07 March 2015

What's the Big Deal?

 [[Dear Sister, why is it so important to make clear that there is a difference between consecrated hermits or canon 603 hermits and lay hermits? There is one person [cf., A Catholic Hermit] who claims to be writing for hermits who wish to be consecrated religious hermits by making private vows. She says, "This nothing hermit has also reflected and been reminded to encourage all aspiring Catholic hermits, to keep in mind we are consecrated religious eremitics called to live and keep our valid private vows. Regardless which of the now two Church-approved paths (privately or since 1983 publicly expressed vows), we ought prayerfully live daily and nightly the three evangelical counsels, and all else asked of hermits, according to The Catechism of the Catholic Church."  Shouldn't she just be allowed to do this? I mean what does it matter? What harm can it do? They would still be hermits.]] (emphasis added)

Because I have already explained the difference between private and public vows in other posts here I really don't want to do that again.  It seems though that some of this is still unclear. The central issue is not merely about whether or not vows are expressed privately or publicly. In fact that is not the issue at all since private vows can be made in front of many people and public vows can be made in relative secret if the need exists. To continue to insist or imply this is the essential difference between public and private vows, as the person you have cited does, is to perpetuate a distortion of the truth. Instead the central issue is whether vows lead to new legitimate rights and obligations or not. What is at issue when we speak of private versus public vows is whether they establish the person in a public vocation or instead represent a private commitment. In other words, in distinguishing these two forms of vows the Church is concerned with whether or not, through the mediation of the Church, the person is initiated into another state of life (religious and/or consecrated life) for which they are publicly (that is, both morally and legally) responsible.

The person you are citing (who does read this blog, by the way) does and is certainly entirely free to disagree with what I write about many things, but in this matter I am not merely expressing my own opinion. What I have explained is simply factual and centers on the way the Church herself uses the terms "consecrated hermits", "professed religious", "profession", and so forth". What the Catechism of the Catholic Church writes about "consecrated Life" and hermits has to be understood in light of the glossary which provides definitions of fundamental terms that might otherwise be misunderstood (cf especially "vows", and "consecrated life) ; the definitions there make it clear that paragraphs 920-921 which fall under the heading "consecrated life" refer specifically to those entering the consecrated state of life as solitary hermits, not to lay hermits. These hermits always make their commitment via public profession but they may not always use vows of the evangelical counsels to do so. Some may use "other sacred bonds" to make their profession. Some may use the classic monastic vows (stability, conversion of life (which includes poverty and chastity), and obedience rather than the more typically Franciscan triad. Since 1983 these publicly professed solitary hermits exist as religious besides (along with) already recognized institutes of consecrated life.

I have also explained that there are three paths in the Church today to pursue eremitical life, not two: 1) publicly professed and consecrated life in a community (that is, an institute) of hermits (Camaldolese, Carthusian, Sisters of Bethlehem, etc); this "semi-eremitic" option has existed for more than twelve centuries, 2) consecrated life under canon 603 (solitary diocesan eremitical life); this establishes in universal law what many dioceses anticipated and allowed through the authority of the local Bishop throughout Church history; these hermits are solitary hermits and are not professed as part of an institute of religious life (the Church's term for a congregation, community, or Order); finally there is 3) lay eremitical life (extant in the church since the 4C). The first two of these require public vows (which can be made without any notoriety, especially in countries where the person would be persecuted if their profession and/or consecration were known) and they establish the hermit in a public vocation no matter the hiddenness of the life, The third is a private commitment (even if made in public before hundreds of people) and does not change the person's state of life. If they were a lay person before these vows, then despite the unquestioned validity of the (private) vows, they remain lay persons afterward. (Similarly, if they were clerics they remain clerics and if already religious they remain religious.)

Because the canonical rights and obligations of these forms of eremitical life differ despite the fact that they are each truly eremitical it is important that people seeking to live this life be able to make a wise and accurately informed discernment on which of these is truly what fits one's own vocation. Some people have absolutely no desire to live their vocations in the name of the Church, some have no interest in representing or extending a living tradition in the contemporary world, many have no desire to have their lives supervised by the church or to live under superiors or with regard to canon law; others refuse to jump through the hoops necessary to become publicly professed and consecrated hermits, and some simply are not able to do these things in a representative and credible way, for whatever reason.

