27 March 2015

If Vows are not Legitimate are they Illegitimate?

[[Dear Sister, when you use the term "legitimate" in regard to public vows or canon 603, is the opposite meaning illegitimate? If public vows are legitimate does this mean private vows are somehow illegitimate?  Why can't I enter consecrated life by consecrating myself?]]

Thanks for this question (you will find your second one appended below)! It is one of those "simple" questions that can unmask the source of profound misunder-standings. Recently another blogger protested that private vows were every bit as legitimate and valid as canon 603 vows. That would be an unobjectionable statement if, as you suggest, the opposite of legitimate in this context is illegitimate in the sense of invalid. But when we are speaking of public vows, "legitimate" means "in law" and the opposite is "private" -- as in a private commitment which is not binding in law, does not lead to additional canonical rights and obligations, etc. There is absolutely no intention of suggesting that such private vows are illegitimate in the more common sense of invalid. They are entirely valid but they also have a different character than public vows which effect something very different, namely standing in law.

You see, when someone petitions to be admitted to and accepts legal standing (as occurs through public profession, ordination, etc) one enters into a covenantal identity vis-a-vis  the Church. The diocesan hermit does so under canon 603 and as part of this spiritual and legal covenant she comes to live this life in the name of the Church. The Church specifically authorizes this and, on her part, supervises and governs this vocation through legitimate superiors, canonically approved Rule of life, and Canon law. She keeps a file on the person's admission to profession and consecration, and, as mentioned before, she notifies the parish where that person's baptismal record is kept of this additional "sacramental" change in her legal standing in the Church. (Our baptismal records are amended any time we marry, are professed, ordained, consecrated, etc. They are not amended to reflect private vows, however, because these do not lead to any change in our canonical standing in the Church --- no change in our state of life, for instance).

All of this underscores two things. First,  some commitments (including canon 603) establish a person in a new state of life; the Church takes care to mark, record, and govern such commitments precisely because they are undertaken in her name and lived out in the same way. Folks to whom these persons minister are given the right to expect these vocations are lived with integrity. They have a right to expect the Church (hierarchy and formation personnel, etc) has 'vetted' these folks and discerned as well as they can the authentic character of their call. The assembly or ecclesia more generally have a right to expect these same people have ascertained the individual's preparation for profession, consecration, or ordination, and not admitted anyone to these prematurely or if the person is simply unsuitable. Second, all of these things are done to help insure ministry in the Church is done well and responsibly. If one teaches, preaches, or (as in the case of c 603 hermits for instance) lives one's life in the name of the Church, the Church necessarily participates in these to govern them canonically.

Again, in the canonical sense, private vows are entirely valid but they are not "legitimate" (so to speak) as public ones are legitimate simply because they do not establish a person in law --- in this case, as a hermit with a public vocation to consecrated eremitical life recognized as such by the Church. (N.B., definitive or perpetual profession is accompanied by a prayer of consecration which the Bishop prays with outstretched hands over the hermit. These discrete acts are part of the same overall 'setting apart' and commissioning which is called either profession or consecration. In this overall dynamic, the hermit dedicates herself in the making of vows, etc., and God consecrates her and sends her forth to live this vocation in his name and in the name of the Church through the Church's ministry.)

When a person makes private vows as a hermit they dedicate themselves to God and his service in their baptized state; they do not enter the consecrated state of life but reflect the significance of baptismal consecration and the law that binds every Catholic lay person. This is their legitimate and (if unmarried) sacramental state of life; similarly it is their hierarchical and vocational state of life. Again then, their vows are private and valid but do not change their standing in law, that is, their legitimate state.

All of this is meant as a reflection of the simple fact that God's consecration of an individual, like God's consecration of Bread and Wine, for instance, is ALWAYS mediated through the structures and channels of the institutional Church. In the case of the consecration of solitary hermits, the Bishop acting in the name of the Church serves as the mediator of  the individual's profession (dedication) and God's consecration of that person. It is through this mediated event that a kind of covenant is accomplished and new standing in law is acquired, new rights and obligations are extended to and embraced by the newly professed and/or consecrated person. All of this also indicates the reason such vocations are known as ecclesial vocations; their existence, governance, embodiment or living out, etc., are ecclesially mediated realities.  In private vows, on the other hand, the Church does not act (that is, no one acting in the name of the Church acts) as mediator of any such realities. This makes the act valid but entirely private and without a change in legal or ecclesial standing (without change from lay state to consecrated state, for instance) nor, therefore, the correlative shift in legitimate (ecclesial) rights and obligations.

