Catholic Spirituality

What Does It Mean Today?

In the forty years since the Second Vatican Council, many devotional practices, most of them developed in the early modern period, have fallen into decline. Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, although promoted vigorously in the latter part of the papacy of John Paul II, is far less common than it was in the 1950s. So are weekly parish novenas, the stations of the cross, scapular wearing, and the communal or private recitation of the rosary.

The very architectural organization of the local parish has changed dramatically, and that shift reflects new devotional tastes as well as new liturgical demands. Tabernacles have been removed from the main altar in many churches, and there has been a “downsizing” of devotional side altars once dedicated to a range of popular saints. These changes have been lamented in some quarters and praised in others, but they constitute a seismic mutation in Catholic religious sensibility, one that transpired over a relatively brief time.

For much of the same period, I have made it a practice, while traveling throughout the United States, to examine a wide variety of parish bulletins. In so doing, I have discovered that many of the older devotions linger and actually exhibit new life. Some were modified by the late pope himself, who added new “mysteries” to the rosary and a new station to the way of the cross. But the parish bulletins also provide, if anecdotally, a window on newer forms of popular spiritual practice. There are, for example, Bible study groups and prayer groups who meet to do “centering,” Taizé, or other forms of contemplative prayer. There are Renew groups, and small meetings of the divorced or singles, as well as twelve-step outreach programs fostered in a spirit of prayer. There are opportunities for joining pilgrimages, Marriage Encounter, charismatic prayer groups, or renewal programs like Cursillo. There are also announcements calling for volunteers to sponsor a food pantry, soup kitchen, or clothing wardrobe, either with the parish St. Vincent de Paul Society or another, free-standing or ecumenical group. In line with that, there is the growing phenomenon of common prayer across Christian denominational lines, through which ecumenical bonds—at least at the experiential level—are being strengthened. All of these different opportunities for spiritual growth and enrichment—beyond just the normal liturgical life of the parish—fall under the generic term “Catholic spirituality.” Some are local instances of movements that are part of a larger organizational umbrella.

In the United States, the larger popular culture has seen an infusion of nondenominational Christian spirituality, from presidential faith-based prayer breakfasts to team prayer before sporting events, from blockbuster films like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ to country-music classics and the phenomenal sales of quasi-religious, self-help improvement manuals. For Catholics, one of the problems in sorting out this new interest in spirituality is to figure out how the term spirituality is being used. Traditionally, it has been tied to St. Paul’s sense of “life in the Spirit,” as opposed to the path of the carnal person. This was the understanding of the early fathers of the church, and, in the scholastic period, of Thomas Aquinas. In the late modern period, though, the term came to be used pejoratively, particularly in France, where it was applied to those individuals who hankered after heightened states of religious sentiment and mystical escapism, experiences generally outside the bounds of common religious observance and practice. In our own day there is the added phenomenon of people who boast of being spiritual rather than religious. The implicit judgment is that being spiritual represents a higher path to enlightenment than simply being a member of a church.

Within the broad Catholic tradition, though, spirituality has meant, and continues to mean, the ways in which people, beyond the ordinary practices of the faith, have sought to live their Christian lives more intensely. We can even speak of schools of spirituality. By “more intensely” I mean the sort of religious attention that goes beyond the ordinary observances of practicing Catholics in the sacramental life of the church. It is very difficult to pin down the meaning of spirituality, but there are some empirical markers that can help to map out “Catholic spirituality today,” broadly conceived.

During the past four decades, there has been a veritable explosion of what the Vatican has called “new ecclesial movements.” These new groups range from Opus Dei (actually founded well before the council) with its different levels of participation, lay and clerical, to largely lay movements like Focolare, Communion and Liberation, the Neocatechumenate, the Legionnaires of Christ in its lay counterpart, Regnum Christi, Catholic Charismatics, the Sant’Egidio Community, L’Arche, Marriage Encounter, Cursillo, and also newer forms of religious life for both men and women. In Italy alone there have been more than sixteen new monastic experiments since Vatican II. Each of these groups, admittedly attracting a relatively small but vibrant membership, teaches a specific form of spiritual practice. Sant’Egidio, for example, emphasizes common liturgical prayer combined with service to the poor. Opus Dei’s emphasis is on Tridentine devotionalism, inspired largely, but not exclusively, by the writings of its founder, Josemaría Escrivá. Its basic handbook, El Camino (The Way), turns out to be a collection of Escrivá’s somewhat banal aphorisms. The constant tension within most of these movements comes from the temptation to become sectarian. A number of bishops around the world have complained about the Neocatechumenate, for example, and its members’ tendency to go it alone. Other bishops were disturbed when Opus Dei was made a “personal prelature,” answerable only to the Vatican. Nonetheless, in an important address to some of these groups in 1998, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger observed that their emergence had parallels in earlier church history, when, under the impulse of the Spirit, new groups revitalized the church. And, Ratzinger made the point, such renewal “hardly ever happens without pain or friction.”

