Patricia Wittberg is a distinguished scholar in the field of “religious virtuosity” sociology. Her contributions to the dynamics of development and decline of Catholic religious orders has played a central role in this sub-discipline. In her new book she provides insight into the crisis Catholic sisters, Protestant deaconesses, and women of missionary societies. Wittberg tells a story that is familiar to insiders: the growth and decline of these religious institutions which were involved in education, health, and social care. The book reviews the diverse stages of this development, its ideological justifications, and the institutional processes over the last two centuries.
The history is simple. In the middle of the XIX century, new Catholic congregations emerged, driven by an ideal of social service and transformation. This phenomenon was replicated among Protestants, following a pattern of “institutional isomorphism.” The new orientation gave birth to many institutions pursuing this transformative ideal in education, health, and social care. These institutions were supported by the sponsoring religious groups which provided recruitment, power and influence at different levels of church and society.
Following a Weberian projection, many of these religious institutions have undergone a process of progressive secularization, as they became more professional and customer oriented. As a result, they lost their religious identity and mission. At the end of the process, which coincides with present times, these institutions have become estranged from their religious sponsors. Sisters and deaconesses in the sponsoring institutions cannot identify anymore with the institutions they founded and supported. Vice versa, the sponsored institutions do not provide any longer grounds for religious involvement, at the collective or at the individual level.
Throughout the book, the reader gets the feeling of the end of an era, the end of a cycle. The analysis clearly shows that the model which linked religious virtuosity to a transformative social task is exhausted. The analysis resonates with Weberian sociology, particularly in the way religious rationalization has been carried out, inspired by the Protestant ethic and the universal fraternal model. It also recalls Richard Niebuhr's fifth type of his well known typology.
If we follow the Weberian model, as Wittberg invites us , along with organization theory, we come to realize that that the issue under study is best understood as secularization, which works at a meso-level, as Dobbelaere reminds us, that is, at the level of confessional organizations. What we have here is a clear case of internal secularization due to environmental pressure, organizational isomorphism, institutional redundancy, and cultural trends at work after the Second Vatican Council.
The obvious question that arises is what is to do in order to overcome the crisis. The author offers some recommendations, after the description of the loss of identity and social influence. An important first step is to become aware of the situation, and, next, to recover an institution-based spirituality, in order to motivate the sponsoring institutions to new forms of involvement, and preserve the traditional religious identity and mission.
This reviewer would have liked to learn more about how to react and/or adapt to a secularized society, and how to deal with the challenge that internal secularization poses to religious groups. In light of changing historical circumstances, different strategies are needed in order to deal with the new challenges. Secularization is the real challenge; religious orders and Protestant organizations must endeavor to overcome this destructive trend, through new means of evangelization. The new religious movements, both Catholic and Protestant, offer good examples of mobilization against the secular tide. Can traditional religious organizations adapt in a similar way, and reinvent themselves in a situation of post-Christendom? Perhaps we could find out what factors make some religious orders more resistant to secularization, or what organizations or styles fit better in the new social environment and have a higher survival rate.