New Monasticism (France, Italy, Spain)

Stefania Palmisano



 It is well known that the Second Vatican Council created a significant contrast between innovative impulses and conservative reactions (Baudouin and Portier 2001, 2002; Pelletier 2002; Poulat 2003; Melloni and Ruggieri 2010; O’Malley 2012). In the context of consecrated life, this conflict cannot be explained by a simplistic opposition between old and new institutions; is more complicated: some institutions, both pre- and post-Conciliar, have instituted processes of renewal and reform experiments, whereas others have chosen more conservative directions.

In order to trace the brief history of New Catholic Monasticism, it is useful to start from a typology of contemporary monasticism which adopts as fundamenta divisionis the chronological (pre and post-Conciliar communities) and the axiological (traditionalist versus innovational communities) criteria. The map resulting from crossing these dimensions is synthesized below, where some examples of the groups described here are given, including the names of exemplary exponents of each.

Contemporary Catholic monasticism is dominated by two main groups: the pre-Conciliar (or “Old”) Monasticism and the post-Conciliar (“New”) Monasticism. Three streams can be traced in “Old” Monasticism: (“Traditional” or “classical” communities, “Traditionalist” or “conservative” communities, and “Ultratraditionalist” communities) and three streams constitute “New Monasticism” ( “Innovative” New Monastic Communities, “Ultra-innovative” New Monastic Communities, and “Traditionalist” New Monastic Communities.

“Traditional” or “classical” communities that existed before Vatican II (Benedictines, Trappists and Cistercians, for instance) and have been renewed (with varying degrees of “liberalism” in their interpretations) in line with its recommendations. To give an example: the Camaldolese order adopted the Council’s pronouncements liberally, which explains the changeover to a totally Italian-language liturgy, the opening of monastic spaces to oecumenical and interreligious hospitality and abandoning the monastic habit in private. Other congregations chose more prudent renovation limited to superficial aspects of their monastic physiognomy while, at the same time, being careful not to take liberties with the Council’s texts;

“Traditionalist” or “conservative” communities, although they pre-existing the Council, reacted to its proposals by maintaining or re-introducing previous liturgical forms, customs, and traditions. The Benedictine order will serve as an example. Starting in the 1960s, some of its communities (in France, Italy and the United States) set up new foundations whose aim was to restore those monastic customs which, according to them, were in danger of being flooded by the wave of modernisation. These include ascetic practices, the Liturgy of the Divine Office (in the monastic world it is also called opus Dei, while the Church in general calls it The Liturgy of the Hours), strictly enclosed life, total fuga mundi, the monastic habit and the tonsure. But the sociological datum that most distinguishes conservative monasticism is the preference for the liturgy according to the ancient Roman rite, including the Tridentine Mass and Gregorian Chant.

“Ultratraditionalist” communities (such as Abbaye Notre-Dame de Bellaigue – France, Monastery of Santa Cruz- Nova Friburgo – Brasil, Monasterio de San José- Santa Sofía-Boyacá – Colombia). The “ultra-traditionalists” counterpoint the “traditionalists.” The most notable differences can be found in their ecclesiological position and their relationship with the heritage of Vatican II. Whereas the latter are in communion with Rome and do not contest the Council’s innovations, the former are in open disagreement with Rome, with the papal magisterium and the Council’s legacy, especially its oecumenical and liturgical changes.

The second group, called “New” Monasticism, is made up of post-Conciliar communities that do not belong to pre-existing orders, congregations or movements, although they adopt, and freely adapt, their Rules of Life. Here too, although dealing with a minority phenomenon, we need to distinguish among three orientations:

“Innovative” New Monastic Communities (the subject of this entry) which, in tune with the Council, renew monastic life by emphasizing and radicalising the most innovative and disruptive theological aspects which they identify in its conclusions. Some examples are: Bose (Italy); Figli di Dio (Italy); La Piccola  Famiglia dell’Annunziata (Italy); Taizè (France); Fraternitè monastique de Jerusalem (France); Fraternidad María Estrella de la Mañana (Spain);

“Ultra-innovative” New Monastic Communities. They are labelled “ultra-innovative” because their experiments in the theological, doctrinal and liturgical fields seem to be (in the view of ecclesiastical authorities) so audacious and unwise as to cause anathemas and condemnation. An example is Ricostruttori nella preghiera (Italy); [Image at right]

“Traditionalist” New Monastic Communities, founded in reaction to the Council, reintroduce anterior liturgical forms, customs and traditions. Although they grew outside the Ordo monasticus, these communities imitate that organizational model with the aim of rapidly becoming institutionalised in officially-recognized canonical forms, for which reason they are strictly monosexual. An example is La Famiglia monastica di Betlemme, dell’Assunzione della Vergine Maria e di San Bruno (Italy).

