Reconceiving Religious Life in the 21st Century

Q: What is happening to the Religious Orders ? What part do you see them playing in the next “spiritual generation”?

Ilia DelioIlia: Our questions this week focuses on a topic that is near and dear to me. I have been in religious life for over thirty-five years and I am still wondering, what exactly is religious life?   When I entered religious life, I had preconceived ideas of holiness. The life itself would bring me close to God, above the turmoil of the world, and a sure path to possible sainthood.  My ideals were dashed early on as I realized that religious life is made up of fragile human beings and the problems of the world become magnified in a cloister or convent where biologically unrelated persons share living space and resources.

When I embarked on a religious path in 1984, the choice was to “leave the world” and “live for God.”  I crossed a threshold into a new community, a new family and, [in my case] a new identity, given by a new name. My new identity came with a new set of clothes called a habit. While community was essential to living a committed Gospel life, the spiritual journey was individual, a flight of the alone to the Alone (following the ascetic philosopher Plotinus). After a while I wondered how women who lived day in and day out together could know so little of one another. When I transferred to an active congregation, I realized that institutionalizing religious life had its drawbacks. Combining a monastic schedule of prayer and work, institutional religious life allowed for consolidation of labor. Women religious essentially built the Catholic hospitals, schools and social agencies in the U. S. They worked for minimal to no pay while the institution cared for their needs. The strain of the life, I am told, was often balanced by the joy of community, that is, sharing the struggles of the life together.

All of this changed with Vatican II and the universal call to holiness. Religious orders opened their windows to a world in change and began to adjust their lives accordingly. Sisters began to live in small, intentional communities or alone, depending on their ministries. Ministries themselves broke out of the traditional ones of teaching and nursing and extended into risk-taking work with the poor, the oppressed, the enslaved or imprisoned. I can think of many tremendous women such as the martyrs of El Salvador or Dorothy Stang or many women today who risk their lives to minister to the poor and those on the margins. After Vatican II, religious life woke up to a world in pain and conflict and sought to bring the Gospel life into wounded hearts.

The openness of religious life to the world ushered in new opportunities for growth and change. Many religious women and men left communities to marry or pursue other paths. Those who remained took up the mantle of social justice and continue this work today. While women religious have been the vanguard of change in the Church, there is something that still remains individual. Despite a new emphasis on community, the flight of the alone to the Alone persists (one sees it in the Chapel where everyone sits apart, alone with Jesus!)

It is no secret that religious life is in decline. According to a 2018 CARA report there were 79, 814 US Sisters in 2000. By 2018 that number dropped to almost half, 44, 117 (interestingly, the number of permanent deacons rose from 12,378 to 18, 291). I anticipate that the number will be cut in half again by 2030.  You can see the full report at

Sadly many communities are struggling to care for their aging members. According to Sister Kathleen Lunsmann, the executive director of SOAR (Save Our Aging Religious), of the 500 womens’ communities in the US, only about 23 are adequately funded for their retirement needs. Essentially women worked for free for many years and social security was bought into long after the communities were established, following the changes of Vatican II [of course if women had been ordained priests, mass stipends would have helped considerably!]

Women religious made such radical shifts after the Council that the hierarchical Church felt the baby had been thrown out with the bathwater.  Loss of identity and structured community life, along with non-traditional ministries rendered religious women unbridled and independent; women changing the world in the name of the Gospel—imagine that! Some members of the hierarchy were furious. Of course not all women in post-Vatican II communities agreed with the changes in religious life. Some wanted to return to pre-Vatican customs with a formal identity, while others wanted to move on; splits in communities took place. In 1992, a group of women committed to traditional religious life formed an association, the Council of Major Religious Superiors (CMSWR) to counter the progressive trends of post Vatican II; hence two major bodies of women religious emerged: the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and the CMSWR.  Interestingly, CMSWR boasts of a rise in new members with over 900 in initial formation according to a 2017 report ( many of whom are receiving university degrees and filling diocesan positions or staffing catholic schools. Recently I went to Mass in Washington DC where ninety percent of the congregation were young women in long habits (and six men on the altar!) On the surface it does indeed look like traditional religious life is enjoying a new springtime in the Church.

And yet, to be quite honest, I don’t buy any of it for one moment.Traditional religious life ultimately thwarts the Gospel life rather than expands it. It is based on an outdated theology, an antiquated metaphysics and is ultimately world-denying; for one cannot affirm the world and renounce the world at the same time. In fact, the world is the problem because it is considered a place of sin rather than a work in process. While traditional religious life seems to be saving the Church, it is actually sinking it into oblivion. The illusion of return to tradition is a step toward a sectarian religion. Christianity either exists for the transformation of the world or it does not exist at all.

The Gospel Life was never meant to be lived in a cloister but on the edge of a new future in God. Jesus did not live in community or wear a habit; he lived in the anxiety of the pressing moment, between the now and the not-yet. He was a radical in every sense, crossing gender boundaries, religious boundaries and violating Jewish Law. He was bold, daring, courageous and free and his prophetic message was to live in a new way by living decentered, on the edge of a new tomorrow.  When I look at traditional religious women, I do not see Jesus; I see Plotinus.

