Perfectæ caritatis, subtitled as the Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life, is the document issued by the Second Vatican Council which deals specifically with institutes of consecrated life in the Roman Catholic Church. One of the shorter documents of the council, the decree was approved by a vote of 2,321 to 4 of the assembled bishops, and promulgated by Pope Paul VI on 28 October 1965. As is customary for Roman Catholic ecclesiastical documents, the title is taken from the first words (incipit) of the decree: "of Perfect Charity" in Latin.
The Second Vatican Council had already given an exposition of the nature of religious life in chapter 6 of the constitution Lumen gentium. This chapter described the essential form of religious life as a life "consecrated by the profession of the evangelical counsels". The decree Perfectae caritatis was published in order to, "treat of the life and discipline of those institutes whose members make profession of chastity, poverty and obedience and to provide for their needs in our time". Perfectae Caritatis clarifies some of Lumen gentium's content and becomes an important way to integrate it. Both documents reorient religious life from primarily a way of individual sanctification to a means for the sanctification of the church. An essentially ecclesial focus permeates the entire document. According to Archbishop Franc Rodé, Prefect for the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, "the good of the Church is the raison d'être of the Document."
Perfectae caritatis is subtitled "Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life". Adaptation refers to adjusting to the "changed conditions of the times”"; renewal refers to "a continuous return to the sources of all Christian life and to the original inspiration behind a given community.” Religious communities were urged to return to their roots, adapt to the needs of the contemporary world in light of Scripture and the early intent their founders. For many religious communities, this involved revisiting the historical events relative to their foundation. The decree directed that each institute review its governing documents and re-evaluate its constitutions, books of prayers, and ceremonies and that obsolete rules be dispensed with.
The decree established general principles to guide the renewal of these institutes without prejudice to the special characteristics of the individual religious orders. Rodé, explained, "Thus the renewal of the consecrated life, as the Council described it, should be lived through a return to the sources that are represented primarily by Sacred Scripture, hence by the very person of Jesus Christ, and subsequently by the authentic charism of founders." The Decree has a strong Christological emphasis. The priority commitment of every consecrated person is the sequela Christi (following of Christ).
Because of the broad variety of religious communities with their different histories, characteristics, customs, and missions, the Vatican council did not give specific indications, and left to each individual community the authority to determine what needed to be changed in accord with the spirit of their founders, the needs of modern life, and the situations where they lived and worked.
In regards to contemplative communities:
Communities which are entirely dedicated to contemplation, so that their members in solitude and silence, with constant prayer and penance willingly undertaken, occupy themselves with God alone, retain at all times, no matter how pressing the needs of the active apostolate may be, an honorable place in the Mystical Body of Christ, whose "members do not all have the same function" (Rom. 12:4). For these offer to God a sacrifice of praise which is outstanding. Moreover the manifold results of their holiness lends luster to the people of God which is inspired by their example and which gains new members by their apostolate which is as effective as it is hidden. Thus they are revealed to be a glory of the Church and a well-spring of heavenly graces. Nevertheless, their manner of living should be revised according to the principles and criteria of adaptation and renewal mentioned above. However their withdrawal from the world and the exercises proper to the contemplative life should be preserved with the utmost care.
"Papal cloister should be maintained in the case of nuns engaged exclusively in the contemplative life. However, it must be adjusted to conditions of time and place and obsolete practices suppressed." So to monks who "offer a service to the divine majesty at once humble and noble within the walls of the monastery, ...should revive their ancient traditions of service and so adapt them to the needs of today that monasteries will become institutions dedicated to the edification of the Christian people."
The decree also emphasized the importance of education and ongoing formation that integrates religious, apostolic, doctrinal and technical training. Religious need to understand and live an integrated life to be effective not only in their own community lives but especially in their apostolic assignments.
The document recognized that at some point there may be communities and monasteries that are no longer viable. "Others who have practically identical constitutions and rules and a common spirit should unite, particularly when they have too few members."
The aim of the evangelical counsels is to remove whatever might hinder the development of charity.
"Religious, therefore, who are striving faithfully to observe the chastity they have professed must have faith in the words of the Lord, and trusting in God's help not overestimate their own strength but practice mortification and custody of the senses. ...Since the observance of perfect continence touches intimately the deepest instincts of human nature, candidates should neither present themselves for nor be admitted to the vow of chastity, unless they have been previously tested sufficiently and have been shown to possess the required psychological and emotional maturity. ...they should be so instructed as to be able to undertake the celibacy which binds them to God in a way which will benefit their entire personality."
Evangelical poverty is based on discipleship. It is a means to an end, a more intimate participation in the life of Christ. "The several provinces and houses of each community should share their temporal goods with one another, so that those who have more help the others who are in need. ...Religious communities have the right to possess whatever is required for their temporal life and work, unless this is forbidden by their rules and constitutions. ...Nevertheless, they should avoid every appearance of luxury, excessive wealth and the accumulation of goods."
"Religious should use both the forces of their intellect and will and the gifts of nature and grace to execute the commands and fulfill the duties entrusted to them. ...Superiors should exercise their authority ...out of a spirit of service to the brethren. ...They should govern these as sons of God, respecting their human dignity. In this way religious obedience, far from lessening the dignity of the human person ...leads it to maturity."
The period that followed the promulgation of Perfectae caritatis was marked by a huge amount of experimentation in religious life. Perfectae caritatis directed that "the religious habit, an outward mark of consecration to God, should be simple and modest, poor and at the same becoming. In addition it must meet the requirements of health and be suited to the circumstances of time and place and to the needs of the ministry involved. The habits of both men and women religious which do not conform to these norms must be changed." Many institutes replaced their traditional habits with more modern attire, experimented with different forms of prayer and community life, and adapted obedience to a superior to a form of consultation and discussion. Some communities of women religious modified their headgear since it obscured peripheral vision while driving. The enormous upheavals present within society and the church at that time led some institutes to make rather drastic changes to the stable form of living religious life.
The decree also recommended federations, conferences and councils of major superiors be established, allowing for greater communication and connection with the Apostolic See and the local church.
- Lumen gentium, Chapter VI, §44, November 21, 1964
- Pope Paul VI, Perfectae caritatis, §1, 28 October 1965
- Rodé, C.M., Franc. "Renewing Religious Life, Attaining Perfect Love", Symposium: the 40th Anniversary of Perfectae caritatis, L'Osservatore Romano, 7 December 2005, p. 12
- O’Brien, Mary Judith and Schaumber, Mary Nika. "Perfectae Caritatis’: Renewal of Religious Life Is a Continual Process", National Catholic Reporter, 27 October 2015
- Mirus, Jeff. "Vatican II on Religious Life", Catholic Culture, 21 May 2010
- Lefevere, Patricia. "A 'radical tool' for renewal", National Catholic Reporter, Sep 15, 2015
- Schaefer, Judith. The Evolution of a Vow: Obedience as Decision Making in Communion, LIT Verlag Münster, 2009, ISBN 9783825817954
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- Finnegan, V.M., "Vatican II, 40 Years Later: 'Perfectae Caritatis'", Zenit, 8 May 2003
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- Sugawara, Yuji. Religious Poverty: From Vatican Council II to the 1994 Synod of Bishops, "CH. II: Teaching in Perfectae Caritatis", Gregorian University Press, 1997, ISBN 9788876526985
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