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BY Jennifer Fulwiler
I’ve always been a reader of historical nonfiction, and since my conversion I’ve developed a whole new level of interest in this genre. Since pretty much any story set in the West before the mid-16th century takes place in a Catholic culture, each tale is an opportunity to learn more about Church history. As I pore over books like Galileo’s Daughter, Over the Edge of the World, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, etc., I’m always on the lookout for insights into what life was like for the average Catholic during those time periods.
One thing that stands out to me is how familiar many of those cultures seem. In times and places where the vast majority of people were nominally Catholic, it’s tempting to imagine that everyone was holy and the cities were packed with devout, sincere believers. But the more I learn about any particular time and place, the more similarities I see to the modern world: Some people were truly faith-filled and pious; others were lukewarm believers; others didn’t seem to have any beliefs at all; and still others were hostile toward the Church.
While the people strike me as being quite similar in terms of their levels of personal devoutness all throughout history, the social structures are certainly different. In particular, when I think about the role that monasteries, convents, and Church offices played in the first 1,500 years of Christianity, it makes me wonder about our modern vocations crisis: If when we speak of “the crisis,” we mean that only a small fraction of people are truly open to God’s call to religious vocations, is this anything new?
Certainly, there were more priests and consecrated religious per capita in, say, St. Frances of Rome’s time than in our own. But was that because there were more people back then who sought God’s will for their lives and discerned a call to a religious vocation? Or was it because there were more people who entered religious life for non-religious reasons? In other times and places, there were more worldly payoffs to becoming a priest or a religious brother or sister: A woman might go to a convent because her parents couldn’t afford a dowry; a boy might enter a monastery to avoid starvation; a man’s decision to become a priest might be driven by thoughts of the political connections that would come from moving up within the Church hierarchy.
I’m sure that many such people went on to live God-glorifying lives through their vocations, even if their original motives weren’t entirely pure—but how many of these folks would have ended up with religious vocations in the first place if they’d lived today? Sometimes I get the impression that, while the overall percentage of priests and religious may be smaller than it has been historically, the percentage of people who enter the priesthood or religious life because of a sincere desire to fully serve the Lord is not much smaller today than it ever has been.
I find the question interesting, because it gets to the heart of the supposed decline of faith in modern culture. The secular narrative says that you observe fewer Catholics strictly observing their faith these days because modern science has made religious faith irrelevant. The vocations crisis is often pointed to as Exhibit A in this case. In addition to the points refuting the silly “science disproves faith” position, I think the argument could be made that the percentage of baptized Catholics who make the Lord the center of their lives is not even much lower than it ever has been; rather, there’s simply no incentive for those who are lukewarm believers to go through the motions. Now that the Church is no longer entwined with the dominant culture, only the devout remain.
However, I really don’t know. I’m a convert who has little personal perspective on the changes in the Church in recent decades, and I’ve only just begun looking into it. Also, I haven’t done enough research to know what amount of personal bias may be influencing some of the secular authors whose portraits of the historical Church I’ve read. So I ask those of you who are more knowledgeable about Church culture:
Do you think the vocations crisis is the result of fewer men and women being open to God’s call to religious life, or the result of fewer worldly payoffs weeding out those who aren’t serious? In general, do you think that there is a smaller percentage of serious believers in today’s Church than there were in other eras?