The conceptual map outlined hitherto highlights the internal conflicts regarding post-Conciliar monastic renewal and reveals quite variegated political geography driven by opposing ideological impulses. In short, to the classical monastic tree, which can be described as moderate, may be added, on the one hand, innovative communities pregnant with hyperbolic, radical experimentation and, on the other, the traditionalist ones that look to the past as a means of resistance to, and criticism of, modernism. In scientific debate, there is no lack of detailed studies of classical,  mostly historiographical (Leclerq 1968; Pacaut 2007), monasticism, but there are few or none devoted to the actors of post-Conciliar renewal. As a consequence, there is no overall organic synoptic panorama of the current monastic world. 

“Innovative” New Monastic Communities are defined in the Catholic sphere as attempts (often borderline) at monastic life, initiated by priests, religious and laypeople who are critical of classical monasticism, which is hidebound, in their opinion, by obsolete customs and rules. More precisely, they are groups of people (some at least of whom have taken religious vows) living together permanently and revealing two main characteristics. Firstly, born in the wake of Vatican Council II, they are renewing monastic life by emphasizing the most innovative and disruptive aspects they can find in the Council’s theology. Secondly, they do not belong to pre-existing orders or congregations, although they freely adopt and adapt their Rules of Life. In the eyes of ecclesiastical authorities, the most disturbing elements of these communities are that:

They are mostly “mixed,” which is to say consisting of monks and nuns living ‘under the same roof’ (of course we are not talking here about sexual intimacy);

They accept lay members, whether single, married or families, residing in private dwellings more or less close to the monastery;

They reject enclosure and contemptus mundi, limiting collective prayer time in order to increase that available for labour, for evangelization and voluntary social work, often outside the monastery;

They are actively involved in oecumenical and interreligious dialogue, and harbour scarcely concealed sympathy with oriental religions, from which they sometimes adopt beliefs and practices.

Owing to the scarceness of national and international census data, it is impossible to be precise about the number of NMCs existing in the world. This lack can be imputed to the facts that: first, NMCs have a high infant-mortality rate; second, many of them are so small that they are practically unknown outside a restricted local area; and third, researchers are not in agreement about the precise definition of “monastic” among the broad range of “new religious communities.” The only mapping at our disposal (Fusco and Rocca 2010), which is only partial as it represents a preliminary reconnaissance sorties, shows that NMCs are concentrated principally in the United States and in Europe. In Europe they flourish above all in France (50), Italy (45) and Spain (10).


Vatican II is a symbolic point in the “authorized biography” of most NMCs, their birth certificate, their guarantee of orthodoxy. Nevertheless, while it is true that the Council modified the institutional context by creating the terrain where NMCs’ chances and plausibility are rooted, it is equally true that the communities’ founders based their interpretation on the “Spirit of the Council” rather than literally on its documents. More specifically, their Weltanschauung (recognizable in their theological, spiritual and political choices) is grafted onto an understanding of certain Council principles influencing the theology of religious life, which is as enthusiastic and radical as it is creative and personal. But it was not only the indications of the Perfectae caritatis decree (devoted to the renewal of religious life, but deemed by many to lack “prophetic quality”) so much as other post-Conciliar principles that have nothing to do (at least directly) with religious orders that stimulated the development of NMCs. These principles may be summed up as follows:

The redefinition of the Church as “The People of God.” While pre-Conciliar ecclesiology underlined the differences between the Church’s various hierarchical levels (clergy and religious on top, laity underneath), the papal encyclical Lumen Gentium (Chapter 5) sanctions the abolition of such distinctions. Everybody was called to holiness. This theme brings back a well-known debate within the monastic world concerning the monk’s “objective” perfection by virtue of presumed spiritual superiority (conferred by the choice of a lone, celibate, life and withdrawal from all worldly commitments). The subjects of my study (although even here there are differences of opinion) agree in rejecting the concept of a monk as a “perfect Christian” with special privileges in the order of salvation guaranteed by physical separation from the world;