[[If God consecrates the person, can someone claim this has happened [because of a private dedication of self] and then say it is by their fruits that you know they have been consecrated?]]

No. Consecrations in the Church are always mediated (and public) realities. One cannot claim one has been consecrated without such public (acting in the name of the Church!) mediation any more than one can claim they have consecrated bread and wine themselves (that is, claimed that God has done so through them) unless they have been made capable of mediating God's powerful presence in this specific way. In the Catholic Church it is the Sacrament of Orders which makes a person capable of mediating God's hallowing power and presence in this way. The person is sacramentally configured or ordered to receive the specific graces needed for such an ecclesial action. At the same time, the Sacrament of Orders is mediated to the priest by Bishops acting in the name of the Church and with the ecclesial authority to do so. Consecration works analogously with the consecrated person made capable by God of receiving and mediating the graces associated with her specific vocation. This consecration is always a mediated act accomplished by God through the agency of the Church and those acting in her name in this specific way.

The fruits of one's life may be wonderful and if one has been consecrated one certainly expects to produce such fruits in abundance, but the presence of wonderful fruit does not prove God has initiated one into the consecrated state of life independent of the Church's formal, canonical, and liturgical  mediation. (Actually, I would argue that if one has not been initiated into the consecrated state of life, then such fruit witnesses to one's baptismal consecration and challenges one to acknowledge this as the significant reality it is.) But to argue that the fruits of one's life automatically point to the fact of initiation into the consecrated state is a logical fallacy. "If A then B" does not necessarily imply, "If B then A". Think of it this way: if a sick child goes to the doctor, is diagnosed with a bacterial infection, gets an antibiotic injection, and then begins to feel better, one can reasonably conclude the injection helped cause the improvement. But if, after a trip to the doctor, a sick child starts to feel better, one cannot necessarily conclude from this that they got an injection anymore than one can necessarily conclude the doctor did brain surgery or gave a placebo or maybe assured them they were NOT going to get an injection which made the child laugh and helped them feel better.

The bottom line in all of this is that initiation into the consecrated state is always a mediated event. Someone intentionally acting "in the name of the Church" admits a person to and mediates this consecration. Further, mediation of one's life in this state is a continuing reality with both liturgical and canonical dimensions. It extends not only to the mutual discernment of the vocation and the formal, liturgical mediation of the call itself by the Bishop at the time of definitive profession, but also to the extension of rights and obligations as well as to the legitimate relationships established to govern and supervise the vocation. All of these things participate in the continuing mediation of God's call to the person and the person's continuing response to and embodiment of this vocation.

This is precisely why such vocations are called ecclesial. At every point the individual lives the charismatic aspect of her vocation in light of the Church's own liturgical and canonical mediation and governance. Similarly, it is this dynamic covenantal relationship that constitutes the "stable state of life" one enters upon definitive profession and consecration. The hermit's Rule is the pre-eminent symbol of all of this but there are other symbols as well, legitimate superiors, religious garb and prayer garment, title and post-nomial initials. All of these point to a stable state of life which is dependent upon the Church's own continuing mediation.

Should one leave this stable state of life one also leaves the specific symbols and structures which are part of the mediation of this vocation. They will leave both the rights and obligations of the state, the Rule, the identity and its markers, legitimate superiors, etc. One does not leave the Church of course, nor does one cease to have been consecrated by God, but one leaves the consecrated state of life and returns to the lay state of life vocationally speaking.  On the other hand, if the Church never admits one to the consecrated state, never liturgically nor canonically mediates God's own consecration of the person, then the person has never been consecrated and never been given the right to live eremitical life in the name of the Church as a Catholic hermit.