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What the increase of monastic vocations in Italy could mean for European secularism.

11:00 PM, Mar 22, 2006 • By CHRISTOPHER LEVENICK
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Gibbon, it should be noted, composed his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire at a low-ebb in the history of western monasticism. The third of Gibbon's six volumes--in which appears his scathing indictment of monasticism--was published in 1781. A decade later, the furies of the French Revolution would tear down the gates of the abbey at Cluny, only to discover the full measure of monastic decline. Cluny, after all, had once been the glory of early medieval monasticism. During the tenth and eleventh centuries, its walls reverberated with the unceasing prayer of hundreds of monks singing the psalmody day and night. Until the construction of St. Peter's in Rome, it housed the largest church in Christendom. Surely, the revolutionaries thought, here they would discover the luxurious indolence of a thousand idle aristocrats. What they found instead were a dozen or so elderly monks.

Yet monasticism was at that very moment poised on the verge of spectacular growth. The eighteenth century had seen a long, steady attrition give way to a brief, furious persecution . The nineteenth century, however, would witness a breathtaking resurgence of monasticism. So great was its lure that, on the heels of the Oxford Movement, the Church of England elected to revive monastic orders. A magisterial Protestant communion, among whose first acts was the closure of the cloisters and abbeys, found its best and brightest divines ineluctably drawn to the cenobitic life. It was a single but telling instance. At the very moment of Europe's greatest power, its monasteries were full and growing. If monasticism had flourished during Rome's decline and fall, it would also flourish during Europe's rise and triumph.

IT IS REASONABLE, then, to see more hopeful signs in a possible monastic renaissance. This is certainly the view of Pope Benedict XVI, who views monasticism as one of three historic elements which forged Latin, Greek, Slavic, Nordic, and Germanic cultures into the amalgam known as Europe. Monasticism, Benedict recently noted, has long been "the indispensable bearer not only of cultural continuity but above all of fundamental and religious and moral values." It acts as "a pre-political and supra-political force," which brings "ever-welcome and necessary rebirths of culture and civilization." (Even Gibbon conceded that "posterity must be grateful to acknowledge, that the monuments of Greek and Roman literature have been preserved and multiplied by [the monks'] indefatigable pens.") Benedict's high sense of monastic purpose dovetails neatly with his belief that a small but vibrant church will be well positioned to invigorate Western civilization.

Again, Italy's spike in new monastic vocations may be nothing more than a statistical outlier. But nobody should be altogether dismayed if in fact it foreshadows something deeper. Monasticism seems to prosper in moments of great tumult and confusion. One may fear with Gibbon that its revival suggests another long, dark night of the European soul. One may, of course, equally hope with Benedict that its resurgence portends for the continent a new and glorious dawn.

Christopher Levenick is the W. H. Brady Doctoral Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.