Opening to the world. Whereas the Church, for centuries, presented itself as a “perfect society,” “the City of God,” as opposed to the secular world which should be kept at bay, the papal encyclical Gaudium et Spes (Chapter 1) overcomes this traditional contemptus mundi by rehabilitating involvement in the world (Schneiders 1986). This opening justified for many NMC founders the choice to work outside (in factories, schools and hospitals), to abandon the habit and the cloister (seen as elements potentially distancing them from lay society) and to welcome lay people, single people and families into their communities;

Seeking unity of the churches. The papal encyclical Unitatis redintegratio marks the Church’s entry into the oecumenical movement. In the monastic field this leap, reinforced by Orientale Lumen, extended the ecclesiological horizon in the direction of other Christian traditions, facilitating the first steps of inter-monastic dynamics. Some NMCs interpreted this appeal by opening wide their doors to members of different Christian denominations or by incorporating non-Christian spiritual practices into their liturgy.

In order to understand the eccentricity of NMCs, one should also bear in mind that impulses towards change find fertile ground in men and women more or less close to “new theological thought.” This intellectual stream (designed to update Christianity in the context of modern culture and new scientific cosmology) has achieved an epoch-making change in Catholic theology by redefining many fundamental concepts of traditional doctrine (e.g. the soul, original sin, eschatology) in a symbolic-allegorical sense. The New Monks’ remarks about these cultural cornerstones of Christianity are a far cry from the repertoire inherited from the past, although they do not manifest open dissent. The theology of NMC founders becomes relevant on a practical level too, in terms of the ethical principles that spring from it. In other words, that orientation has driven them to adopt many instances described by sociologists as typical of advanced modernity, such as individualisation, subjectivisation, gender sensitivity, self-fulfilment and globalisation. This gives rise to audacity in working out innovative management solutions compared with classical monasticism as well as a more flexible organizational configuration allowing greater autonomy to individual monks and mixed male-female communal life, with the possibility of a nun’s having authority over male monks.

As a result of these theological premises, NMCs’ doctrine is elaborated by different and variegated founders. They re-interpret monasticism within a transformed religious universe where traditional notions of Catholic doctrine (the soul, sin, the afterlife) are (both among theologians and the ranks of the faithful) more blurred and indeterminate and assume, among the consecrated themselves, symbolic meanings partially different from those expressed by the magisterium of the Church. For two decades now, sociologists of religion have reported a decline in the sense of sin and a lack of interest in eschatological salvation (Walter 1996). Data from Europe (Lambert 2000; Garelli 2011) and the United States (Woodcock Tentler 2011) show that Reconciliation is the sacrament in greatest danger, almost as if the confessional mea culpa were becoming an optional in one’s way of considering and defining oneself as Catholic. But the very concept of salvation is in trouble if, as Lambert attests, during the survey on moral and religious pluralism in Europe, researchers had to erase the question ‘Do you believe in salvation after death?’ because one-third of respondents did not know what it meant. These transformations have repercussions on monastic life too. Many New Monks, often with the agreement of colleagues from old monasteries, object to the doctrine of original sin, proposing an anthropological interpretation; and they claim for themselves the right to seek (prior to otherworldly salvation) happiness here and now. Even if New Monks are careful not to express dissent publicly on such issues, some of them are receptive to the sensitivity of Catholic doctrine. This is evidenced by the disruptive innovations introduced into their communities, such as the abolition of communal daily Mass, of Eucharistic Adoration and some feast days (e.g. the Immaculate Conception), as well as placing less emphasis on the practice of confession and on spiritual guidance.


NMCs’ founders re-interpret a duly chosen portion of monastic tradition (mostly Patristic, from Pachomius and Basil and even, in some cases, including the Rule of Saint Benedict) onto which they graft elements drawn from non-monastic Catholic sources (such as the writings of the saints) as well as non-Catholic (Judaism, Protestantism, Eastern Churches, Sufism, Yoga, Zen, transcendental meditation). In this hybridization, they do not overly concern themselves with the syncretism and theological dissonance resulting from the juxtaposition of very different views of the world, man and God. Rather, they are motivated by recognizable analogies among religious universes which are now, in the new cultural climate, considered correlational. Landron (2004), in his historical study of new communities appearing in France in the wake of Vatican II, identifies spiritual “do-it-yourself” as a distinguishing feature of such organizations.

According to this re-elaboration of monasticism, rituals and practices differ from one community to another, ranging from monastic liturgy to yoga and kirtan and from compulsory fasting to abolishing fasting. Some common traits, however, can be found in this variety:

Opus dei. Monastic life of every kind and in every age incorporates the practice of personal and communal prayer. The Benedictine tradition has contributed to the diffusion of reciting the divine office according to opus dei’s pattern, which expects monks to pray together seven times a day plus night rising. Many NMCs all over the world have chosen to restrict the time spent in collective prayer and extend that spent in personal prayer: they have reduced community liturgy to three points in the day (lauds in the morning, sext in the middle of the day and vespers in the evening), which has also meant lengthening personal prayer times which are entirely manged by the individual.