Besides these new movements, there is considerable evidence that many Catholics continue to associate themselves, both formally and informally, with established religious orders, to share in these established schools of spirituality. Although Benedictine oblates are of long standing, as are third orders of groups like Franciscans and Carmelites, other new developments are taking place in this area. In the past few decades, for example, many individuals have become lay associates of Trappist monasteries, both here and abroad. There is a growing literature from the Cistercian generalate that has to do with codifying and giving shape to this movement. In addition, many communities of religious women now encourage lay membership: both women and men, not bound by traditional vows, who associate themselves with the group’s prayer life and apostolic work. Missionary communities like Maryknoll encourage lay associates. Other religious orders, whose traditional work has included college and university apostolates, have tapped into the youthful vigor of their students, training graduates for short-term missionary work. Many of my own students have gone on to volunteer with groups like Holy Cross Associates and the Jesuit Volunteers.

If the new ecclesial movements or affiliation with existing religious communities are oriented toward established groups, one can still observe older trends. In this country, for example, there remains a thirst among some for a type of Marian devotionalism associated with purported apparition sites, whether in this country (for example, Bayside, New York) or abroad (for example, Medjugorje). Such devotionalism got a fair impetus from John Paul II’s rather baroque enthusiasm for devotion to Mary, as seen, for instance, in his conviction that Our Lady of Fátima saved his life when he was struck by an assassin’s bullet—a bullet the pope later enshrined in a statue depicting Our Lady of Fátima. It may also account in part for the widespread popularity of Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ, whose script was influenced by the extravagant “revelations” of Anne Catherine of Emmerich, an early nineteenth-century German mystic. The rallying point for the recrudescence of these types of devotionalism is the cable channel EWTN, with its endless procession of priests swanning about in elaborate religious garb and preaching about this or that form of devotion.

The enormous popularity of spiritual writing in the past few decades is a broader sign of interest in spirituality. Thomas Moore’s The Care of the Soul was on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list for years. Kathleen Norris’s Dakota and her Cloister Walk made the same list. Both authors drew on Catholic sources, although only Moore had a Catholic background (he had been a Servite friar). His work had a largely Jungian patina. Norris, a Presbyterian, used monastic sources to introduce her contemporary audience to the teachings of traditional Christian spirituality. Other writers, such as Richard Rohr, Ronald Rolheiser, Joan Chittister, Scott Hahn, and the late Anthony De Mello, John Main, Henri Nouwen, and Basil Pennington continue to reach large, appreciative audiences. They are the natural heirs of the Caryll Houslanders, Hubert Von Zellers, and Columba Marmions of an earlier age. Thomas Merton’s books remain enormously popular, even though he has been dead nearly four decades. Along with C. S. Lewis, Merton is the most widely read spiritual writer of the previous generation.

But popular spiritual writers (of whom only Merton and Lewis count as real intellectuals) are but a single facet of the renewed public interest in spiritual writing. One of the recent success stories of Catholic publishing in this country is the phenomenally popular Paulist Press series Classics of Western Spirituality. From several initial volumes in 1979, the series now includes more than a hundred titles, from Julian of Norwich to the Zohar. In addition, Orbis publishes its Modern Spiritual Masters collection, and Crossroad has its Spiritual Legacy books. Smaller publishing firms, some associated with religious orders, are making available classical spiritual authors from their own tradition, such as the Institute of Carmelite Studies, Cistercian Publications, Liturgical Press, and the Association of Jesuit University Presses. New City Press (associated with Focolare) has an ongoing series of brilliant new translations of the works of St. Augustine. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press (Orthodox) is a resource for inexpensive volumes of patristic writings and a wide range of Orthodox spiritual writers. Templegate continues to publish a fine line of classics and contemporary works that appeal to an ecumenical audience, as does Eerdmans. Ignatius Press has been a resource for those who wish to read twentieth-century Catholic writers such as G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Jean Danielou, and Romano Guardini. It also publishes the voluminous works of the current pontiff.

Spiritual reading, always a daily component of the lives of professed religious, has become more ecumenical and eclectic. Long gone are the meditation manuals of old, replaced since Vatican II by greater attention to Scripture, its prominence underscored by Vatican II’s Dei verbum and the scholarship of such authors as Raymond Brown, Carroll Stuhmueller, Pheme Perkins, and Luke Timothy Johnson. This new popular interest in studying and praying the Scriptures has gained prominence among a variety of lay groups too, including reading clubs, RCIA classes, Catholic Worker houses, and adult-education courses. The desire for personal spiritual direction has also begun to flourish among the laity, and has given rise to formal training programs in this discipline (complete with diplomas, degrees, and associations for accreditation) to a degree unimaginable before. Many women religious have found their vocations as spiritual advisers and are staff members at numerous retreat centers.

