25 August 2009

Question: Are Sisters (or Diocesan Hermits, etc) Part of the Laity?

[[Dear Sister, you write about the diocesan hermit and the consecrated state and also about lay hermits, but aren't Sisters (I assume that includes hermits) members of the laity? My understanding was that Vatican II said there were just two groups, clergy and laity and that if one was not a priest, then one was laity. Doesn't this addition of the consecrated state suggest that this is a different and higher state than laity, including lay hermits? Seems elitist.]]

Thanks for your questions. They are actually quite important because the state of the discussion is pretty muddled today, not least by religious who consider and assert they are only part of the laity as though their state of life is in no way also distinct. I hear a lot from both religious and laity that religious are laypersons (this is completely true) and I have made the same statement myself in the past based (accurately) on just the two-fold hierarchical division from Vatican II which you mention. But this is only one division; another, for instance, is in terms of theological or vocational states of life and when this division is the one governing the discussion, religious (or diocesan hermits) are not laypersons though they are very much part of the people of God. Unfortunately this often means that when a Sister writes about the consecrated state they DO belong to and compares it to the lay
state (which includes lay eremitism) in some way, they are almost inevitably accused of elitism. This absolutely need not be the case.

First what Vatican II said. Vatican II affirmed the hierarchical nature of the church and did so by distinguishing those who were ordained (clergy) from those who were not (laity). In terms of hierarchicalization or "class distinctions" in the church these are the only divisions affirmed by the Council. Thus, in terms of THIS DIVISION ONLY, religious women and non-ordained male religious are laity because they are not clergy.

However, this fundamental division is not the only one the Church uses. There are two others which overlap one another: Canonical standing and theological (states of life). When looked at from a canonical perspective religious women and men, and those who are consecrated virgins or diocesan hermits, clearly have rights and obligations which flow neither from clerical standing (if they are men) nor from the lay condition. With regard to life in the church then, when defined in terms of canonical rights and obligations, religious life (or consecrated virginity and diocesan eremitism) do not belong to either laity or clergy. Yet, neither are they hierarchically distinguished as some sort of middle ground between clergy and laity --- though given the strong hierarchical perspective even of VII and the church in general, it is very hard to keep this in mind. Vocationally they are a distinct group from laity, and in THIS SENSE, neither lay nor clerical. As Canon Law clearly states: Canon 588: the state of consecrated life by its very nature is neither clerical nor lay.

When approached from the theological perspective there is a third but related and also overlapping way of looking at life in the church which is also non-hierarchical. Through the Church's mediation some vocations initiate one into or admit one to the consecrated state where state refers to a stable form of life with canonical rights and obligations. (You can see how this overlaps or even coincides with what I have said thus far.) Here God himself sets the person apart for himself and his service in a special way through this mediation. The person dedicates herself to God (ordinarily with public vows), but God consecrates the person both in the very calling, in the acceptance of vows (etc), and in the prayer of consecration (with solemn or perpetual profession, or in the Rite of consecration of Virgins). Again, this distinct setting apart and constitution in a new state of life is not part of the hierarchical division of the church (clerical or lay) and therefore does not mark the consecrated state as a third way standing hierarchically between clergy and laity. Evenso, it remains the case that religious men and women, consecrated hermits, or consecrated virgins are not laypersons when viewed from this perspective either.

Because the consecrated state is not part of the hierarchical division of the church, affirming that one is called to the consecrated state or comparing it to the lay state does not constitute elitism (or at least it SHOULD not!). Instead, for instance, with regard to diocesan hermits in comparison with lay hermits, it points to a different way of living the same fundamental elements (e.g., silence of solitude, stricter separation from the world, and so forth) and especially the same foundational consecration of baptism. Neither way of doing so is better than the other, but they differ nonetheless.

I hope this helps.