29 May 2014

Canon 603: Normativity and the Prevention of Distortions, Abuses, Counterfeits and Frauds

[[Sister, you wrote that Bishop Remi de Roo gave several different reasons for asking the II Vatican Council to make eremitical life a state of perfection and include it in canon law. Could you please post these here? I could not copy them.]]

Sure. They are 1) The fact of a growing renewal of the life, 2) the sanctifying value of the hermit's life, 3) the hermit's contribution to the life of the church. This would include the hermit's prophetic role, a modeling of the Church's call to contemplation and the centrality of prayer, being a paradigm of the way we are each called to confront evil within our own lives and world, or allow heaven (God's own life shared with others) to interpenetrate our reality, etc 4) the ecumenical value of the hermit's life (especially re dialogue between Eastern and Western Christianity) 5) a correction of the impression that the evangelical counsels is limited to institutionalized community life known as religious life. Question continues:

[[I can see where these really are positive reasons for establishing Canon 603. Was it also a way to regulate the growth of the vocation or minimize distortions or abuses even if these weren't the reason the Canon came into existence? Thank you.]]

Yes. to point out the normative and ecclesial nature of canon 603 vocations is to say that the Church desires to respond to the Holy Spirit in authentic ways. This also therefore means that abuses, distortions, disedifying stereotypes, and destructive eccentrics or eccentricities cannot mask themselves as Catholic hermits or the stuff of canon 603 life as well as that the Church has a stake in being sure this does not occur. The big difference between noting that canon 603 ALSO helps prevent abuses and saying that it actually grew out of an attempt to deal with abuses should be clear. Since these elements are something of an informal vision of the place of the eremitical vocation in the Church, and since they are positive and ecclesially focused, they too underscore that the flip side of the positive normative nature of the canon involves the prevention of abuses.

What remains true however, is that unless the Church was (and is) faced with a true gift of the Holy Spirit  in eremitical life no canon would be necessary; nor would any exist. The Church could simply ignore (as "hermits", not as needy people!) the fraudulent or counterfeit "hermits" populating the various wildernesses (including internet sites!) of the world. The corollary then is that with this canon (i.e., this norm) the proliferation of counterfeits and frauds alongside those very few authentic vocations who consider this vocation seriously because of the canon, makes recognizing, exploring, and honoring the normative nature of the canon even more critical. While it is not meant to validate eccentricity and inauthenticity, it does pique the interest of many lone individuals who will never be professed accordingly for these same reasons (and better ones as well!).** As former detective Monk might say, in this regard Canon 603 is both a blessing and a curse.

I am not entirely sure about the idea that the canon was meant to regulate the growth of such vocations if by that you mean it was meant to prevent there from being lots and lots of them, for instance. The Church knows this is a relatively rare vocation and that few are called to human wholeness in this way. However, the specific non-negotiable  or defining elements of the canon do prevent just any lone pious person from thinking of themselves (much less portraying themselves publicly) as a hermit just as it prevents some of the practices which would surely proliferate without it: e.g., solitary apostolic religious for whom being a hermit is a "metaphor" for their lives, misanthropes, and others seeking to validate their strangeness or their failures at charity and relationships by applying the word "hermit" to their lives, Saturday-only contemplatives, married hermits, and any number of other examples I have mentioned in the past 7 years.

You may have noticed that I posted an answer to the question as to whether the Episcopal solitary was the same as the RC Hermit. In fact, it turns out that the Episcopalians use a canon which is sort of a catchall for unusual cases --- cases in which a person is not professed as part of a recognized Order or Community, for instance. While the solitaries I know personally in the Episcopal Church live lives which resemble my own in all the elements Canon 603 requires of the hermit, the Canon under which they are professed does NOT spell out these elements in the same way Canon 603 does. Thus, while I don't know if the Episcopal Church has problems with Bishops professing individuals as "solitaries" even if they do not live a desert spirituality, this too makes it clear that Canon 603 does limit the growth of the vocation to those persons who DO live its central and non-negotiable elements.

** Should anyone doubt that Canon 603 (and those professed under it) has subsequently led to MANY people seeking to be professed accordingly one story might help here. I was speaking to a Vicar for Consecrated Life about his diocese's experience with hermits, hermit candidates for profession, etc. This diocese has professed one diocesan hermit in the history of the canon, and that was only within the past decade. However, he said that every month (he may have said every week, I can't recall exactly now) people approach the diocese seeking to be admitted to profession as diocesan hermits. None of them has gotten as far as this one diocesan hermit in regard to the process of discernment and admission to public profession. (Note well that this is a diocese open to having diocesan hermits.)

If we take the lowest average possible while omitting periods of holidays and possibly the Summer months (and my sense is this is a fairly conservative number) that means that of at least 100 or so persons seeking admission to profession as a diocesan hermit in the past decade only 1 has been professed under canon 603 in this one diocese. Many dioceses of course have professed none and some have actually determined they will profess none in the foreseeable future. (There are significant pros and cons to this decision.) A few have professed several (we sort of laughingly call them "hotbeds" of eremitical life!). I think this too indicates that Canon 603 does naturally limit the growth of this vocation --- and rightly so. It also indicates, I think, why it is important to write publicly about this canon and the meaning of its central or defining elements. Some of these people will  actually one day become diocesan hermits if they can only come to understand and embrace the life it defines. Others never will, while a number of others probably never should.