However I do see Jesus in the women of LCWR. I have listened to their stories, witnessed them getting arrested for practicing non-violence, heard about their lives among trafficked women, and am always in awe when I hear their mission stories among the poor. I have seen them march on capitol hill advocating for universal healthcare, affordable housing and abolition of the death penalty (among others). One the whole, these women live the Gospel life.

They are now aging but not without courage to try new things. The Nuns and Nones (N&N) endeavor which sprung up a few years ago, is taking root around the country. I had the opportunity to be part of such a gathering recently and was impressed by the turnout. Young people want to learn from older people how to live fruitful lives.

But the N&N group is not a panacea for the dwindling of religious life; rather it is an invitation to think in a radically new direction. Religious life is in transition not only because of Vatican II or postmodern culture (or the fact that an intentional community does not need religion to justify it). Rather it is in transition because the human person is evolving and the age of the institution is coming to an end. I spell this out in much greater detail in my new book, Re-Enchanting the Earth: Why AI Needs Religion (Orbis, 2020). For now let it suffice that the autonomous liberal subject is ending and a new hybridized person, the “posthuman,” is on the horizon. Religious life as we have known it grew up in the period known as “first axial consciousness,” the age in which the individual and world religions emerged. First axial consciousness is coming to an end and we are at the beginning of a new axial consciousness, what Ewert Cousins and Thomas Berry called, “Second axial consciousness.”

This shift in consciousness has sped up in the last fifty years due to computer technology and the internet and we see signs of it all around us: gender plurality, interspirituality, ecological awareness, socially just communities. The posthuman of Second axial consciousness is oriented toward the collective, the ecological and the communal.  Baby boomers are First Axial consciousness, Millenials are between First and Second axial consciousness, while Gen Y and Gen Z are primarily of Second Axial consciousness. These terms are not meant to be historically precise nor can these large shifts in consciousness be adequately defined; however, they are heuristic to provide a framework of meaning.

We do not think in terms of evolution and we treat the human person as a given, as if we have always been individual persons but personhood is a creative process shaped by environment, culture, history and shifting lines of information. Beatrice Bruteau writes, a person is “the creative activity of life as it projects itself to the next instant.”[i]  Since the 1990s, the predominant lines of information have been electronic. Because of our electronic culture, the human person is being rewired to think across horizontal lines of relationship, not as individual to individual but as beings part of a system of informational flow. If personhood is defined in and through relationships, the posthuman is the epitome of relationality.  John Johnston suggests that the term “human” may come “to be understood less as the defining property of a species or individual and more as a value distributed throughout human-constructed environments, technologies, institutions and social collectivities.[ii] The term “posthuman” describes a material-informational entity whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction. The posthuman signifies a dynamic partnership between humans and intelligent machines, replacing the liberal humanist subject’s manifest destiny to dominate and control nature.  In her book How We Became Posthuman Katherine Hayles writes:

The posthuman is likely to be seen as antihuman because it envisions the conscious mind as a small subsystem running its program of self-construction and self-assurance while remaining ignorant of the actual dynamics of complex systems. But the posthuman does not really mean the end of humanity. It signals instead the end of a certain conception of the human, a conception that may have applied at best to that fraction of humanity who had the wealth, power and leisure to conceptualize themselves as autonomous beings exercising their will through individual agency and choice.[iii]

In the posthuman the distributed cognition of the emergent human subject correlates with the distributed cognitive system as a whole in which “thinking” is done by both human and nonhuman actors. Hence the liberal subject’s ability to conceptualize oneself as autonomous being exercising one’s will through individual agency and choice gives way to distributed personhood where conscious agency is never fully in control.

The posthuman does not simply live in community; rather, community defines the posthuman. Community is an open, fluid, dynamic process of ongoing relationships.

According to Hayles, a new humanism is developing directly at the borderline of simulation and materiality. In her perspective, the scientific language of complexity theory—dissipative structures, fluidities, porous boundaries, and bifurcations—is projected beyond the boundaries of scientific debate to become the constitutive principles of a form of humanism enabled by the regime of computation.

The grammar of the body is shifting from exclusive concern with questions of sexual normativity and gendered identity to a creative interrogation of what happens to questions of consciousness, sexuality, power, and culture in a computational culture, in which the code moves from the visible to the invisible, from a history of tools and prosthetics external to the body to a language of simulation fully internal to identity formation.

The posthuman is no longer the liberal subject of modernity living from a will to power but the person who now lives from the splice, that is, the interbiological space between biology and machine/device.This new subjectivity is an embodied embedded personhood which evokes a new logic.The logic of human personhood can no longer be a simple binary logic but a complexified logic of relationships that provides a creative space of engagement. One lives not in a binary mode (me and you) but in the creative space of interrelatedness (me and you.) The narrative of becoming is consonant with a new ontology of relationship whereby the movement of being itself is a decentering and reforming one that leads to novel form.

