people here simply disappear in the middle of the night, and no one is allowed to speak of it?” Whatever modern psychologists might have told seminary rectors during those years about “making a clean break,” not only did the practice not seem healthy, it had that suspicious “feel” about it that made you think the people responsible for it had lost touch with what it’s like to be human.

This idea of the “clean break” is something one finds in the corporate world as well—a world that increasingly includes colleges and universities. A security guard shows up at a person’s office, tells him or her, “Empty your desk,” and escorts him or her off the premises like a criminal. This is said to be “better for all.” I’ve never met an employee treated this way or any employees who have seen it happen who thought it was “better” for anyone.

Do seminaries and religious orders have a responsibility to the young men and women who have entrusted their spiritual lives and futures to them to take care of them spiritually if and when they decide to leave? Let’s presume for the moment that the humane, Christian answer to that question is yes. A good way to begin would be for seminaries and religious orders to get a copy of Dr. Muñoz’s research and begin reflecting on the changes they might need to make in the way they part company with those who leave.

And yet, the rest of us in the Church might also ask ourselves whether we are doing our part to help. To what extent when we say, “Do you think he has a vocation?” do we assume this means a vocation to the priesthood or religious life? Do we speak as though every other choice is a kind of “second best”—the alternative you choose when you can’t “hack it” in the religious life? This is simply not the right way to think about a vocation. A person who enters the seminary or a religious order is discerning a vocation, not choosing one. God is calling everyone to do his will, to love him and their neighbor as themselves, but he is certainly not calling everyone to that particular form of religious life. This is what “discernment” is about.

To what extent do Catholic schools and colleges add to the problem by imitating their secular counterparts, profiling in their official publications the lives of their “successful” alumni, by which they mean those with successful careers (with a special bow to those who are financially successful), and simply add to the list those alumni who have (praise God!) entered religious life. How often, by contrast, do we see similarly flattering profiles of a husband and wife who have cooperated with God to parent a horde of wonderfully obstreperous children and who spend most of their days doing simple acts of kindness for their neighbors? How often is the unassuming “holiness of everyday life” celebrated? How about a Catholic couple raising a child with Down syndrome? Since over 90 percent of children with Down syndrome are aborted, this especially heroic act might be worthy of notice.

We might also ask—without in any way wishing to diminish the legitimacy of the feelings these young men and women are experiencing when they leave religious life—whether these young men and women have really experienced a “divorce”? Women religious often use the terminology of becoming “the bride of Christ.” This is a beautiful image, but we can misuse it. Young people discerning a vocation to the priesthood or religious life are in a courtship; they’re not yet married. And like many courtships, this particular one might not be the right one.

Please don’t mistake my meaning: God is always the right one. But the Jesuits, Carmelites, or Franciscans may not be. This particular religious order may not be the right venue in which to spend one’s life with God, any more than this particular yellow house in Boston is necessarily the place you will spend your married life, or this particular job in Chicago the place where you will serve your neighbor.

It is not uncommon for young people to be convinced about a young love that “this one is the one God wants me to marry,” only to have the relationship break up. It can be heart-wrenching. It is also not uncommon for such young people to grow older, marry someone else, look back on that relationship, and realize, “That would have been so totally wrong.” And yet God can transform even our mistakes into a blessing. There probably was something you needed to learn in that relationship. So learn the lesson and, with God’s grace, move on.

If you leave the seminary or religious life, you don’t leave God, and he certainly doesn’t leave you. You haven’t “failed to measure up.” You’ve merely discerned that this particular way of serving God and neighbor isn’t the one God was calling you to. There is a world full of ways to love God and neighbor. Find the one God is really calling you to and embrace it wholeheartedly. God takes us by the path he takes us. He doesn’t always promise we’ll understand it. What he promises is that he will always remain faithful and never abandon us.

About Dr. Randall B. Smith 20 Articles
Dr. Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology and current holder of the Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He was also the 2011-2012 Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.

21 Comments

  1. Thank you for so thoughtfully expressing concerns about this important topic – for young Catholic people – and the older ones who are supposed to be helping them.

  2. We may not realize it often enough, but the devout life is full of pitfalls.

    Christ is not the answer so much as the question. The path I take to follow him is my answer.

  3. IAGREE WITH MUÑOZ. THE SEMINARY AND THE NOVICIATE ARE TO CATOLICS NOT TO FUTURES PRIESTS OR SISTERS. THE DIGINTY IS FROM BAPTISM NOT FROM ORDINATION OR

  4. I have lived this experience in a women’s religious order and while most of this is true, there are other issues that contribute to why people, and myself, leave.