Work. The decision to concentrate communal prayer into three points of the day is justified not only on a spiritual level. The NMCs claim that this rationalisation makes more time available for the work which is (as distinct from classical communities of the patrimonial kind) their main source of income. The livelihood of many NMCs is based on three main sources of income: hospitality; the sale of monastery products; exercising professions inside and outside the walls (mainly in schools, factories and hospitals).

Ascesis. Conception of asceticism as a penitential means of atonement for sins and a guarantee of eschatological salvation ( which dominated both the spirit and practice of monastic austerity right up to Vatican II) is totally foreign to contemporary cloistered life (Bosgraaf 2008; Jonveaux 2011; Hervieu-Léger 2012). NMCs reflect this transformation. Although the population includes particularly rigorous communities whose asceticism implies the rejection of certain commodities (washing machines, dishwashers, televisions, computers), most of them favour moderate asceticism based on limited, conscious use of goods. Here the rule of “personal measure of asceticism” applies: since the quantity of ascesis is not imposed by the community, everyone works it out for himself or herself according to personal inclination, sensitivity and aptitudes.


NMCs’ autonomy from the Ordo monasticus marks an important juridical distinction. In contrast with classical monastic orders, which are recognized as orders or institutions of consecrated life (to use the 1983 Canon Law terminology), NMCs are mainly recognized as (private or public) associations of the faithful. This recognition, which is in practice the responsibility of the bishop of the diocese where the community resides, canonically approves its lay character (Neri 1995; Recchi 2004). Canon lawyers point out that, considering them as associations of the faithful, from the juridical point of view it would be more correct to define NMCs as “communities of a monastic tendency” and their involvement as a “monastic lifestyle” (Paciolla 2001). Other canon lawyers add that NMCs cannot be recognized as institutions of consecrated life because they demonstrate characteristics that distinguish them radically from the consecrated life known hitherto and they are not compatible with the Canon Law in force. Mixed communities (men and women “under the same roof”) are the ones which suffer most from this point of view because their co-presence delegitimizes their claim to be institutions of consecrated life, unless they reform the community by dividing it into two separate and distinct branches.

This particular juridical status reflects the organization of NMCs. From this point of view, there are three important innovations. First, they are different from classical communities because whereas the latter are governed by a duly elected abbot/abbess or prior/ess (legal power), the former are guided by a charismatic leader (usually the initiator or founder) whose word often means more than the community Rule. Secondly, NMCs are usually organizations in the state of being born, that is movements supported by effervescence and spontaneity rather than institutions inspired by a formalized bureaucratic principle. This implies a short hierarchy and a flat structure, characteristics theoretically favouring broad participation of the members, as well as a capacity to react and adapt to changes, unthinkable in traditional monasteries. Nevertheless, the excessive weight attributed to the founder may also obstruct participatory governance. What’s more, the absence of the “elders” (who, in traditional monasteries, act as a counterweight to the abbot’s “excessive power”) impedes effective control of the leaders’ exercise of power. Moreover, as distinct from priors and abbots who, by Canon Law, must be priests, NMC leaders may be lay. Guided by pre-Benedectine monasticism, they insist on the possibility that the monk “not be clericalised” and remain in the condition of marginality which permits (in extreme cases) criticism of the Church’s actions.

The third innovation, more disruptive than the above two, concerns the membership of NMCs. As we have already seen in the Identity-Geography Section, as distinct from classical monastic communities, which provide for exclusively male or exclusively female communal life, NMCs are “mixed” because (in the vast majority of cases) they are made up of male and female monks who live “under the same roof” and admit lay members (single, married couples or family) who live close to the monastery or further away in private dwellings. Finally, these are “mixed” communities also in the sense that their oecumenical commitment has induced some of them to institute the cohabitation of different Christian denominations: Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox.

