15 September 2008

Problems Related to the Misuse of Canon 603 by Non-Canonical Communities

I wrote a post awhile back defending the linkage between Diocesan Hermits and specific spiritual traditions. What I argued there was that specific spiritualities (Benedictine, Franciscan, Camaldolese, et al) could contribute to rather than detract from the diocesan charism of the diocesan hermit. Hermits are part of both eremitical/monastic and, if they are diocesan, cathedral traditions and can draw from both in living out their eremitical lives. However, as I have also written in other posts, the diocesan hermit is first of all Diocesan, not Camaldolese, not Carthusian, etc. Better perhaps, they are Diocesan who MAY apply various spiritualities to their commitments as Diocesan. In particular they are not hermits who are merely using Canon 603 to circumvent the inability of a non-canonical community to profess members canonically. This would indeed, as the author of the Sponsa Christi blog wrote three months ago, defeat the purpose of being diocesan. More than that, in my estimation, it would be dishonest and create problems on a number of different levels.

The fundamental difficulty (or set of difficulties) relates to a lack of clarity as to what is the primary context for one's eremitical life. Is it one's community or is it one's diocese and parish? I have already seen one case where someone ostensibly professed under canon 603 approached the entire admission to profession to his Bishop (and to the public) as a canonical profession in community; canon 603 was supposedly the usual means the community's hermits used to make solemn profession. Because the community's status was misrepresented to the Bishop (inadvertently by the candidate for profession who was also deceived to some extent!) he later determined the vows made were private not public vows. (The situation is more complex than this, but this is enough of the "gist" of it to point to the kinds of confusions that can occur when Canon 603 is misused in this way.) One question in particular this raises then (others follow) is has one embraced eremitism because one has accepted the charism of diocesan eremitism? Or is this merely a way of achieving canonical profession when one's community is not allowed to profess canonically? Is one's profession first of all an expression of one's commitment to parish and diocese and does it especially reflect the kind of stability such a commiment implies, or is it an expression of one's more primary commitment to a religious community?

Problems regarding discernment and formation are pieces of this fundamental difficulty with context. First discernment: who is the primary ecclesial representative in the process of discernment? Is it the diocese, that is the Bishop and his representatives, or is it the community, and if a non-canonical community then who has discerned and formed the vocations of the formators? Is the Bishop admitting to profession (or presiding at the profession) on behalf of the community, or under the authority of Canon 603, and who will be the hermit's legitimate superior? Likewise, has the hermit candidate herself truly discerned a vocation to diocesan eremitism or is Canon 603 being used because access to it seems to be less difficult than the canons governing religious life and the foundation of institutes?

Questions relating to formation would also need to be raised then. Who is in charge of formation for such a hermit? Is it non-hermit members who are themselves not canonically professed and not preparing for this? Beyond this but related to it as well, who, besides the hermit herself, is responsible to the church for the this vocation? Who attests to it in the name of the Church? Who nurtures it and is officially responsible for its continued development and integrity? When a person petitions for Canon 603 status and admission to profession and consecration in this way, the Bishop and his own diocesan officials are responsible for discernment. They are also responsible for being sure adequate initial and continuing formation is gotten by the candidate or professed hermit. If a community is involved then does the Bishop or the community have the primary say in formation and discernment? (And of course, is this completely understood by all involved?) Who follows through on all of this; who is the legitimate superior? (In the situation described above, the Bishop told the person to go to his community for permissions, advice, etc. They, on the other hand told him to go to his Bishop as his "legitimate superior." Neither would take responsibility for the hermit and as a result, he fell through gaping cracks that should not have been there and would not have been had Canon 603 not been abused in the way it was.)

Related to both discernment and formation is the further question of who writes the Rule of life? In Canon 603 what we read is that the hermit lives her own Plan of life under the direction of the diocesan Bishop. While it is not stated specifically, I understand this as implying the person writes her own Rule. Why is this important? Why not just borrow a Rule that has already been written and approved, whether by another hermit, a community or Congregation, etc? Well, in this matter I think the Church has shown real wisdom, and I grow to appreciate it more and more as I see individuals borrowing from or adopting Rules they did not write themselves. In a situation demanding serious discernment of a vocation one of the primary ways to ascertain the nature and quality of the vocation one has is to look at how the hermit candidate lives her life. More, one needs to see the theology that informs it, the reasons for embracing the life, the values, goals, and practices underpinning and motivating it. The very best way to do this apart from (but along with) private interviews is to look at a Rule or Plan of Life which an individual hermit has herself written.

Not only is the writing of a personal Rule a tremendously demanding and probative exercise, it is also one of the most powerfully consolidating and formative exercises a hermit will undertake in preparing for profession and consecration. (By the way, it is an exercise I would recommend to anyone preparing for vows, whether under Canon 603 or as a member of a Congregation under another Rule. If you choose to take on such an exercise allow several weeks for its completion beyond the weeks and months you take considering it prior to actual writing.) To bypass this requirement of Canon 603 and allow the hermit to simply adopt a Rule which she herself has not written is to miss a particularly important element in the discernment AND formation processes. The results may be very disappointing, and they will surely mean that the hermit candidate misses an important opportunity to clarify and claim her own journey as completely as possible; additionally they will mean a failure to clearly embrace the charism of diocesan hermit (as opposed to being a religious hermit in a community with its own Rule). It is this I think the author of "Sponsa Christi" was partly referring to in her own blog, and if so, then she was completely correct in this.

Some canonists have been clear that Canon 603 is not to be used to give canonical status to members of non-canonical communities who cannot grant such status themselves. It is NOT meant to be a way of skirting the process and issues in becoming canonical as a community. As I have written before, there is a reason my Diocese insisted on the formula at the beginning of my vow formula per se: "I earnestly desire to respond to the gift of vocation to the eremitical life . . . as a solitary hermit." While I am an Oblate with Transfiguration Monastery, and am in that sense Camaldolese Benedictine, I am first of all a Diocesan Hermit, not a religious one. While I can join other diocesan hermits in a Lavra, I remain a solitary hermit with my OWN Rule of Life, eventhough that is subsumed under the Rule of Benedict and the Constitutions of the Camaldolese. (I must say that my command of the Benedictine Rule, or its command of me is still in its infancy, and while I live by it as PART of what my own Rule enjoins on me, I am very glad to be bound to my own Rule which, at this point in time at least, is far and away more intimately expressive of who I am and who I feel called to be.) While I maintain a good relationship with (my) Prioress (and one which is formative and supportive) my legitimate superior is my Bishop and those he has appointed or delegated. Above all then, my commitment is to diocese and parish and my stability is here. This is the charism I have discovered and embraced in accepting profession and consecration according to Canon 603. It is what I seek to reflect in the adoption of the initials recently authorized by my Bishop. This, I think, is what Canon 603 envisioned and continues to envision; to attempt to use the Canon in other ways is to betray not only its spirit but its very content.

One final note: my concern with this is not a concern for law for law's sake. As I have written in other posts the unique charism of the diocesan hermit can be framed or expressed in terms of expectations which others necessarily may have because of the hermit's status as canonical AND diocesan. These expectations are a direct outgrowth of discernment, formation, supervision, authorization, and commitment and consecration. While it is true that the non-canonical hermit may live the basic characteristics of the eremitic life as well as or even better than the diocesan hermit she does not share in their unique charism nor are others allowed to necessarily have the same expectations they have of someone with canonical standing. Canon 603 is meant to ensure the solitary eremitical life of the diocesan hermit and to do so on behalf of the church and world.