    I will agree whole heatedly that for some it is like a divorce but for me it was more like a death. I mourned for years, and to some extent still do, with what religious life could be versus the stark reality. The two cannot be reconciled.

    Everyone who enters, male or female, finds after time that religious life is behaviorally dysfunctional. This is not some superficial character flaw, but is a deep seeded pathology that does not foster love, kindness, understanding, nurturing, supportive environment. One could actually equate the formation stage as a type of hazing. Psychological abuses, spiritual abuses abound and like myself leave people so damaged they cannot reconcile what they experienced with the church as a whole. So they move to the outer margin where one can minimize any possible repeat of abuse.

    God is the most important part of my life. No one can ever take that away. Therefore, I make quite sure I minimize the probability of ever running into those people again. I do not attend church regularly and if I do its to the TLM three towns over where I know they will not be.

    Another point to bring is, my order and I am quite sure many others as well, do not care if people leave or why they leave. The old mentality found in the (un)holy rule was to shun those who leave lest others decide the same. They literally demonize those who leave, usually spread lies about the person and why they left, and NEVER ask themselves where they went wrong.

    • Amen sister. This sounds like I could have written it. I’m sad that this all has to be said…but I feel blessed that I am not alone in my experience of feelings.!

    • I left 23 years ago, but the pain is still there. Glowing and all smiles are just a mask. There is no support given not even the parish priest dared to ask “are you okay? Can we talk about it?” What is said here is the truth, sad and bitter truth yet when one joins, you receive all the hugs and kisses. The inner pain is worse than a scar! Something must be done because leaving is due reasons. You don’t wake up and leave asap. You pray and meditate about it. I feel that I was left in the cold alone for long. Thank you for sharing this, at least I am not alone but its emotional torture to those who left.

    • I think you may be right. I had an aunt, now deceased, who was a Dominican sister. When she was young, she was very orthodox, but as she aged she became very liberal. But no matter how liberal she became, she would bad mouth other sisters who left the convent. She’d say that they lacked guts or they were taking the easy road out. But, as you said, I think that this was instilled in her at a very early age by her superiors.

      • I wonder: Was your aunt from one of the “usual suspects” Dominican motherhouses in the Midwest? (The four I have in mind are: Sinsinawa, Wisconsin; Adrian, Michigan; Springfield, Illinois; and Louisville, Kentucky.)

        To this day, those four motherhouses are a big part of the problem, and not at all a part of the solution, among the Dominican sisters hereabouts. And all four are major players in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).

        There are Dominican sisters here in the Midwest who are bastions of Catholic orthodoxy, and who preach, teach, and defend the eternal and unchanging truths of Holy Mother Church clearly and unambiguously – but they come from the motherhouses in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Nashville, Tennessee.

    • “Everyone who enters, male or female, finds after time that religious life is behaviorally dysfunctional.”

      What, *every*one? Whatever your own experiences, I don’t think you can make such sweeping statements. There are clearly quite a few people who don’t agree with you.

      “The old mentality found in the (un)holy rule was to shun those who leave lest others decide the same. They literally demonize…”

      Umm – as did you, by describing them as unholy.

  5. The vocation to what is now called the “consecrated life” has based on the teaching of Jesus himself and St. Paul, always been considered a special vocation. In the first three centuries of the life of the Church, the Christian communities had consecrated virgins, also widows in their midst. Then, after Constantine gave the Edict of Milan in 313 and the possibility of martyrdom no longer existed, the anachoretic and coenobitic life began in the deserts of Egypt, St. Anthony and St. Pacomius being very important in the early period. Later on, it appeared in Syria, and in the West, especially thanks to the popularity of St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony, which influenced St. Augustine before his conversion. Because this vacation involves “eunochia”, the sacrifice of giving up the normal human vocation to marriage and formation of a family, for the sake of the kingdom, as well as the renunciation of other aspects of the normal human and Christian life, it is more specifically a vacation.

