‘Perfectae Caritatis’: Renewal of Religious Life Is a Continual Process

COMMENTARY: Second Vatican Council Symposium

(photo: CNA)

Perfectae Caritatis

Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life

Promulgated by Pope Paul VI on Oct. 28, 1965


Perfectae Caritatis (Perfect Charity), Vatican Council II’s Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life, is best understood in relation to 1964’s Lumen Gentium (Light to the Nations), the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church — which is considered the central document from which all the other conciliar decrees must be referred. Lumen Gentium was structured to convey the universal call to holiness, the roles of the hierarchy and the laity and the special call of religious “to forward the saving mission of the Church.”

While St. Thomas Aquinas had considered religious life essential for the perfection of the Church, his vision was not formally taught until the Council Fathers tackled the question in Lumen Gentium. Vatican II was actually the first council to outline the identity of the religious life and its place within the mystery of the Church. Paragraph 44 of Lumen Gentium teaches: 

“Although the religious state constituted by the profession of the evangelical counsels does not belong to the hierarchical structure of the Church, nevertheless it belongs inseparably to her life and holiness.” 

This key statement leads to the conclusion that the presence of religious institutes is necessary if the catholicity of the Church is to be fully realized. The ecclesial foundation of religious life is supported, while clearly distinguishing religious life from the Church’s hierarchy.

Lumen Gentium provides the doctrinal basis for consecrated life in the Church, while Perfectae Caritatis, one of the shortest documents of the Council, articulates the “general principles which must underlie an appropriate renewal of the life and rules of religious communities.” Adaptation referred to changes that were necessary to be made due to the “changed conditions of the times”; renewal referred to “a continuous return to the sources of all Christian life and to the original inspiration behind a given community.” The many and extensive drafts of this document were refined to offer only brief guiding principles.

The first sentence of the decree states: “The teaching and example of the divine Master laid the foundation for a pursuit of perfect charity [perfectae caritatis] through the exercise of the evangelical counsels.”

Traditionally, religious life is called the “state of perfection,” which, of course, does not indicate that all religious are or were perfect. Rather, the “state” of religious life is endowed with all the elements that can lead members to the perfection of charity.

All of the faithful are mandated to follow the commandments, which eliminate any action incompatible with charity. The aim of the evangelical counsels, however, is to remove whatever might hinder the development of charity — even if it is not contrary to it (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa II-II, Q. 184, a. 3). Those acts, which in and of themselves may be good, are excluded if they are counter to the evangelical counsels.

In religious life, one freely chooses to live according to the human life of Christ, who was poor, chaste and obedient.

Some have objected that the designation “state of perfection” implies that other persons are not striving for perfection. But as St. John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata (The Consecrated Life) was later to clarify: “[Christ’s] way of living in chastity, poverty and obedience appears as the most radical way of living the Gospel on this earth, a way which may be called divine.” Moreover, Lumen Gentium and Perfectae Caritatis reoriented religious life from a way of individual sanctification to a means for the sanctification of the Church:

“Active, apostolic charity is integral to the character of such religious bodies; they perform their characteristic work of charity in the name of the Church, which entrusts it to them.”

Perfectae Caritatis sought to promote the renewal of each religious institute through the members studying the original vision of their founder or foundress. This vision, the initial spirit, its specific charism and special aims of each religious community were to be honored, while also maintaining the sound traditions developed throughout its history.

Renewal was to be directed by authorities within each community, under the guidance offered by the Church. Furthermore, adaptations were to maintain each institute’s basic spirituality, which had been approved by the Church in its constitutions. Religious life, with its essential elements of prayer, identity, vows, public witness, common life and proper governance, was to remain constant. Nevertheless, Perfectae Caritatis urged that the manner of living of each community be adjusted to fit current times. It was the vision of this conciliar document that renewal would be a continual process, not a one-time event.

Shortly after Vatican II, Pope Paul VI issued an apostolic letter, Ecclesiae Sanctae (Holy Church) to provide norms for the implementation of four conciliar documents, including Perfectae Caritatis. Ecclesiae Sanctae gave autonomous authority to the general chapters of each religious institute for a period of time. Experimentation of lifestyle apart from each institute’s constitution was permitted. Ecclesiae Sanctae wished to promote a “newness of spirit” within religious institutes based on the guidelines of Perfectae Caritatis.

Unfortunately, though, the enormous upheavals present within society and the Church at that time led many institutes to make drastic changes to the stable form of living religious life. The 1983 Code of Canon Law, however, ended the period of experimentation. Moreover, the norms for religious life offered by the Church in the code are firmly based on and rooted in the guidelines offered by Lumen Gentium and Perfectae Caritatis.

The appropriate renewal of religious life outlined by Perfectae Caritatis was not intended to result in a sweeping adaptation to the “spirit of the times,” but rather was a call for an interior renewal of spirit for those called by the Father to embrace a life in imitation of Christ through the profession of the evangelical counsels.

Sisters Mary Judith O’Brien

and Mary Nika Schaumber

are members of the

Religious Sisters of Mercy, of Alma, Michigan.

Sister Mary Judith is the  chancellor of the

Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan, and

Sister Mary Nika is the directress of novices

for the religious institute of pontifical right.