12 November 2010

Concern with Canon Law: Just Overly Conservative, Legalistic, Limited, or Something far More?

[[Dear Sister, is your concern with canonical standing coming from something more than a conservative and legalistic tendency? What is wrong with something not being recognized in Canon Law? It seems to me that the Holy Spirit will work wherever he wills.]]

Thanks very much for the question. Sometimes we speak about Canon Law as a necessary evil, and we give the impression that those who regard canonical standing (standing in law) must merely be taken with superficialities, legalisms, or simply be rigid personalities or inflexible in their approach to reality, etc. Because of the apparent opposition between Law and Gospel in much of the NT the idea of law can be degraded even further. But, Canon Law is essential in many ways and in regard to the questions we have been discussing, namely admission to the consecrated state and the nature of ecclesial vocations, law is really critical. This is because it protects the very vocations we are concerned with and makes sure they are nurtured and appropriately discerned, mediated, realized, and governed.

With regard to the question of admission to the consecrated state, since this admission involves the direct action of the Church herself in a way which affects the way she is constituted, Canon law clarifies how and when this is (currently) done in the Church and implies therefore, how it is not. This is absolutely not meant to limit the Holy Spirit re the way she works in the Church, but it does set clear requirements regarding what we are SURE of in regard to ecclesial vocations. Ecclesial vocations are those vocations which, by definition, cannot be discerned by the person alone. More importantly God's own call is, at least in part, mediated by the institutional Church and this only occurs in given situations and circumstances. Ecclesial vocations are not simply individual vocations but rather are part of the patrimony of the Church with public rights and responsibilities to act in the name of the Church. I wrote earlier about the necessary expectations people are allowed to have of those with public vows/consecration. We must take that dimension of these vocations very seriously, and we must be careful in encouraging or even allowing people to have similar expectations with regard to those who have not actually been initiated (professed/consecrated) into the state of life which allows or even demands these.

What is critical to understand in the posts I have put up is that consecration (entrance into the consecrated state) is not something one does with oneself; it is not a way of disposing of or gifting oneself with regard to God or the Church even though it will contain this element as well. Despite the common and misleading use of the term in sentences like, "I consecrate my whole life to the Sacred Heart", the term "consecrate" refers to God's' own action, often mediated through the authoritative agency of members of the Church, but even so to God's own "being God" and doing what only God can do in this particular instance. As mentioned in earlier posts, the appropriate term for something human beings do here with their own lives is dedicare, to dedicate, and there are various similar terms which refer to this particular dimension of the complete action of public profession and consecration. As I have said before, in and of themselves these acts of dedication (private vows, promises, etc) indicate a significant gift, but they do NOT indicate that God working through his Church has initiated the person into a new way or state of being even if it is assumed this gift of self has been accepted.

Thus, in such vocations the Church typically demands significant discernment and periods of formation, not merely to see if the person is serious about all this or is capable of undertaking it, but additionally to see if this is the way God is working in her life AND IN THE LIFE OF HIS CHURCH more generally through this vocation itself. It also is meant to see if indeed the one requesting admission to vows and consecration shows a pattern of consistent fidelity to that action of God over a period of time, and allows them the time and experience to build such a pattern. And so, for instance, in a public testimony for a diocesan hermit, the diocese may publish a statement regarding the fact of public profession of perpetual vows which says: [[This testifies to the fact that our sister ___________, Hermit of the Diocese of ________, having demonstrated persistent fidelity to the presence of God in her life and to the directives of church leadership, made her perpetual profession as a canonical hermit according to the prescriptions of Canon 603. . .]] The notion of persistent faithfulness (to both God and Church leadership) is also important because during perpetual profession what is mediated to the hermit in a new and irrevocable way is God's own and eternal (ongoing) call-as-ecclesial reality in all its dimensions. The Church as a whole has a right to expect this kind of fidelity in one making perpetual public profession.

The reference to canonical standing, and the prescriptions of law (C 603 in this case) mark a new situation of something more than personal dedication. This is not merely the conclusion of a long period of personal discernment and formation or preparation; it is the beginning of something new, something more complete or definitive than the hermit has known heretofore --- even with temporary profession which is marked by new rights and responsibilities in law. Hence the use of the prostration and the Litany of the Saints calling upon the whole Church, living and dead to witness and participate in what God does through her this day. No one, not candidate, church, or world remains the same in light of this act on the part of God, his Church, and the individual whose gift of self he accepts, and whom he publicly claims and gifts with himself in a new way in return.

To summarize then, the Church discerns when, where, and how this tremendous change in the state of things happens because this is an ecclesial vocation. She legislates the matter to protect all the elements which seem fundamental to the mediation of God's own call and his consecration of the individual in a way which creates the right to necessary expectations on the part of the whole Church and world. She legislates the matter to indicate the gravity of what happens, and the very public nature of it all. She legislates it so that it becomes normative and paradigmatic of the way God has been found to act with regard to the consecrated state in his Church and to invite others to aspire to hearing his call, dedicating their lives similarly, living for others in a way which clearly says one's life is not really one's own any longer --- not only in terms of God, but in terms of the Church and even the larger world. The Church is open to new forms of consecrated life and encourages her Bishops to be aware of potential instances in this regard. So, significant as the recognized ways of entering the consecrated state are, the Church is not using Canon Law to indicate rigidity or inflexibility --- even of the legalistic variety. Instead Canon Law here is used to signal not only the person's gift of self, but God's gift to the Church --- namely, the gift of call and consecration, of vocation and state of life.

I have written in the past about vocations to solitude and, as Thomas Merton puts the matter, how it is that solitude "herself" must open the door to the person wishing to be a hermit. Unless this happens, no matter what the person does, how s/he gives him/herself over to the silence and solitude in his/her life, there will be a difference between this life and that of the one who has walked through the door which solitude herself opened to him/her. (Again, not better nor worse, but different.) The situation with the consecrated state is similar. God calls each of us to dedicate ourselves to him. Even so, he does not open the door to the consecrated state to everyone any more than he opens the door to any other state of life to everyone. In the case of ecclesial vocations, however, the definitive opening of this door happens through the effective mediation of the Church when legitimate authorities act in the Name of the Church rather than through an individual's dedication of self alone.

So, in this case Canon Law is an important way of preserving elements of the theology of consecrated life we might otherwise fail to recognize, neglect, or even forget. Attention to it is a way of honoring one specific way God is at work in his church and world --- hallowing and consecrating parts of it as the fulfillment of the Incarnation is realized in space and time. My own appreciation of this theology is rooted in the fact that it does not focus on the person's own dedication of self exclusively or even primarily --- not even when appropriately seen as response to Grace, but on God's own action of empowerment, reception, and consecration which is authoritatively mediated through God's Church. While this does not mean that God is constrained to work in this way ONLY, it does indicate a long-recognized (that is, long-discerned) dimension which is foundational to the theology of consecrated life and does greater justice to it and the God it seeks to glorify than those which omit this.