So when Nuns are talking to Nones, it looks like the same types of persons are in conversation but I think there are two different types of relational logic at work here. Nones are processing these conversations in a very different way from the Nuns. They are looking for a new space of shared meaning, a space of creative identity.  Posthumans live in a dynamic flow of creative identity; personhood is formed through relationships—which is why social justice work is so attractive. The call to build a sustainable and just world is a call to construct one’s identity, a life of meaning and purpose, in a culture of algorithms and consumerism.

So what does this mean for religious life? I think religious life stands at the crossroads. It can either slowly diminish—large institutions will hang for awhile—or it can turn its sails in a whole new direction.

What might religious life look like in a post-institutional age? I imagine posthuman religious life as a cybernetic system—a core energy that facilitates the dynamic flow of persons who vary from interspiritual, gender plural and interracial persons living together, sharing the challenges of the Gospel life, committed to a new religious energy in the marketplace, and living on the edge of a new world. Works are translated into energies and energies are translated into new relationships. Community life must find a pattern in nature that supports the fecundity of life,  living in the energy flow of divine love and knowing that when relationships are no longer life-giving, they must change.

Why should “consecrated” religious life be a special or separate life?  What does being “consecrated for God” mean in the 21st century (because the meaning is culturally-conditioned)?  It should be a life of new energy, a sacred power, a life of being seized by the Spirit and set on fire:  “I have come to set the world on fire and how I wish it were already blazing” (Lk 12:49).  Religious life has become a middle class, mediocre life—nice people doing good work. Community can be like the garden club or the bowling league.  The Jesuit Jon Sobrino said years ago, religious life should not be a normal life because it is a decentered life and must be lived on the edge of conflict.

The Vatican II document Gaudium et spes called the entire people of God to universal holiness. We have yet to construct a religious way of life that empowers all people to holiness/wholeness. Religious life should not be an exclusive life but an inclusive one; a life where every form of life can ultimately find a place at the table of shared life. If religious life could bury Plotinus (and Aristotle) and reform as complex dynamical systems of ongoing constructive identity, rooted in prayer and the incredible power of God; if it can find its way in posthuman life, well then, I think the Church will ignite.


[i]   Beatrice Bruteau, “The Living One” in The Grand Option: Personal Transformation and a New Creation (Notre Dame, IN:  University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 142; Ilia Delio, “Evolution Toward Personhood,” in Personal Transformation and a New Creation, ed. Ilia Delio, (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis, 2016), 141.

[ii]   Johnston, Allure of Machinic Life, 7.

[iii]   N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1999), 286.


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  1. Mary Beth McCurdy on August 21, 2019 at 8:09 am

    Ilia, I hear you, and will make and take space to let your reflections go deeper….
    You speak what many women religious are knowing at some level, Bless your journey!!

  2. Lynda Clayton on August 15, 2019 at 9:17 pm

    Ilia, thank you very much. These ideas excite me and give me great hope!

  3. MAUREEN A FOLTZ on August 15, 2019 at 8:43 am

    Good morning Ilia. And (almost) happy birthday! In our varied continental/tribal mission realities of life and in community we have a standing “joke” — Some of us create the structure of expression and think through definition while others live the actions. Then, we meet ( at our institutional gatherings of community, province, chapter) and by GRACE-FULL ENERGY, the two become one, each giving light and more clarity to the other. Your gift these years of EXPRESSING what is being lived is a source of life-giving energy to so many. Thank you for your faithfulness to the task! P.S. I am still attempting to find and/or translate you as time permits.

  4. Craigus on August 13, 2019 at 11:54 pm

    From the oldest culture on earth…

  5. Cecilia Hudec on August 9, 2019 at 2:26 pm

    Thanks Ilia. I really like this challenge. Keeps my mind expanding although I don’t undedrstand everything.

  6. Mary Pat Jones on August 8, 2019 at 11:06 pm

    Invigorating! The more I felt called to greater awakening in life the more I realized I had to continue to grow in insight and simultaneously strive to understand what was driving my neighbors. You can read about cultures and study dynamics but until you humbly and openly immerse yourself in places outside of your comfort zone, you are only projecting and writing narratives in your head. The greater the call to Love the more your own knots loosen as do others. It’s endless.

    While I’m an introvert and need my quiet time of reading, reflections and centering prayer; in honoring my need for nurturing I can be open to my neighbors and connect in mutually supportive ways, though my aging husbands welfare comes first. I deeply sense the evolving truth of this post-human vision you speak of and would love to be in a classroom of yours.

    I do believe the LCWR are bravely leading us forward with great awareness of the hour, they inspirer us take our place on this ever-changing posthuman journey. Thank You for your leadership, look forward to your new works. Be Well.

  7. Donal O’Farrell on August 7, 2019 at 7:15 am

    Wonderfully challenging and inspiring. Received with gratitude. Much rereading required

  8. Bettina Del Sesto on August 6, 2019 at 11:56 am

    WOW, Ilia, this is a very long and thought provoking piece..especially on August 6 when we look back to Pearl Harbor in 1941 and then to Vatican 2 ..the steps backward and these wonderful inspiring steps forward about the reality of humanity and the good sense of looking at it as it is.
    I dont understand it completely.but would be interested in studying and reading your reference books to come to a new understanding . Thank you


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