11 November 2015

Can Dioceses Add Conditions to Canon 603 in Ways Which are Onerous?

[[Hi Sister Laurel, What happened in Spain in those earlier centuries with people who were living as hermits in good faith? Were they imprisoned? It hardly seems fair if they were! Maybe canon 603 is more positive in its origins and reason for being but can't dioceses begin adding their own conditions and qualifications to it? What prevents a diocese from making the conditions so burdensome that they infringe on the freedom of hermits in this place? Do hermits find c 603 sufficient to govern a real eremitical life?]]

Canon 603 as an Improvement on Diocesan Canons

Your questions are well taken and similar questions have been raised in the past. (cf, On the Growing Institutionalization of the Eremitical Vocation as well as Followup on the Institutionalization of Eremitism, et al). It is entirely true that individual dioceses can compose guidelines for admission to c 603 life and make these necessary for those living the life in this local Church. Occasionally we see nods in this direction (and which actually go further than this) when, for instance, a Bishop writes a hermit's Rule for her. (cf., Should a Bishop Write a Hermit's Rule?) Guidelines, however are a good idea so long as they truly remain guidelines and the diocese itself --- along with the candidate herself --- remains open to a genuine process of discernment which respects the differences between hermits and the hermit's own experience and wisdom. On the whole I would say that dioceses have not chosen to go in the direction of writing out specific guidelines, but it is the case that all the dioceses I know of (not a lot in other words!) do have at least a list of unwritten guidelines and even requirements for admission to profession.

One of the real improvements, it seems to me, is the contemporary Church's openness to hermits in the lay, clerical or consecrated states. Today the Church allows people to respond to whatever call they feel they have without inordinate restrictions and requirements. A lay person, for instance, can decide in good faith that they are called to eremitical life and live it as they feel compelled to do. Canon 603 does not bind these persons either morally or in law but it still provides a good norm by which one can measure one's efforts. Gone are the days when folks could be locked up by the Church for transgressing diocesan norms in this matter! It is true that there are requirements for admission to public or ecclesial vocations but there is no doubt in my mind that these generally serve love.

Another real improve-ment is that Canon 603 is universal in scope. Though, as noted, guidelines are not only allowed but are prudent. Eremitical Life's inclusion in the Universal Code of Canon Law via c 603 does not allow for competing canons on the diocesan level. This leads not only to significant consistency, but demands the cultivation of a shared wisdom which positively affects the entire Church and all hermit vocations. A third real bit of brilliance codified in canon 603 is the remarkable way it articulates non-negotiable elements and allows for their flexible expression within the hermit's own Rule and life. I believe that c 603 is entirely sufficient so long as enough care is taken in the writing of the Rule with all that entails in terms of time for formation and discernment. Likewise, dioceses must not treat the Rule as a simple document anyone can write at any time, but as one rooted in lived experience which requires and also demonstrates the adequacy of the hermit's formation and of the mutual process of discernment she and the diocese have engaged in. This means, I think, that over the period of initial formation and discernment the candidate for c 603 profession will write several different Rules and may compose a definitive one just prior to perpetual profession. (cf Writing a Rule for the Various Stages in Formation and Discernment and Why Several Rules Over Time?)

On the other hand  we also still have dioceses which, for one reason and another, have refused to implement canon 603. Some of the reasons are good ones; others are not. For instance, some of these dioceses still need to get up to speed on eremitical life itself (a problem which carried more weight (that is, it was far more understandable) 15 to 20 years ago than now, 32 years into the life of Canon 603); others have had bad experiences with candidates or actual professed hermits and have not found ways to ensure adequate formation of candidates or discernment of solitary eremitical vocations, while some simply do not believe there is such a thing as a valid vocation to the solitary eremitical life. There has always been an understandable tendency to distrust singular vocations in the Church. Mark Miles' work makes that clear enough in his brief history of this vocation (cf., Chapter 1, Canon 603: Diocesan Hermits in the Light of Eremitical Tradition, Rome 2003). Canons 603 and 604 (Consecrated Virgins living in the World) have certainly not put an end to this entirely --- nor, perhaps should they! Still, canon 603 and the increased number of sound vocations it produces will (eventually) influence these dioceses to do whatever it takes to implement the canon when suitable candidates appear at the chancery door.