It is well known that neither the cohabitation of monks and nuns nor the presence of laymen is a novelty in monastic history. With regard to living together, while it is true that there have been experiences of mixed monasticism (such as the dual monasteries of the late Middle Ages), in those days the male and female branches were largely separate (Andenna 2010). In the NMCs, by contrast, monks and nuns pray, eat and work together. From the beginning, this cohabitation has been criticized by external observers (e.g. bishops, clergy, guests, single-sex monastery monks) who are worried about possible infatuation. However, interviews with brethren and sisters in many Italian mixed communities (Palmisano 2015) reveal that, rather than sentimental relationships, it is inter-gender-related tensions that threaten communal life. Monks and nuns do not attempt to behave as if they were genderless beings, “a third sex,” sacrificing their “natural” qualities to approach sainthood. On the contrary, convinced of the value of their sexuality and carnality in order to make them fully aware of their humanity, they allow their being male or female to shine through their everyday gestures. As in family life, so also in monasteries, different sensitivities may conflict, to the extent that cohabitation between monks and nuns is often defined by interviewees as “expensive grace,” “squaring the circle,” “making the impossible possible.” Conflicts may break out in both the material and spiritual spheres. In the former case the casus belli can be found in the ordinary management of daily life, and analysis reveals the emergence of stereotypes of women as becoming more ruffled than men by sudden change but with greater ability in interpersonal relations and in listening. In the latter (spiritual matters), interviewees point out some basic differences that they consider the cause of misunderstanding, from the introspection of men, who are “more sober and reserved about spiritual matters,” to women’s greater need “to measure themselves, for a longer period, against various aspects of their own life of prayer.”


NMC founders re-invented monasticism by generating daring, radical innovations that were viewed with suspicion and mistrust by the ecclesiastical institution that has to decide upon the authenticity of new forms of consecrated life. If it is true that from this point of view new communities experience difficulties analogous to those of nascent religious orders in the past, it is equally true that (differently from those orders) they have to deal with a new (greatly differentiated and complicated) institutional environment where the horizon of possibilities and plausibilities of monastic life has expanded out of all proportion. Such changes have been regulated by the new (1983) Code of Canon Law (Codex Iuris Canonici) that assimilated and sanctioned Council guidelines. From the juridical point of view, one innovation in particular should be borne in mind because it implies important consequences for NMC-episcopal relations. The novelty is that monastic life may be expressed in forms radically different from those known hitherto. In practical terms, Canon Law provides for new ways of incarnating the Gospel in concrete social life, whether by personal (such as that of hermits or consecrated virgins) or collective consecration (experiences of community life). In the latter environment, Canon 605 substantiates the possibility of approving so-called new communities. The approval of new forms of consecrated life is reserved to the Apostolic See, but Diocesan Bishops are to endeavour to discern new gifts of consecrated life that the Holy Spirit entrusts to the Church. They are expected to assist recent founders to express their purposes in the best possible way, and to protect these purposes with suitable statutes, especially by the application of the general norms contained in this part of the Code.

The problem is that, as empirical research reveals, the authentication praxis of NMCs at least partly escapes from the objectives of Canon 605. Bishops, unable to recognize New Monasteries as new forms of consecrated life (a prerogative which the Canon reserves to the Apostolic See) mostly approve them as forms of associations of the faithful. But this formula may create thorny problems because in theory it is designed for lay groups constituting themselves for catechetical or charitable purposes and not for consecrated people (who, in any case, have taken religious vows) living in communities. In practice, it does not take into account the nature of communities in that it does not correspond to the consecrated life within which they think and live. We may speak about an expedient because, when faced with a community’s request to be recognized as a form of consecrated life, bishops respond with lay approval. But NMCs interested in canonical recognition as institutes of consecrated life (which aim to be an expression of the Church’s consecrated life) cannot be satisfied with it because the associative form (which is an expression of lay life) does not reflect them accurately.

Another problem derives from this juridical option: the lack of safeguards against bishops’ foibles. A community may be obstructed not because of a lack of ecclesiastical requisites but because it does not conform to the bishop’s tastes, expectations or pastoral plans. The lack of institutional safeguards is particularly painful when bishops, in an effort to recruit priests, use their weight as a commodity exchange and thus favour the communities which commit their priests to diocesan pastoral work. Furthermore, bishops rarely give written reasons for their decisions for fear of producing a document which could be challenged by the Congregations or Institutes of Consecrated Life. In this way they free themselves from juridical traps, thereby avoiding possible legal repercussions. Normally, to stave off conflict in these circumstances, communities do not publicly oppose decisions concerning them (even when they consider them unfair) and resign themselves to waiting for the election of a new bishop.


Image #1: Photograph of the practice of meditation in the community of The Ricostruttori nella Preghiera (by. E.Infanti, reproduced with his permission).


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Post Date:
28 December 2017



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