What's the Big Deal with Distortions of the Truth?

This is not the first time I have been asked, "What's the harm?" What you are asking, whether you realize it or not is, "What's the big deal with allowing distortions of the truth?" You are also asking, "What harm can living a life (or encouraging others to live a life) of pretense do?" You see, so long as the way to becoming a consecrated or Catholic hermit in the Catholic Church is invariably through public profession and (with perpetual profession) consecration overseen and mediated by the Church, the person you cited is perpetuating a falsehood. So long as initiation into the consecrated and religious states of life is ALWAYS mediated by the church in a public act and represents an ecclesial vocation, the person you referenced is living and fostering a lie.

Moreover, so long as this person is distorting language and texts to read in ways the Church did not intend simply because she believes she has the right to her opinion on the meaning of these same terms and texts and then writes that her individualistic understanding and praxis can be considered appropriate for others, she has crossed the line into a seductive fraud --- a fraud which she hopes and encourages other vulnerable persons to adopt while unaware of the truth. The point is the notion that someone can become a consecrated religious hermit or a "professed religious" or a "Catholic Hermit" merely by making private vows is simply not true. When this notion is perpetuated, and especially when it is done by someone falsely claiming to be a Catholic Hermit, that is a hermit living her life in the name of the Church, it can mislead others and hurt them, just as believing in and acting on lies often hurts those who have done so --- except that here the Church has been nominally and wrongly implicated in the lie.

We are sensitive today to people acting in the name of the Church committing crimes, hypocrisy, immorality of all sorts. And rightly so. When someone appends Catholic to their vocation, workplace, project, or whatever, the Church herself can be smeared by anything offensive associated with that enterprise; for that reason she has a say in whether their use of the characterization Catholic is acceptable or not. That is why the Church has legislated in Canon Law that no one will use the name Catholic without explicit permission from the appropriate authority. It is why we sometimes see online radio or TV stations deprived of the name Catholic by the local Bishop. If a Catholic priest does something seriously wrong then the Church herself is besmirched; if a Catholic theologian writes against the resurrection then the Church herself is implicated in his/her actions because s/he acted in her name and she is responsible for the mission that allows this theologian to call him/herself a "Catholic Theologian". The same is true with Catholic monks, nuns, religious sisters, brothers, and hermits. All of these have been publicly commissioned to live their lives in the name of the Church. All of them are supervised by the Church and are specifically answerable to the entire Church. Moreover, they are careful of hypocrisy in their own lives and sensitive to frauds within their ranks; they are equally sensitive to more overt frauds pretending to be religious living and acting in the name of the Church.

So, my answer to your first question is no, the person you cited should not simply be allowed to encourage others to pursue or live a lie without at least an attempt to correct the falsehoods and distortions she perpetuates. She should especially not be allowed to do so while claiming the credentials, "professed religious", "consecrated hermit," "consecrated religious", or "Catholic hermit." To do this is to potentially distort peoples' discernment processes with false information. It is at least potentially, to waste months and even years of their lives in following a lie. It is to set these people up for marginalization and rejection. It is to encourage them to be seen as incredible, as frauds, or even as deluded persons, or as those who could not pursue an eremitical vocation in the usual ways and so, made something up instead. It is to lead them to believe the Church herself sees them as consecrated religious when this is not true. More, it is to encourage them to deny the very vocation God may be calling them to, namely lay eremitical life. In an age of the Church which is recovering a strong sense of the significance of baptismal consecration and lay life of all sorts it is seriously misguided to encourage others who are, vocationally speaking, lay persons to think of themselves as consecrated and professed religious. Because this person's understanding of the eremitical vocation (cited in your question) doesn't even recognize the existence of lay hermits, it implicitly says that being a lay person is not really good enough even though the person decides either not to pursue or is not discerned to have another vocation which is entered through a public commitment besides baptism.

