27 May 2014

Will Canon 603 disappear due to the many Abuses it has Suffered in its short life?

[[One lay hermit has said that because of "all the abuses" of canon 603 by canonical hermits and Bishops, the church will one day go back to having only one pathway of hermit life. She says that Bishop's (sic) leniency and lack of knowledge about the lives of eremitical saints or rules of life have allowed dissident nuns to be professed in some dioceses when others [bishops] like her own would never allow them because they are too visible, read books by heterodox nuns, etc. . . . even while orthodox candidates are prohibited from being canonically professed because they must work in hospitals. She forecasts the situation will continue to require more and more laws because of such abuses. It seems like she believes one day the Church will just get rid of c 603 which only came to be to prevent abuses anyway but she didn't [specify] this. How accurate is this perception and how reasonable this opinion?]]

Hmmm, this hermit's version of the situation sort of makes me want to check to see what books I have either mentioned reading or recommended here!

But seriously, I think that first of all it must be granted that canon 603 is a new (31 year old), demanding, and at the same time, flexible canon governing a little-known and less-well understood vocation which, as I have mentioned just recently, combines non-negotiable elements with the requirement that a hermit write her own Rule. Some problems associated with the common requirement that a hermit be self-supporting in some way have occurred for instance; this requirement does mean that Bishops differ on things like the amount of active ministry or other work outside the hermitage a hermit may do --- though all tend to prohibit full time work, especially outside the hermitage. Others problems have occurred because the central elements of the canon must be read from within the desert and hesychastic traditions if they are to be understood, and Bishops and would-be hermits have not always done so. When I spoke of some Bishops needing to learn that "the silence of solitude" was a Carthusian term this was part of what I mean here. Have there been abuses or at least misuses? Yes, and I would call one or two of these doozies! However, I would not call the number high. In fact, to suggest the canon has been fraught with abuses to the extent that it will simply go by the wayside is alarmist nonsense I think.

What is more the case is that there have been occasional mistakes made as Bishops and chanceries continue to determine what authentic contemporary vocations which embody traditional essential elements look like on the ground. These mistakes, however, are more like growing pains than actual abuses and because there are so few hermits in an absolute sense, they are of greater import for the faithful and the vocation itself than they might be otherwise. As the canon gets older, however, and examples of authentic contemporary solitary eremitical life become more numerous, more prevalent, as well as better established and known, and as the problematical issues involved in practical implementation of the canon which have not and cannot really be specifically dealt with by the canon itself are explored by those living the life,  or by theologians, canonists, and historians, the misuses of the canon as well as simple misjudgments or mistakes will diminish and outright abuses (which are truly rare) will cease. I should note that it is precisely because the Church has not multiplied laws that ambiguities and unclarities continue or remain.

At the same time I think we must be careful to not identify legitimate diversity or variation as "abuses." Hermits have always differed from one another: some are scholars, some are not; some are very conservative in various ways while others are less so. Some are completely reclusive or anchorites while others are more peripatetic or at least more involved in their parishes; some are writers and spiritual directors while others, of course, are not. Some strike us as eminently sane and others strike us as complete nutcases. They may all be authentic hermits.  We must realize that canon 603 allows for genuine diversity even as it remains normative of eremitical life in the Catholic Church. What we must let go of is the notion that canonical standing is necessarily related to legalism or that admission to canonical standing under canon 603 is equivalent to a diocese's or bishop's imprimatur or even a nihil obstat on a book --- only applied to a person. It is not.

"Canonical Standing" is not really "Canonical Approval"

You see, as my response to an email last week noted, the use of the term "approval" in the phrase "canonical approval" is misleading and more than a little superficial when it leads to these kinds of notions. It should probably be used only very cautiously to indicate "approval for admittance to profession and canonical standing". Otherwise, "canonical standing" is the better phrase. After all, what the church does in extending or admitting to canonical standing is not precisely the same as "approving" the person's theological preferences, taste in reading material, or even their orthodoxy (though we can of course presume they are faithful Catholics!). Instead the church has discerned the presence of a Divine vocation and is admitting the person to the constellation of stable relationships which will continue to mediate this very call to the person and, hopefully, allow her to respond with fidelity, integrity, and grace. What approval exists does so for the sake of admitting the person to a place of  ecclesial trust and commensurate obligations with regard to this specific vocation in the life of the Church.

