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High Tension Communities PDF Print E-mail
Written by Michael Fones   
Saturday, 15 August 2009 15:54
I'm listening to my dad snore in his room in the cardiac unit of the hospital. He was moved from critical care up here to try to take care of some arrhythmia. They've given him his normal medication to combat this, which also tends to lower his blood pressure. Since low blood pressure was one of the huge problems post-surgery, it's not surprising the absence of that medication has led to this new problem. Hopefully, it will be resolved quickly and he can move to the orthopaedic unit and begin his physical therapy.

In the meanwhile, I've had time to catch up a bit on blogging. John Allen has a good, balanced response to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, carried out on behalf of the National Religious Vocations Conference. Titled “Study of Recent Vocations to Religious Life,” the research surveyed 4,000 new members of religious communities, and basically confirmed the anecdotal impressions of new religious. New members tend to come from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, especially Hispanics and Asian-Americans; and they tend to be more traditional in both theological outlook and spiritual style than older religious. There are various interpretations of this result that Allen examines.

"There’s what one might call the “ideological” interpretation in some conservative quarters, which amounts to a chest-thumping “we’re winning and you’re losing” response. (A brief and sarcastic statement released on Tuesday by the Catholic League, excoriating unnamed liberal “diversity dons” presumably flummoxed by the results, illustrates the psychology.) Some liberals will undoubtedly see the study in the same way, although they’re less likely to issue press releases or write blogs about it.

This ideological reading would see these results as a referendum on the progressive reform agenda of the Vatican II generation, concluding that young religious are voting with their feet against it."

Another possible interpretation goes like this: A “generational” interpretation, on the other hand, would see these results in terms of differences in historical milieu. The Vatican II generation grew up within a strong Catholic culture and to some extent reacted against it, seeing it as overly stifling and controlling. The defining cultural crucible for millennials, however, has been a rootless secular world. They’re eager to establish a strong sense of Catholic identity, not to reform or redefine it. In essence, they’re reacting against the world, not the church.

Seen in that light, the commitment to orthodoxy and to traditional modes of life one sees among young religious today is less about the ideological contest of left versus right, and more about differences in generational experience."

The final hypothesis is, in my mind, connected to Sherry's posts on "the Gap."
Here’s yet a third explanation, this one arising out of the sociology of religion: the competitive edge of “high-tension” groups.

Both in the United States and around the world, those religious movements which have grown most dramatically over the last half-century are those with the clearest boundaries between themselves and the prevailing culture. In their 1987 book A Theory of Religion, Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge called this “high-tension religion.” Low-tension groups, according to Stark and Bainbridge, are usually dissolved into the “cauldron of secularism.”

This might seem a counter-intuitive result, because in the short run stricter groups may alienate some members. But over time, this attrition works to resolve what sociologists and economists call the “free rider” problem. High-tension groups screen out members with low levels of commitment, enhancing the participation levels of those who remain. This, in turn, drives more effective recruiting and retention.

Economist Laurence Iannaccone made this argument back in 1994, in an influential essay titled “Why Strict Churches Are Strong.” According to Iannaccone, strict churches (or, by extension, strict religious orders) attract members because, in the mercenary language of economics, they offer a better product. Here’s how Icannaccone described that product: “A church full of passionate members; a community of people deeply involved in one another’s lives and more willing than most to come to one another’s aid; a peer group of knowledgeable souls who speak the same language (or languages), are moved by the same texts, and cherish the same dreams.”

Significantly, “high-tension” and “conservative” are not coterminous. It’s entirely possible to foster a high-tension ethic within a church, or a religious order, that’s not premised on ideological conservatism. Within Catholicism, new movements such as Sant’Egidio or L’Arche illustrate the point; they have many of the characteristics of “high-tension” groups without falling on the ideological right. It’s simply a fact of life that in post-Vatican II Catholicism, many progressive groups and religious orders also adopted a more “low-tension” way of relating to the outside world.

Of course, Iannaccone acknowledged a point of diminishing returns. Too much strictness becomes self-defeating, making it virtually impossible for anyone other than a zealot to hang on. Still, his point was that both economic theory and empirical research suggest that “high-tension” groups enjoy a structural advantage in a competitive religious marketplace.
The community that Icannaccone (who himself surely has some Catholic roots with a name like that!) describes, is what I would expect a community with a significant number of intentional disciples to look like. Part of the "same language" spoken is the language of a loving relationship with Jesus - and it is that relationship that the members, with all their variety in other aspects, have in common. The common texts are scripture and the Church's teaching, the same dreams have to do with living the faith in the world; calling others to relationship with Jesus; transforming secular society from within so that it is just, humane, and lovely; and, ultimately, becoming saints.

I would presume that all three of these interpretations of the data are correct. I'm sure there are some people entering conservative communities out of a reaction against a misapplied, liberal, agenda-driven interpretation of the Second Vatican Council. There are certainly those who are entering because of a reaction to the increasingly valueless and meaningless nature of secular life. And there are those who are attracted to a "high-tension" group and it's clear identity and camaraderie.

The problem is, of course, that men and women should be entering religious life for none of those reasons (presuming a "high tension" community that focused on say, their founder, rather than the following of Christ), but out of a desire to be a disciple of Jesus Christ and to follow him through the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience; to serve their neighbor in love in response to the love Jesus has shown them; and to speak to others of the great work of salvation the Father has done in His Son's death on the cross for our sake.

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