Diarmuid O’MURCHU.  Religious Life in the 21st Century. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016.  Pp. 272. $26.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-62698-207-9.  Reviewed by Patricia WITTBERG, SC.  CARA at Georgetown University, Washington, DC 20007.


               In this book, O’Murchu revives the cyclic theory of the birth-growth-decline-death/rebirth of religious life first advanced by Raymond Hostie (1972) and Lawrence Cada (1979), and since described by numerous later writers (e.g. Wittberg 1994).  While it is undoubtedly useful to introduce this theory to younger readers who may not have been aware of it, O’Murchu does not add anything new in his discussion.  He also shows less theoretical and historical sophistication than the earlier writers, which leads him to make blanket statements that are arguably not true.  For example, he states (p.72) that church history has given little attention to the role of female monasticism, ignoring the seminal  works of  Peter Brown, Carolyn Walker Bynum,  Claude Langlois, Elizabeth Rapley, Miri Rubin, Jane Schulenberg, and the entire membership of the History of Women Religious Association.  He assumes (p.145) that celibacy was the prerogative of the clergy, when MacNamara, Pagels, and numerous other historians clearly show that early clergy not only were not themselves celibate but were suspicious of the celibacy of early virgins and hermits as an alternative source of religious authority.   He also states (pp. 135-6) that the church gave money and resources to religious, when actually the church in many countries did nothing of the sort.  In fact, as (e.g.) Deacon documents, women religious often gave male religious and bishops money and lands.

               Another problem with the book’s argument is O’Murchu’s blithe assumption (e.g. p.84) that the inevitable trend of history is linear and toward human improvement.  This, he says (p.157) is “big stuff, not for the fainthearted.”  But he never spells out what this “big stuff” implies for action or policy that would make it so daunting to the fainthearted.  Furthermore, he gives neither theoretical nor empirical evidence for his assertion.  One could equally argue from chaos theory that the trend of history is in fact chaotic, with interacting random events (12 men flying 3 planes into the Pentagon and World Trade Center, a few votes in a handful of states electing Donald Trump president) changing the course of history in unpredictable, and NOT always positive, directions.

               Finally, O’Murchu shows a certain amount of sociological naiveté.  On p. 192, he says religious life needs to “transcend inherited aspects of ecclesiastical allegiance.”  He does not specify what this would entail, nor does he show any awareness of numerous sociological studies of the routinization of charisma in new religious groups, most of which show that “white hot mobilization” (Loflend) inevitably fades into something more predictable and bureaucratic – or else the group ceases to exist.

               In summary, I found the book – as I have found previous books by this author – to be possibly inspiring to readers who may already be convinced of his basic premises, but unpersuasive to anyone who is not.


Peter Brown (1988) The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. Columbia University Press.
Carolyn W. Bynum (1982) Jesus as Mother.  University of California Press.
(1991) Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human
Body in Medieval Religion.
  Zone Books.
Lawrence Cada (1979) Shaping the coming Age of Religious Life. Seabury Press.
Florence Deacon (1989) Handmaids or Autonomous Women.  University of Wisconsin.
Claude Langlois (1984) Le catholicisme au feminin. Editions du Cerf.
John Lofland (1979) “White Hot Mobilization.” Pp 157-166 in Mayer N. Zald and John D. McCarthy eds. The dynamics of Social Movements. Cambridge MA: Winthrop.
JoAnn Kay MacNamara  (1985) A New Song: Celibate Women in the First Three Christian Centuries. NY: Harrington Park Press.
Elaine Pagels (1988) Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. NY: Random House.
Elizabeth Rapley (19990) The Devotes: Women and Church in Seventeenth Century France. Montreal: McGill queens University Press.
Miri Rubin. (1991) Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture. Cambridge University Press.
Jane Schulenberg (1989) “Women’s Monastic Communities, 500-1100: pp. 208-239 in Judith M. Benne ed. Sisters and Workers in the Middle Ages. University of Chicago Press.
Patricia Wittberg, SC (1994) The Rise and Fall of Catholic Religious Orders: A Social Movement Perspective.  NY: SUNY Press.