Neither does the church thereby say that THIS person has status in the church whereas, for instance, the lay hermit has either a lesser status or none at all. They both have status in the church (meaning they each have standing in law and are (or, in the case of a lay hermit, are already) initiated into a state of life; as I have said a number of times, status in this case is not a matter of social priority or different positions in a merely social hierarchy); in one hermit this occurs by virtue of the sacrament of baptism alone, and in the other hermit by virtue of baptism and a new consecration which involves the acceptance of the rights and obligations linked to additional canon laws and the relationships these imply.

It is true that bishops, like anyone charged in the Church with nurturing, protecting and discerning the existence and quality of a vocation, exercise some subjectivity in professing and consecrating hermits, but my own (admittedly limited) experience is that generally they move beyond their own personal biases or theological preferences and look to the good of the vocation itself. Neither, again, can we identify legitimate mistakes or missteps as abuses. For instance, occasionally some bishops will profess very young adults as solitary hermits only to find when s/he seeks a dispensation from her vows and/or desires to start or enter a community that the c 603 or solitary eremitical vocation tends to be a second-half of life vocation and that the young person usually does better entering an eremitical community. At worst this is simply a mistake --- if in fact, it even qualifies as that.

Abuses, on the other hand, occur when the non-negotiable elements of the canon are  actually disregarded or treated as optional or merely "metaphorical." (By the way if one cannot live these elements one's supposed orthodoxy hardly matters.) As we discussed recently, one of the reason for blogs like mine is to discuss the nature of canon 603 and of profession and consecration under this canon from the perspective of lived experience. What I write comes out of my reflection on my own vocation and how the Holy Spirit is working in the Church and world today with regard to this form of eremitism. Other diocesan hermits are also contributing by sharing their own experience with their bishops.

Proliferation of Laws and the Disappearance of C 603??
I honestly don't have a clue what the hermit you are referring to is talking about when s/he suggests there is or has been some proliferation of rules to combat abuses. That simply is not happening --- nor is it the way the Church deals with difficulties on such a small scale. At most what we see with regard to canon 603 are anecdotes about experiments (or trials) with the canon in specific dioceses which resulted in problems along with calls for informal guidelines on specific topics (age, formation, work, insurance, ministry, etc). These guidelines will again come from lived experience gained through dialogue between Bishops, canonists and hermits in their dioceses. Still, I don't foresee a proliferation of rules --- not with regard to eremitical life under canon 603 --- and certainly I don't foresee a proliferation of canons per se. With history and lived experience will come wisdom, and with wisdom, resources (commentaries, dissertations, guidebooks, articles, even blogs (!) etc) that dioceses may draw on and which can guide further prudent and inspired (discerning) usage of canon 603. Even so, ordinarily Bishops and those that assist them in their discernment will have the final word here --- not another law or laws. They will use or refrain from using both these resources and canon 603 as they deem wise in each individual case and they and their curia will grow in their own ability to determine appropriate usage and evaluate the candidates that come before them.

More specifically, I don't see canon 603 going anywhere or disappearing from the Code of Canon Law. It will continue to be used more and more wisely and prudently across the board --- which will free some who have hesitated to use it at all to go ahead when authentic vocations come their way. What is unquestionable is that it is an important piece of legislation which stops the gap in universal law regarding one of the most ancient, rare, and significant forms of Christian existence in the life of the church. It helps protect a gift of the Holy Spirit; any other way of seeing it is inadequate at best. Further, by the way, it is not the second of two pathways to eremitical life; it is the third of three main avenues, lay (non-canonical), semi-eremitical (usually canonical and associated with congregations), and diocesan eremitical life (canonical and solitary) --- each admitting some variation or personal diversity.

Neither, as I have now written several times, is establishment in law really merely a Johnny-come-lately idea whose birth was due to abuses or the desire for social status by some unhappy lay hermits. Eremitical life since at least the @ 5th C. has often been lived under the supervision of diocesan Bishops, or other local ordinaries (e.g., Abbots, Priors, Abbesses, etc). Correspondingly, dioceses and regions had canons and statutes regulating these vocations on the local level. To suggest otherwise is historically (and ecclesiastically) naive. Canon 603 differs because it is a universal law and a precedent-setting one at that. For these reasons I have to say I think the hermit you referred to is mistaken in her conclusions, more than a little overly-cynical in her analysis, and inaccurate in her perceptions and predictions.