06 December 2013

On Canon 603 Hermits and Some Supposed Drawbacks of Canonical Standing

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I saw two videos on You Tube from someone called "J__H__" (name omitted by Sr L.). She writes against canonical status for hermits and says it is not necessary even though it may have been thought to be necessary by some well-intentioned Bishops. She also complains that there are all kinds of rules and laws coming to be about hermit life which in her opinion seem to trespass against the individuality of the hermit. I felt she believed that canonical hermits were at the mercy of their Bishops too. She gave the example of a young woman living a reclusive life according to the will of her Bishop and said that if another Bishop came in the young woman might find him changing her life from reclusive to something else. Is this true? I am sending you the links for the videos I watched. There are a number of others too.]]

Thanks for your questions. I am personally sorry to hear these videos are still available. (Yes, I was already aware of them.) I have received questions about them in the past -- though I knew of them anyway -- but nothing recently. I found that the videos I saw, which included the ones you linked me to, were full of misconceptions about canon 603 life, the history of canon 603, the reasons for the existence of the canon, etc. The questions you are asking touch on some of these issues.

The remarkable Balance of Canon 603:

To be honest I think canon 603 does an amazing job of protecting the individuality of  hermits professed under it. While it is true that there are non-negotiable elements which are part of the canon, namely a publicly vowed** and consecrated life of stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude, assiduous prayer and penance, all carried out under a Rule the hermit writes for herself and lives under the supervision of her Bishop --- it is also the case that the Rule the hermit writes ensures that the non-negotiable elements as well as anything else which the hermit considers critical for her life are combined in a wholly individual constellation. These are then lived out under the supervision of the Bishop and (ordinarily) with the assistance of a delegate (a quasi superior) either the Bishop or the hermit chooses for this service role.

This combination of non-negotiable elements, individual experience and needs, along with supervision which is geared entirely towards assisting the hermit in these things, is an aspect of true brilliance in the composition of canon 603. It manages to allow for serious and mature individuality while protecting the very nature of eremitical life itself and the charisma it is for the contemporary Church and world. In other words, it protects the authentic freedom of the Holy Spirit and the Tradition that Spirit is inspiring now as a gift to the life of the Church --- just as the Spirit also originally was 1700 years ago and has done throughout the centuries.

When New Bishops Come into Office:

Regarding your question about new Bishops, I have received similar questions in the past so you might want to look those up as well. The basic answer is that a new Bishop will not unilaterally make serious changes in the hermit's life or Rule because that Rule has been approved canonically by another Bishop. (On the day of profession the hermit's Rule is given a Bishop's Declaration of Approval because it becomes legally binding on the hermit.) If, for example, after meeting with the hermit, a new Bishop believes she needs to be seeing more or less of  her family, or needs to be either more or less reclusive generally, or any number of other things,  these beliefs would have to be based on serious concerns about the hermit's well-being and that of the vocation itself for him to demand changes. In such a case, especially if the hermit disputes these opinions, there will be continuing conversations with the hermit, as well as a conversation with her delegate; others might also be involved: Vicars for Religious who might know and have worked with the hermit, the hermit's pastor and, conceivably, the Bishop in whose hands she was originally or perpetually professed and under whose supervision she had been living for some time.What does not (and I would think, cannot) happen is that a Bishop who believes that all hermits should (or should not) be recluses (or whatever) can change the character of a hermit's Rule and life by mere fiat.

Your question had another problem (or constellation of problems) embedded in it. It seemed to indicate that the hermit is living a certain way because her Bishop demanded she do so in the first place --- possibly in order to be professed at all. In the video you referred me to JH did indeed seem to indicate that a young woman embraced this form of eremitical life because her Bishop mistakenly believed it was the only way to live an eremitical life. Assuming JH has her facts right, then a new Bishop, especially if he was more knowledgeable about the diversity and continuity of eremitical life, could indeed open up new possibilities for this hermit. Were he to sense that the young woman (assuming she truly made her vows freely) was living a Rule, elements of which she felt forced to embrace despite her own experience and discernment, the new Bishop would need to assist her to find a better expression of it. The same conversations mentioned above would need to take place and the diocese (perhaps through the assistance of the delegate) would need to work with the hermit to be sure she rewrote her Rule in a way which best suited her own unique call even as it protected the essential nature of the vocation and the non-negotiable elements of canon 603.

But let me be clear about two things: first, unless the hermit herself decided she was no longer called to live as a hermit and requested dispensation from her vows, the resolution of the situation comes from the hermit's own revision of her Rule so that it better reflects what is healthy for her AND for her vocation. Second, if the original Bishop was merely demanding the essential living out of the non-negotiable elements of the canon in ways which are typical of diocesan hermits everywhere with reasonable accommodations for home visits, contact with friends, horarium, prayer styles and patterns, etc, then the question would become one of whether or not the person was really called to this vocation. Here we have another reason dioceses should be sure candidates for profession have sufficient experience before writing a Rule which will bind them in law as well as a reason which argues against a Bishop being the one to author the Rule himself. It also argues for temporary professions as a matter of course *** and different Rules at each stage of the individual's growth in becoming a diocesan hermit.

Resolving Problems related to a Hermit Who is not living her Rule or the Elements of the Canon:

Let's also look at a similar question which might indeed come up when a new Bishop comes on the scene. If, after 2-3 meetings with the hermit, at least one of which has to do with the contents and living out of her Rule, and perhaps a subsequent clarifying conversation with the hermit's delegate, such a Bishop decides a hermit is not living her Rule with sufficient seriousness or integrity, then he has every right to explain the matter to her and demand that she make appropriate changes. If she is truly being lax then she will need to take necessary steps to resolve this; if changes in her physical health or other changes in her spirituality or her more general situation have led to parts of her Rule no longer working for her, then  she must write appropriate alternatives into the Rule and have these approved by the Bishop. The delegate may again have a significant role in assisting both the Bishop and the Hermit in such a situation. She may have a sense of resources the hermit needs to live her Rule with fidelity or be aware of concerns the Bishop is not; she can also assist the hermit to articulate the ways in which she will revise her Rule if that is part of the solution.

The point, however, is that in this situation as with the others mentioned, canonical standing sets up a series of relationships meant to allow the individual hermit to truly respond to her vocation as is best for her and as God truly wills. Canonical standing ("status") does not mean a position of privilege or superficial "approval". Instead it means that the persons involved have been granted legal rights and accepted legal obligations as well. This is not about legalism. The prudent use of law is simply the way genuine freedom is exercised and protected in both Church and society. Canonical standing protects the Church from the eccentricities and destruction of narcissism or excessive individualism of loners seeking to call themselves "Catholic hermits" while it protects diocesan hermits from the whims of those who neither understand nor approve of the vocation. Contrary to the points made in the videos you referenced, it is precisely the individual nature of eremitical life that calls for Canon 603. In this way the Church makes sure traditional eremitical life itself (and not some form of self-indulgent isolation or misanthropy) is being lived while making sure that the individual hermit has the support and genuine freedom required to do so.

** Some canon 603 hermits use sacred bonds other than vows just as Canon 603 allows for.
*** Individual cases may allow for perpetual profession without temporary vows preceding this commitment, but this will be a rare situation and one that is usually inadvisable.