The longer novitiate

Ed Peters discusses a proposal to increase the length of the novitiate in religious orders. (For those who do not know: when you enquire about joining a religious order, even if you are in residence for a while, you do so as a postulant; when you actually join – this is when you are "clothed" in the habit if there is one – you are a novice; when you reach the end of the novitiate you take temporary vows and become a junior. Up to this point leaving is fairly unproblematic and indeed foreseen, once you take final vows you are in for life.)

This two-year (and-a-half) year max applies only to novitiate, the completion of which period makes one eligible for temporary vows. Emphasis on temporary, meaning three to six years (per 1983 CIC 655), extendable to nine (per 1983 CIC 657 § 2). Now, one in temporary vows is a religious, and departures during temporary vows are distressing, but they are, in the final analysis, departures made during a period called temporary for a reason. At which point we may ask, is it probable that one, having gone through at least two years (maybe two-and-a-half) of novitiate, followed by at least three more years (possibly nine more!) in temporary vows, fails to perservere in religious life because of too-brief a formation period? It’s possible, I grant. But probable? Sufficiently probable to explain the tens of thousands of departures that the Church’s religious institutes have experienced over the last 40 years?

Peters refers to an essay from 1984 by the philosopher Paul Quay SJ, Renewal of Religious Orders, or Destruction? Fr Quay, writing in a journal of Canon Law, points out that given the procedures in place for dispensing people from their final vows, there is no longer any right, for those properly disposed and prepared, to take indispensable vows.

With the promulgation of the Code of Canon Law in 1917, however, the Church ceased to recognize any totally indissoluble vows of religion. In virtue of the Pio-Benedictine Code, the religious order as spiritually, if not always juridically, understood for many centuries, was abrogated, at least in the Patriarchate of the West. 

(There you go again: St Pius X reformed the Breviary and made the Liturgy the plaything of the Papacy – with the consequences we all know – but not content with that he also abolished traditional religious orders. And he is supposed to be held up as the traditionalists' favourite Pope!)

Quay's essay as published, and as reproduced by Peters, included a brief commentary by a Canon lawyer, Dominic Andres CMF. Quay concluded as follows:

As has doubtless been apparent throughout this article, I am not a canonist. The problem raised here may well have, for a canonist, an obvious and simple resolution; it may be no problem at all, but only a misconstrual on my part. Yet, having talked to many on this topic, I can attest that many so construe the law. It would, therefore, be of help to many if those more competent than I would address this matter. 

The commentary provides a magnificent hand wave, wafting all the problems away. Andres seizes on that final paragraph with the following smug observation (emphasis added).

The author, while a religious, is not trained in canon law, but in philosophy, and perhaps his acute observations are better understood under this light, for they are not groundless nor lacking in psychological and spiritual importance. Another step toward understanding this matter lies in the final paragraph of the study.

Well, Quay asked for a concrete proposal to resolve this problem. And what does this canon lawyer propose? Absolutely nothing. Literally. That was the end of his reply.

See also Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith The disappearance of traditional religious orders is changing the landscape of the Church.