24 May 2014

Continuation of a Conversation of the Normative Nature of Canon 603

The following post is a continuation of a conversation begun in email regarding my own online presence and the seeming harshness of my criticism a couple of years or more ago of the Archdiocese of Boston for using canon 603 as a stopgap means of professing Sister Olga Yaqob. As far as I am concerned, the discussion is not about Sister Yaqob per se (I continue to think she is an amazing person and a fine religious), but about the  appropriate implementation and meaning of canon 603. The OP's comments and questions are italicized.

Sister Olga is amazing in her willingness to plunge into work that kept her fed, and then had a chance to live in solitude on her days off. So her definition of hermit might be equally true as yours, and she carried her hermitage in her heart, as saints of encouraged. Her choices were limited.

Yes, you are correct that her choices were limited just as they are for all of us seeking to live LIVES of eremitical solitude. Canonical hermits, however cannot go out and get full time jobs outside the hermitage nor can they be satisfied with one day of contemplative prayer a week. Those too are limitations which the very nature of their lives, personal and public commitments, and the canon which governs these impose. Canon 603 hermits are not wealthy --- at least generally speaking. They do live poor lives and quite often live at a subsistence level.

They mainly work from within the hermitage (or on the property) and do a variety of things to keep body and soul together. Some do receive disability or other subsidies (depending on the country, etc) but all mainly and often only work from within their hermitage doing any number of things consistent with their contemplative and solitary life. Typically, if a person cannot do this, it is understood by dioceses as a sign that the vocation is not one they can pursue at this point in time. It is sometimes seen that they may therefore not be called to eremitical life just as it is also the analogous (though reversed) case that those who cannot work full time as religious or who are disabled, for instance, are ordinarily unable to enter a religious congregation. While it might be a good idea to have dioceses assist perpetually professed hermits to live their lives so that more folks CAN pursue a truly eremitical life (there is a debate about this among hermits and others), there is NO real debate that full time work outside the hermitage is incompatible with eremitical life as the Church understands it.

What Sister Olga saw as a valid definition of eremitical life you see is not the real question. What constitutes the normative vision of the eremitical life is defined clearly in canon 603 according to which she was (as the rest of us are) obligated to live and shape her own life. That canon is clear: a LIFE of the silence of solitude, assiduous prayer and penance, and stricter separation from the world. Canon 603 does not define an eremitism of the heart ONLY. It defines a life measured both externally AND internally, institutionally and personally in these terms. Olga's life at BU did not meet this criterion by any stretch of the imagination. The fact that she has dropped any mention of canon 603, does NOT refer to herself as a hermit, as well as the fact that her diocese has stopped referring to her profession as made under canon 603 suggests to me she knew this to be true and agrees with this assessment --- as, I think, did Boston and a lot of folks who questioned the situation --- including faithful, diocesan hermits, other Bishops, canonists, Vicars for Religious, etc. In any case she has moved on and continues to do wonderful things with her life.

I can see the unusual circumstances Sister Olga was in, and she probably felt far more solitary being in a strange country, and trying to stay close to the Church, than many other hermits. I do not think Canon 603 is necessary to protect a hermit, and the Holy Spirit can handle this without laws, and has risen up this type of vocation since the beginning of the Church, so I do not think you need to be worried about it, as you offer your viewpoint.

I agree that Sister Olga's circum-stances were difficult and the way she dealt with these is one of the things that makes her so admirable. The problem here, however, is that feeling solitary is not the same as being a hermit. MANY people today are isolated and marginalized. Many feel alone and disconnected from their families, homelands and cultures. Nonetheless the intensity of Sister Olga's feelings (or those of these many others) is somewhat beside the point; we do not call the isolated, marginalized, and lonely "hermits" unless they also ARE truly hermits, nor do we automatically profess and consecrate them under canon 603 as a stopgap solution to their situation.

One does not need to be professed as a religious (much less a hermit) in order to "stay close to the Church" (we baptized ARE Church) and there is no apparent reason Sister Olga could not, for instance, have embraced consecrated virginity for women living in the world as a way of life if she was looking for a form of consecrated life which allowed her to live fully in the world while serving the Church through active ministry --- unless of course she (and/or her Bishop) was looking, for instance, to eventually create a religious community and seek canonical standing for that. (In such a case c 604 would not have worked and c 603 was not meant for such a purpose either.) As for needing the canon or not, I have argued and continue to argue that the canon is precisely the way the Church assists the Holy Spirit to raise up authentic solitary eremitical lives. It is not that the charismatic and the canonical conflict. Instead they come together in this ecclesial vocation where law serves love.