    As for the present situation in my opinion, what we have is a serious crisis in religious life and the traditionally great religious orders like the Jesuits, Franciscans and Dominicans are in serious trouble so that not a few of those who leave these and other orders do so not because don’t have a vocation, but because many of these orders have secularized themselves, and they are either separated by the superiors because they are not willing to live the religious life in a manner, not in agreement with the Tradition and teaching of the Church. Or they simply leave for the same reason. Not a few of the newer congregations have also had serious problems, the Legionaries of Christ being the best known of these, bu there are several others with problems.
    Another problem arises when those in charge of the formation of the members are unsuited to the task and some of the seminarians or religious find no other option but leave due to being mistreated etc. The formation program may not be adequate for the kind of young people who are arriving in seminaries and novitiates these days. The number of years of formation is not few and if they leave after several, then the kind of studies they have done is not helpful for getting a job in the labour market. I have had cases of young men being separated from the seminary and not having been told why. A new Ratio Studiorum for seminarians has been approved by Rome recently and the Bishops Conferences are to make adaptations for their territories. There is more emphasis on affective maturity, as many of the young men who leave the seminaries or abandon the ministry do so due to problems of this kind. There is another problem among the clergy, which is also common in the professions, and that is burnout. As for the way the seminarian or religious is separated from the community, in general, it has improved. One thing which could help is to invite those leaving to approach the Pastor of their parish and offer their collaboration in some Parish activities. Maybe the seminary authorities, in agreement with the seminarian who is leaving could contact the Pastor and let him know so that he could contact the seminarian or religious. Blessed Paul VI stated in his Encyclical Ecclesiam Suam that “dialogue is the way of the Church “. It seems that many in the Church haven’t realized that this is the case.

  6. Thank you – I have personally lived this separation, leaving religious life before making vows, and I am grateful that there is an emerging realisation within the Church that “aftercare” is essential to leaving religious life, and that the separation should be gradual rather than sudden.

    An organisation that has helped me process my own grief, loss and confusion is “Leonie’s Longing” – I think it is the only organisation of its kind anywhere in the world. It is run by volunteers with a shoestring budget, just enough to keep up with their website costs. At present they are just a content provider and a referral service, and they seek to personally (generally through correspondence I think) accompany in conversation and prayer those who are struggling with transition back to the world. I know they are talking about running a retreat in the future.

    Their website is leonieslonging.org for anyone who is interested and may benefit from the solidarity of a community of others who “get it”

    • Thank you for that link and a very needed place for people to go to to process their experience and people that understand.

    • Love Leonie’s Longing. The support both spiritually and concretely have helped to put me on the path to healing. i don’t even know how I found them…but I can only believe that God brought me to them…

  7. Thanks for posting this! I left my community nine months ago, and would have made final vows this past week. Eventhough I am “Glowing” I feel completely sad and heart broken. I’ve been through my parents divorce and it feels like I’m reliving it. Dont get me wrong, I love the Sisters I was with, but don’t understand why those who inflict pain on other sisters besides myself are still there and being promoted to higher positions in the community. Also I don’t understand understand why some priests will support us before entering, and while in formation, but when we leave drop us like a hot potato. That is what hurts me the most. Thanks for posting this!

    • Just said a prayer for you, Lae! Some of what you said resonated with my own experience. Yes, there are a lot of things that can happen behind convent doors that are wounding (& if it comes from someone in religious authority/in a higher position in a community, it can “feel” like it’s coming from the hand of God, though it’s not!), and not having proper support or understanding when “out” can be challenging. Like all crosses, this can be an opportunity for deeper intimacy with God. He is the only One who fully understands. May we let Him love us daily.

    • “Also I don’t understand understand why some priests will support us before entering, and while in formation, but when we leave drop us like a hot potato. ”

      I wonder if maybe those priests are afraid that they will appear to be pressuring you if they contact you after leaving.

      • My spiritual director was the first person I called outside my. Family. We talked and he prayed. and then he left me alone for a while. We would have lunch occasionally and I would let a little more of the story out each time. He just listened and offered his time had I wanted it. I think I put him off so long because I was SURE he was going to tell me that this w as my fault and that I hadn’t tried hard enough. I could’ tha e been further from
        The truth but I had to learn to trust again. 9 years after we talked about therapy. He said he prayed for me by name every day at Mass. 10 years later I found a beautiful Catholic therapist and blessedly we were a fit for. Each other. She has gently taken me through the sorrow and guilt and now is gently moving me along in life so that I do t let what they did to me paralyze me any more.

  8. I think this article brings to light what unfortunately many who leave religious life or seminary experience as they transition back to lay life. I myself left religious formation twice and each transition was extremely difficult, though very different. One community helped me prepare for the transition and had some things set up for me (clothes, a place to live, and I had applied for studies) but I lived the life until everything was in place even though I knew I wasn’t called to it. The other community told me I was leaving and I was on a plane about 16 hours later with nothing but the clothes I was wearing and some money. I can appreciate the value of both ways of departing- if you know you are not called to that particular community or state of life, then continuing it will bring others down with you, however a sudden break from those with whom you thought you would spend the rest of your life leaving you without goodbye’s, an identity, a future, or any support is perhaps even more difficult.
    I have found that Leonie’s Longing is such a helpful ministry for those transitioning from religious life, as is having met a number of other men and women who have gone through the same challenge and continued to live the faith. I have also found a number of priests who have tried to reach out since I came home, but I agree that it is a fairly misunderstood issue. I hope that religious communities come to realize how painful it can be to transition and that they try to support as best they can those who have entrusted them with their care. Hopefully the community will respect the fact that this individual was willing to give their life to the community and will not make the transition any more difficult than it already is because the individual is still a part of the Body of Christ. I agree with the article that with all struggles, we are called to learn from it and grow from that experience. It is a difficult road to walk, yet Jesus never promised that following Him would be easy, but He did promise that He would be with us through it all.