At the same time, unfortunate as this is, we do still have people calling themselves Catholic Hermits and soliciting contributions despite having no right to do so. Generally the Church does not take action against such folks unless complaints are brought to the diocesan bishop. Then a diocese may well require the person to cease calling themselves a Catholic Hermit --- though they are unlikely to do or need to do much more than this. Still, civil laws may apply --- those against fraud, for instance --- so people pretending to be living eremitical life in the name of the Church do need to be aware of this. We may also have diocesan hermits who are living less than true eremitical lives. Beyond the everyday struggle to live this vocation with integrity --- a struggle we all experience, I think --- some perhaps are too involved in active ministry, some might give their "hermitage" over to all kinds of activities but not to God alone! Some are lone pious individuals who perhaps aspire to eremitical life but, for whatever reason, have not embraced it fully or consistently. And some never wanted to live eremitical life at all; they merely wanted the perks that come with canonical standing. Canon 603 stands as a firm and universal norm in all of these cases and will challenge both hermits and dioceses to embrace the desert existence it codifies more fully and authentically --- or deal appropriately with those who cannot or will not.

The Situation in Early Spain and the Responsibility to "Count the Cost":

In the centuries Mark Miles, JCD, was writing about, he gives no details about the variety of penalties or the way these were levelled against people and I don't know anything more about those myself. It seems to me, however, that the very fact of a range of penalties all the way up to imprisonment and excommunication indicates false hermits were a clear problem in at least two major senses.  I suspect everyone was aware of this situation --- whether they were the victims or the perpetrators of fraud! Thus, historically naive as this may actually be, I don't think many folks were unceremoniously snatched up and thrown into prison without being aware of the danger. If they were aware of the penalties and chose to continue to dress in religious garb, beg alms as a Catholic hermit, preach, etc., despite having no authorization to do so, then one can argue they also chose to suffer the consequences. You may remember that Aquinas wrote famously about primacy of conscience when he said that if one should be penalized unjustly (in this case he was speaking about excommunication) one had to to act in good conscience and this would also mean one would need to bear the punishment which was the consequence of that, and do so with humility.

This lesson, I think, is brought home by recent Scripture readings. Yesterday we heard the story of the man who builds his house on sand and a week or two ago we heard a similar story about starting to build a house without counting the cost. If one chooses to live (or at least to style oneself) as a hermit, then one should probably look seriously at what the Church actually says about such matters before doing so. Otherwise it is like setting out to build a house without counting the cost. It is foolish and shortsighted at best. Ignorance is not always an excuse! More importantly, ignorance can be hurtful and even disastrous for everyone involved. One really must ascertain and count the cost of whatever it is one proposes to do. (By the way, I think this also means the dioceses or regions which are refusing to implement c 603 under any circumstances need to do their own assessment of the cost of their own policy here. Ignorance and a failure to count the cost or honor the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit does not only occur on the hermit's side of the equation!)

On External and Internal Controls for Dioceses:

What prevents a diocese from establishing conditions or quali-fications so burdensome that they infringe on the freedom of hermits (or hermit candidates) in this place? On the one hand I think the answer must be nothing at all --- if, that is, we are asking what external constraints are in place to prevent this. Besides c 603 itself, the one canon which might apply a little here is c 605 which requires bishops to be open to new forms of consecrated life. But of course what constitutes openness cannot be legislated.

On the other hand though, I believe our dioceses generally are staffed by people of good will, genuine faith, and professional competence; because of that there are any number of inner constraints and drives which will prevent them from enacting burdensome and essentially punitive requirements and restrictions. Not least, most of the diocesan personnel I know are committed to truly discerning the will of God in a given situation; they spend time in prayer and reflection while evaluating a person's petition or Rule, for instance. They meet with the person, both at the chancery and (sometimes) in the hermit's own place in order to really gauge the nature and quality of the vocation in front of them. They are generally committed to seeing where the Holy Spirit is working and where that can be honored and celebrated using canon 603 itself.

Hermits who are already professed and therefore already have an approved Rule and have entered into what amounts to a legitimate and covenant relationship with their bishop cannot, it seems to me, have arbitrary conditions or requirements imposed on them unilaterally.  However, if a bishop requires something in obedience and the hermit cannot go along with this in good faith, then the situation will require resolution --- something which may not always be a happy one for everyone involved. I have written about this before in When the Discernment of Bishops and Hermits Conflict. I do think we have to trust in the good will and charity of dioceses in general in these matters --- just as dioceses have to trust the good will and discernment of the hermit working regularly with a competent director. In any case, except for dioceses or regions determining they will not use canon 603 at all (which I personally believe is an indefensible position), I have heard of no situations which rise to the level of increased constraints and requirements which are actually onerous to the hermits in these dioceses. Granted, some requirements simply cannot be met by everyone --- nor should they be. Just as dioceses must take care in applying canon 603 (and any guidelines they develop!) wisely and prudently, the rest of us have to be careful not to identify valid requirements as "too onerous" simply because some will be excluded from profession because of them.