Given the therapeutic bent of our culture and the concomitant popularity of self-help literature, there have been some dubious attempts to link these approaches with the spiritual plane. The mildly faddish interest in the Enneagram or the Jungian-inspired Myers/Briggs assessment model, for example, has attained a certain hold in some quarters of the current Catholic scene. Add to this the advertisements one reads for retreat houses offering labyrinth walks, massage therapy, specialized retreats for those who wish to combine Christian contemplative practices and Zen sitting (zazen), courses in male spirituality, hermitage experiences, and so on, and you begin to get the sense that Catholic spirituality may become too capacious an umbrella. Furthermore, the intrusion of new-age practices and other experimental approaches has raised enough concern that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has issued warnings, not always prudently formulated, against false mysticism and/or syncretism.

If what counts for spirituality has become overly elastic in recent decades, there have also been attempts to describe it more precisely, under stricter theological and historical categories. Both the late Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar, for example, lamented the wedge that had developed between theology and spirituality, and both sought to overcome it. As a consequence, there has been an explosion of scholarly interest in the study of Christian spirituality. It is now a component of graduate-level curriculums in this country. In the early 1990s, that interest led to the formation of the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. Its excellent journal, Spiritus, and the recent publication of an important volume, Minding the Spirit (Johns Hopkins University Press), with essays describing the methodologies, parameters, and problems in this relatively new field, are an indication of the growing seriousness of this new discipline.

The yearning for a deeper Christian life is hardly a new phenomenon in the history of the church. One can point to a number of eras, usually following some sort of cultural crisis, where new forms of spirituality emerged, some to enter the tradition, others to fade. One thinks of the intense spirituality centered on the humanity of Christ, especially the suffering Christ, that blossomed in the thirteenth century, largely under Franciscan impulse (but with roots that go back to the Cistercians and even earlier); or, more conspicuously, of baroque spirituality in the seventeenth century. It developed, at least in part, as a counternarrative to the Reformation.

Something like that may be happening today. In the “winter period” following the council, to use Karl Rahner’s phrase, the growing interest in spirituality may signal a grass-roots attempt to find meaning and coherence. Maybe the rise of the new ecclesial movements is a response to the precipitous decline in the religious orders, just as the new forms of spiritual practice may signal a replacement for the collapse of baroque devotionalism.

Various pronouncements of the council provide warrants for such a shift, even though the conciliar documents use the term “spirituality” but once. Still, the council urged a reform of the liturgy; cautioned against holding on to antiquated customs in religious life; called for the use of the Scriptures to nourish public worship and personal devotion; and spoke of the need for adaptation in the life of prayer. The council also paid modest honors to the yearnings inherent in the world’s other religions.

In the spasms of reform immediately following the council, much that was old was swept away. In its place came experiments, some precipitous, to craft new forms for living out the Christian life. This is not a new story. In the eleventh century, new ways of living the gospel sprang up all over Europe, following the reforms initiated by Gregory VII. The same thing, one might argue, is happening now, and it’s not at all surprising. The history of Christian tradition and spirituality reveals the perennial signs of change and renewal.

Catholic spirituality today provides a broad array of styles, practices, and literatures, enough to engage the interested Catholic of whatever temperament. If there is a healthy place for “cafeteria Catholicism,” it is clearly in the area of spirituality. Doctrine, liturgy, and authority provide the framework for the Catholic faith; the ways in which that faith gets enfleshed, nourished, and kept vigorous is a matter of choice and taste within the broad compass of the authentic Catholic tradition. But, as my mother pointed out many years ago, one shouldn’t only put dessert on one’s tray. In his Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales counseled wisely: “True devotion never causes harm but perfects everything we do....A devotion that conflicts with anyone’s state of life is undoubtedly false.” The same is true in choosing from the cornucopia of Catholic spiritual practices. It is good to be devoted to the Mother of God and express that devotion in prayer; it is good to mediate on the Scriptures, to make retreats, or to join a prayer group; it is salutary to serve the poor. These and other expressions of a vigorous Christian life are all good when performed by those who attend the liturgy and confess their faith in the creed, which is where the Catholic Church becomes concrete in time and place. As Vatican II reminds us, though, “the sacred liturgy does not exhaust the entire activity of the church.”

It is in the pluriform possibilities of Catholic spirituality that we find both old and new ways of living more intensely in the Spirit. Some of these “possibilities” may prove to have shallow roots and so fade; others may flourish well into the future. But the new experiments in Catholic spirituality that we are seeing today testify, at the very least, to the fact that the Spirit still lives in the church. For that reason, we do well to pay heed to Paul’s advice to the church of Thessalonica: “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good. Refrain from every kind of evil” (1 Thess 5:19-22).

Published in the 2006-02-24 issue: 

Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.

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