  9. Thank you for writing this! As a former diocesan priest, I resonated with your writing. In many ways, my life has moved on fine. Being a Catholic is still a challenge. I go to Mass and triggers are pulled in me nearly every time I go.
    Worth noting; we pray for “vocations” to priesthood and religious life. I have never heard anyone praying for those who have discerned (or been told) to leave ministry. We are still the church. We are still your brothers and sisters and we pray with you every Sunday (often towards the back of church) and we need your prayers also.

  10. It’s good that more is being written on this topic & thank you to the author on his attempt to write about it. After being in communication with a priest as well as a couple of women I know who, like me, used to be in a religious community, there are a few thoughts/comments that I will pass along here in regards to what they had to say about this article as well as comments from others & myself in regards to the overall topic of this article:
    – I am glad it is being discussed. I think it is a fairly good article, but the writer seems to vacillate between saying, we need to acknowledge the suffering here, and, they need to ‘get over it.’ So, I think it is just the beginning of discussion, and hope there are additions to the discussion which are more thoughtful and more thoroughly thought through.
    – Over all I liked it, but it’s really just scratching the surface of the topic. I don’t think he gives the reader enough of a sense of the pain of the experience, he doesn’t give any practical suggestions about supporting those of us who have left and he seems to be writing about only those who willingly discerned to leave by choice not about those who didn’t choose it. It’s a good start but very incomplete. I’d be interested in reading the psychologist’s research.
    – It seems that the author was giving a superficial reflection in about 1000 or so words. I would be curious as to how Dr. Munoz actually addressed the subject or how she would respond to the comments.
    – The author talks about how the term ‘bride of Christ’ is often misused (YES!), but then doesn’t explain & the wordage used in the article was not very clear. He also implies that leaving religious life is not like a divorce because discerning doesn’t mean you’re committing. It’s obvious that he’s not relating to our experience of making ourselves a complete gift even before entering with our ‘yes, I will marry you’ moments. This paragraph is not well written in terms of content. Even his use of ‘young people’ shows me how he lacks in knowledge of the topic because many of us don’t fall under that category any more. And what about people who were in perpetual vows and left? No mention of them.
    – Yes, the term “bride of Christ” is a beautiful image but it’s narrowly used; people only think it applies to religious women and people take it too literally when in reality it is a human image of the relationship between Christ and the church (each one of us is a bride of Christ – see Catechism 796) and it’s a human concept used to depict a divine reality. I’m in agreement with the author about how the term is used too often & people believe incorrect things/think it only refers to religious sisters, though I wish the author was more explicit about this.
    – In regards to “the bride of Christ” terminology, we’re at the beginning of the reflection of St. JPII’s Theology of the Body. Perhaps with marriage under attack, God wants to increase awareness of the spousal love in marriage, consecration in marriage, how it shows God’s spousal love. Something a priest said recently that was helpful in comparing consecration in religious life to the sacrament of marriage consecration is: the first is a giving of self totally to God (taking ONLY God as one’s Spouse) whereas the later is a giving self totally to God (our Bridegroom) with another person. It also shows God (our Bridegroom)’s self-giving to the Church (each individual person). Additionally, as another priest had said in a Homily, marriage is a visible sign of our marriage with God; God weds Himself to each one of us. Another priest in a talk said how there is one marriage between God & the world and each marriage is to reflect this & to draw strength from it.
    – A woman who used to be in religious life stated, “…religious are brides of Christ in the special sense that they with their entire way of life make explicit what is implicit for every soul. But it doesn’t mean that those who are implicitly his brides through baptism are only partially so. The Church fathers have always spoken of every soul as being the bride of Christ….” As another woman worded it: religious sisters/consecrated virgins reveal visually in the body of Christ the reality of what we all are to the Lord, how He is espoused to both of us. And yet as another person worded it: When someone marries, they share in and give witness to Christ’s spousal love for the person whom they marry. As for consecrated persons, they give witness to the fact that Christ is also worth an exclusive love.

  11. Why are vows required? Vows, by themselves, don’t necessarily keep you in line. It would be better to revisit the New Testament model of Christianity. It’s quite different than what there is today.

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