Consecrated Families in Western Christian History: Their Presence in and Significance for Christian Spirituality

by Evan B. Howard

March, 2024

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This paper is a brick, a response, a hunch, and a prelude. As a brick, it is one more part of a growing building, my collection of historical studies in consecrated life.1 I am now in the modern period and only have a few studies of key movements/themes left to explore before I begin work more formally on an ecumenical theology of consecrated life. This paper is also a response to a request. About three years ago my friend Charles Moore requested that I do some work on families. He expressed a desire that Christians distance ourselves from an unhelpful dualism (crassly worded: celibate = special life; family = ordinary life) that does not help us reimagine church, families, and singleness afresh. Charles wondered if a historical study might contribute to this reimagination. As a hunch, I kind-of agree with Charles. Perhaps a historical survey might be valuable. As you will see, I observe instances throughout Christian history of families and family movements that lived what then might have been perceived as—and today we would call—radical Christian lifestyles. With Charles, I think that noticing these instances is of relevance today as we rethink “church” and consecrated life both academically and practically. Finally, this paper is a prelude. I have been invited to publish a piece for Plough magazine tentatively titled, “The Home, a Monastery? Reexamining the Potential of Family Life.” The piece for the magazine must be both short and practical and I will only be able to document a few select instances. As I have not seen a more complete list published elsewhere, it seemed best to present fuller documentation here, in an unpolished and open-source format, available to all.


Historical surveys of “the family” or “laity” in the field of Christian spirituality tend to present a schema whereby family spirituality is marginalized early in Christian history by dominant priestly/monastic religiosities, only to regain a bit of recognition in the 12th century, more fully recovered after the Protestant reformation.2 These surveys generally do not mention the numerous examples of consecrated families in history. Perhaps this lacuna is associated with a more general perception of the “religious life” as the preserve of those vowed to chastity.3 I wonder. Just as we are seeking to recognize ministerial religious women today, aware now that there were a number of women through history who saw themselves as ministerial religious though not formally acknowledged,4 Perhaps it might also be appropriate to acknowledge the gift of consecrated families today, especially in light of their own often-unrecognized historical precedent.5 Thus my aim in this paper is simply to bring to light this often-unrecognized precedent of consecrated family life: Christian families throughout history who sought as families to lead exemplary lives—lives that both in their day and currently we might think of as “religious.” My aim is not to prove any kind of historical “dependence” of one expression on another. I simply want to list and describe what I have observed in my reading.6 Then I will close with a few reflective comments on the whole.

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1See and especially those essays listed under “Reflections on the History of Devout Forms of Life.” One upon a time I spoke of “monasticism” (and I still do when appropriate). Then I began to speak of “religious life.” More recently I am shifting to speak of “consecrated life.” I will discuss all this in future work.

2See for example, Yves M. J. Congar, “Laïc et laïcat” in the Dictionnaire de Spiritualité Ascétique et Mystique. Doctrine et Histoire. Marcel Viller et al. eds. vol 9 (Paris: Beauchesne, 1976), 79–108. Kees Waaijman, Spirituality: Forms, Foundations, Methods. Translated by John Vriend (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2002), 19–23; Wendy Wright, “Marriage, Family, and Spirituality,” in The New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 419–21; Wendy Wright, “Family Life, Spirituality of” in Glen G. Scorgie, ed. Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 441–42. Edward C. Sellner, “Lay Spirituality” in Michael Downey, ed. The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier/The Liturgical Press, 1993), 589–96. See also more generally Yves M. J. Congar, Lay People in the Church: A Study for a Theology of Laity. trans. Donald Attwater. Revised edition (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1965). Articles on “laity” do not always offer significant treatment of families. There is no article on family in The Study of Spirituality, The Blackwell Companion in Christian Spirituality, or the three volume Christian Spirituality series.

3This perception is defended in Sandra Schneiders three-volume Religious Life in a New Millennium (NewYork: Paulist Press, 2000, 2001, 2013).

4Schneiders herself acknowledges this (along with other forms of non-canonical “consecration”) in Finding the Treasure: Locating Catholic Religious Life in a New Ecclesial and Cultural Context. Religious Life in a New Millennium 1 (New York: Paulist Press, 2000), xxiv, 66, 216–18, 232, 261, 292; Selling All: Commitment, Consecrated Celibacy, and Community in Catholic Religious Life. Religious Life in a New Millennium 2 (New York: Paulist Press, 2001), 8, 149. I see Schneiders desiring to acknowledge now openly what was implicit earlier (particularly in the face of the present interest and experience of ministerial women today).

5As you will see, I am more interested in the practice than the language, whether we talk about “religious” families or “consecrated” or “semi-monastic” or whatever.

6This paper is also not a “historical” study in the technical sense. Much of the material would require greater focus and depth for a truly historical analysis (I am especially nervous about my summary of the Reformation period). I am trying simply to review and re-express our ways of speaking about the survey of history generally as a prelude to re-framing our approach to consecrated life. My process is to read a wide sample of the original sources and to have examined respected secondary sources regarding each aspect I consider.




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