Seeking the background to “Vultum Dei quaerere”

Has anyone figured out what the Holy Father’s intention behind his Apostolic Constitution Vultum Dei quaerere was? The Vatican Press Office has an informative summary of the document. But it is not a difficult—or even a hugely lengthy, at just shy of 40 pages—read,  so a summary may not be hugely necessary. When we first read it, we remarked to some sharp young Catholics of our acquaintance that it seemed like walking in on a conversation that was both hugely important to the participants and utterly unintelligible to outsiders. To put it another way, the Holy Father is plainly addressing concrete situations, though what those situations are is a mystery to us.

A Catholic News Agency report, which is for the most part a summary of the document, contains this information:

During the July 22 presentation of the constitution, Archbishop Jose Rodriguez Carballo O.F.M., secretary for the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, told journalists that the constitution was “a gift” from Pope Francis to the Church.

The process started two years ago with a questionnaire the congregation sent to cloistered communities around the world, he said, explaining that the answers they got back were “rich” and useful, so a synthesis was compiled and given to the competent authorities so that the constitution could eventually be written.

He said there are no plans to issue a similar constitution for cloistered male religious, given the fact that the majority of contemplative communities are composed of women.

Although there is a vocational crisis throughout across the globe, the archbishop noted that there are 4,000 contemplative communities in the world, with the highest numbers being “in Italy and Spain.” 

Carmelites “singularly possess…the most numerous” contemplative community in the Church, he said, noting that others such as Benedictines, Dominicans, and Augustinians are also high in number.

(Emphasis supplied.) However, this does not seem to match the tone of the document, which seems to want to impose a very specific vision of contemplative life on cloistered communities. A very sharp young canonist of our acquaintance was very enthusiastic about the document and thought it was a necessary tonic to some of the ongoing problems with women religious. On the other hand, there has been some criticism, notably from some traditionalists, of the document’s prescriptions. So we are left wondering if there are specific situations that the document was intended to address.

Not being a contemplative nun ourselves, we do not have a huge investment in the constitution; however, it appeared suddenly, receiving apparently very great importance from the Holy Father (indeed, having been given the form of an apostolic constitution, which is reserved for important things, indeed), and it seems to have a definite intent in mind. Accordingly, it is awfully curious that the media coverage does not seem to delve too deeply into that intent.