Similarly, others who have a vocation to consecrated eremitical life might never even pursue it because they think they are already living it. A life given over to such a foundational pretense, though it might instead have been one of significant ecclesial witness, could be unlikely thereafter ever to be admitted to such a position of trust by the Church. Similarly, catering to someone's desperation to be allowed to live a religious life or "to belong" or "have a niche in the Church" or whatever it is that drives them to embrace these kinds of fictions will prevent them from dealing maturely and effectively with the roots of their need. It is simply not charitable to encourage people to embrace and live a lie. It is neither charitable to them nor to those to whom they seek to minister. It is not respectful of them or their real vocations. It is not respectful to the truth or the God of Truth who gifts us with both lay and consecrated vocations; nor is it respectful of the Church which is responsible for mediating these varied gifts through baptism and the public professions and consecration of those called to live them in credible and pastorally responsible ways.

They Would Still Be Hermits:

You write that they would be hermits anyway. Perhaps. Perhaps not. With private vows this is less certain. I have said before that because many self-defined lay hermits are not supervised, may not be formed in the life or committed to ongoing formation, may have insufficient direction and knowledge, etc., they may simply be living a pious life alone --- a life that differs very little if at all from that of others who live alone and pray before meals and bed. In such a case calling themselves hermits perpetuates a destructive fiction which makes the vocation itself incredible.

Even more problematical are those lay hermits who mistake isolation for solitude or whose spirituality is a thinly veiled "celebration" of self-hatred, bitterness, and rejection of God's good creation in the name of a misunderstood notion of fleeing or hating "the world". Some aspiring "hermits" I have spoken to spend hours watching TV, others use the designation "hermit" as an excuse to spend their days painting or writing or just kicking back, etc. (Many true hermits ALSO write or paint, etc. I am not referring to these! They are hermits (or monks and nuns) first of all and their writing or painting is integrated into this, not vice versa.) Others simply want the garb or the title or desire a way to "belong" in the Church they have already been baptized in. While it is sad when a person cannot accept themselves or a lay vocation, none of these things mean the person is called to be a hermit much less do they make the person a hermit, lay or otherwise.

At the same time however, I know several lay hermits who are paradigms of the eremitical vocation. I expect there are many more. These hermits inspire and challenge me. At least two of them were religious and received their formation, both initial and ongoing, over a period of years. The others spent time studying theology, spirituality, and prepared themselves for significant ministerial roles in the Church before discerning a call to eremitical solitude. Each of these meets regularly with a director and has done so for years. Each is integrally connected to the Church, whether through a parish, monastery, or retreat house. Each of them knows firsthand what it means to be a hermit and how this differs from being simply a lone pious person. Each of them understands themselves as part of a profound and ancient tradition and feel responsible for continuing that in our contemporary world. Because I know these individuals and because I know many people, including a number of isolated elderly, or chronically ill persons who would be wonderful hermits if they only knew the vocation is a vital and contemporary one, I value the lay eremitical vocation and its potential. But I am not unrealistic about its limitations or challenges. As with many things, these limitations may allow exceptional individuals to succeed beautifully while the rest of us need the help and challenge associated with public standing, but equally, they may merely lead to an exceptional failure.

Credibility is the Bottom Line:

My sincerest desire is that I never have to write about the distortion of language involved when lay hermits call themselves consecrated religious, "Catholic Hermits" or "professed religious" again. But unfortunately, so long as people are blogging this way, people who do not know the language very well are going to be seduced by the prospect of avoiding the hoops canonical hermits must negotiate or the scrutiny and constraints they must embrace and still call themselves "consecrated religious hermits." When these same writers submit that canon 603 is a departure from and even a betrayal of the eremitical tradition, then from time to time I will probably continue to get questions from their readers --- and I will probably need to respond yet again.

Canonical hermits, whether professed in community or as solitary hermits under c 603, and whether they come from the laity or the clergy make significant sacrifices in order that their lives are credible representations of a living eremitical tradition and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The constraints on their lives --- canon law, Rule, constitutions, legitimate superiors, commitment to regular and competent spiritual direction, ongoing formation, and public vows --- as well as their commitment to the life giving sources of the Church (Scripture, Sacraments, etc) are all traditional necessities they have freely embraced to be sure their lives are credible and lived with integrity. For most of us these things are also sources of great joy, graced resources which help nurture the maturity and fruitfulness of lives consecrated by God and commissioned in the name of the Church. Even so, for someone to forego all of these and still claim the name "Catholic Hermit" even while ignoring and distorting the way the Church herself uses this term is offensive and dishonest. It is also the very essence of the self-centered and individualistic worldliness which the consecrated hermit is publicly committed to reject with her entire life.