You speak of Sister Olga as an acceptable exception to this eremitical norm. The problem of course comes when every Bishop in every diocese decides someone he knows should also be counted as an exception. Canon 603 describes a rare vocation; we must accept that fact. It also describes an infinitely valuable vocation which is a gift (charisma) of the Holy Spirit. We must also accept and honor that fact with our actions and policies. Using canon 603 to profess and consecrate exceptions to the rule is an inevitable way to empty the canon of meaning and vitiate the gift this vocation actually is. The canon is not there to accommodate folks who simply cannot be professed any other way --- unless of course they ALSO have a truly eremitical vocation; it is not there to give lonely folks a way to belong (though it assuredly often ALSO does this). It is there to profess those relatively rare instances of eremitical life raised up by the Spirit which the Church considers NORMATIVE of the living eremitical tradition.

There are probably far more personal differences and definitions than a canon law could capture, and that is where the bishop has the authority to work with it the best he can. It is wonderful the bishop gave Sister Olga a sense of belonging. I cannot imaging being in her position.

Actually, I find that the canon is beautifully written not least because it strikes an amazing balance between normativity and flexibility. It is composed of 1) certain non-negotiable elements and 2) the requirement of a personal Rule which applies or configures these elements in the way which is personally best for the hermit herself. There is a vast variety in the way c 603 hermits live the non-negotiable elements of the canon/life. The canon is thus a wonderful example of law and love combined as an expression of truly responsible freedom. Still, the point is that it is a canon; it is a norm for the way the Church understands the solitary eremitical life lived in her name. The hermits professed this way are meant to be exemplars or paradigms of a particular way of life. Again,the canon is not a stopgap way to profess anyone who cannot or will not join a congregation.

I think I can see the root of the confusion, at least mine, when you said Canon 603 was written in 1983. So this is not an ancient church law with a long history of defining it, and now you are in the arena trying to define it. You are defining it with use of the internet, while others may define it differently, not encouraging internet activity. 

Yes. Canon 603 is indeed a modern canon; there is no precedent for it in the Code of Canon Law. That means 1) that it is not the revision of something from the 1917 Code and 2) it supersedes any local diocesan statutes which may still be on the books from throughout the centuries. I believe it is clear in some ways regarding what it calls for even though it does not define these terms. For that reason although I don't need to create a definition it is often important to spell out the history of the vocation and the meaning of the terms used within it (which I think is what you mean) so that it is not seized upon as a canon which applies to just ANY lone person or just ANY isolated and marginalized life.

For instance, stereotypes of eremitical life can blind people to the fact that the life is a healthy one, or that in the main hermits have always tended to live on the margins (and sometimes in the center) of society (rather than in very deep deserts) and offered both the fruits of their skills (in agriculture, for instance), sold goods (created things, art, calligraphy, woven mats, etc), offered advice and spiritual direction (think of anchoresses and their windows which were central spiritual  hubs in medieval towns), or otherwise interacted with their culture and times in ways which 1) protected an essential and contemplative solitude,  2) witnessed to the fact that this vocation is lived in the heart of the Church as well as for the sake of others, and 3) served as a kind of prophetic presence to the Church as whole.

Similarly, because a person does not KNOW the history of the canon or is unfamiliar with eremitical life does not mean the terms of the canon can be defined anyway at all. After all, these terms really DO have meanings just as the term "Catholic Hermit" has a particular and normative meaning within the Church.

But it is understandable that people are literally ignorant of these meanings or (in less understandable and more unfortunate circumstances) choose to ignore them; for this reason it means their definitions may need to be made clear by someone knowledgeable about the eremitical tradition and especially about the history and nature of canon 603. Thus, for instance, a Bishop --- even if he is a canonist --- might not know that "the silence of solitude" is a Carthusian term with a particular range of meaning both far broader and more intensive than mere "physical solitude" and "external silence". Certainly individuals who become intrigued with c 603 as a possible way of  "getting professed while living alone" don't usually know this. Likewise, "stricter separation from the world" has a meaning but it is not "isolation," "reclusion," (at least not usually), nor "separation from and disdain for created reality as a whole."

So yes, I am doing some of this with the aid of the internet. It is a way of preserving my own eremitical life of the silence of solitude while contributing to the development (or at least the understanding of this new piece) of the living tradition I am publicly committed to. Other hermits explore the same constitutive elements of their lives (and the canon) every day; a number have blogs which allow them to share their reflections on these and other matters for the edification of the Church. Each one does so with the knowledge and approval of her superiors, and I would wager, each one does so in a careful and discerning manner because she values the gift this vocation is to the Church and world.