09 November 2015

Fraudulent Hermits a Problem Through History?

[[Dear Sister, I appreciate there are not a lot of fraudulent hermits out there. I also understand the reasons you claim that canon 603 was not made law because of abuses but have fraudulent hermits been a problem in the history of the Church? You wrote about a canonist being wrong if he said c 603 was developed because of abuses but I would bet there have been problems with this in the past.]]

Thanks for writing again. Yes, as I recall the canonist was reported to have said c 603 itself was a revision of something in the 1917 Code and also that it was developed in order to prevent abuses as well as to accommodate those who desired an "official stamp of approval". While the 1983 Code of Canon Law is a revision of the 1917 Code (which may have been what this canonist actually said) there was NO provision for hermits in the 1917 Code so c 603 per se is not a revision of anything in universal law. Neither was canon 603 itself developed to deal with abuses. Solitary eremitical life had pretty much died out in the Western Church --- at least in the contemporary Church. If there were lay hermits around they were neither a major problem nor instance of abuse of the eremitical life. Meanwhile the hermits that existed in semi-eremitical institutes like the Camaldolese or Carthusians were sufficiently governed by Canon Law and the institutes' own proper law (constitutions and statutes). A new canon would have been unnecessary for these reasons.

However in the history of eremitical life there have been various attempts to deal with both authentic and false or fraudulent hermits. Mark Miles documents some of this history in his Dissertation, Canon  603 Diocesan Hermits in the Light of Eremitical Tradition. He notes that until the Council of Trent (16th C) there were uneven attempts to deal with this form of life at diocesan synods -- though with the Gregorian reforms there were some papal attempts to tighten controls over this form of life. After the Council of Trent bishops were "encouraged to use whatever means necessary to reform the life of clergy and religious" and the result was that many countries "adopted the medium of the diocesan synod to regulate the relationship between hermit and priest, and hermit and bishop." Spain and France in particular adopted such means of regulating individual hermits including a pledge of obedience to the diocesan bishop. In the case of authentic hermits this was done "to offer security and protection" to these persons.

But fraudulent hermits (or those who were false in the sense of being inauthentic) were indeed a problem and a number of steps were taken to control this. In the sixth century hermits were seen as a kind of monk and were required to spend a period of time in a monastery in order to prove his vocation. Hermits who spent "strict training in a monastery" would then be allowed to leave to live as a "full solitary". Miles notes that only then would their "aversion to common life [be] seen as legitimate." (Though technically correct perhaps, I find the historical use of the term aversion here strikingly infelicitous!) After the Council of Trent Pope Benedict XIV proposed a set of norms for the hermits in the diocese of Rome and encouraged other dioceses to do something similar. This work by Benedict XIV recognized "four kinds of hermits that had existed up to that point: [those] linked to a religious order, [those] that lived as a group or congregation under the rule and direction of the diocesan bishop, those that lived completely alone and also under the direction of the bishop and finally, the false hermits." Miles DHET, 85 (Emphasis added.)

With regard to the last group, Spain (including its colonies and territories), for instance, generally required hermits "to be received and instituted in a legitimate way by the diocesan Bishop and remain obedient to him." Miles writes, "Those unwilling to follow this practice were outlawed in most parts of the territory (Mexico)." A number of punishments were associated with infringements of the established legal practice including excommunication (some dioceses in Spain) and in some "false hermits might even find themselves in jail." (Miles, 86) In most countries bishops were similarly directly responsible for the hermits living in his diocese. Minimum ages (40 years) were set by synods as were the permissions or prohibitions of single women pursuing this vocation, candidates were vetted, conditions for moving from one hermitage to another were established as were conditions re wearing a habit and the nature of the habit (e.g., it could not be the same as those worn by established and recognized congregations of monks), etc. Other conditions that were legislated included conditions of life in cell: women were prohibited entry, solitaries could not leave their cells and loiter outside, other situations leading to scandal were regulated and so were the norms for begging for alms. (Especially hermits were not allowed to range far and wide or beg at all hours. The vocation was solitary and sedentary rather than one of peripatetic mendicancy and this had to be respected.)

It seems clear from all of this that the term "false hermits" had two overlapping senses. The first was folks who were under no ecclesiastical authority or direction but who wandered the diocese calling themselves hermits, begging for alms, dressing in habits sometimes mimicking those of clerics and monks, and generally living a life of pretense in this way. The purpose of these varied diocesan norms was indeed to prevent false hermits of this type from operating with impunity. Additionally the norms helped protect the marriage bond and Sacrament of matrimony by preventing married persons from becoming hermits (all Spanish dioceses legislated this) and some excluded single women from living an eremitical life. (Thank God some other countries did not adopt this norm!) The second type of false hermit was as important, namely legitimate hermits who were giving scandal or substituting individualism for an eremitism the Church recognized as authentic. These too were living lives of pretense though it was the more serious pretense of hypocrisy and actual infidelity to an ecclesial commitment and commission.

The distinction between these norms and canon 603 comes from the fact that the contem-porary Latin Church had not had solitary hermits for at least a century and a half. Dioceses were not plagued with false hermits in at least the first sense. Moreover, as I have explained before monks in solemn vows were discovering eremitical vocations but had to be secularized in order to pursue their call to be hermits. Bishop de Roo wrote an intervention for the Second Vatican Council listing five positive reasons (cf On Betraying the Eremitical  Vocation) for recognizing eremitical life as a state of perfection. He was not proposing the Church deal with abuses. My objections to what the canonist was supposed to have said dealt with the application of general historical conditions to the development of canon 603 per se. In no way would I try to suggest diocesan canons were not formulated to fight abuses nor that c 603 could be used in this way if necessary, but the fact is that was not the situation leading to canon 603 itself. This is not why canon 603 was created and promulgated.

By the way, it is also important to note that contrary to the arguments of those who say c 603 is a needless and even destructive instance of increased institutionalization of eremitical life, when viewed against this background c 603 actually represents a less onerous and more flexible instance of canonical institutionalization than has often been the case in Church history. I would argue this is precisely because its roots are positive and an attempt to codify in some protective and nurturing way a precious and prophetic charisma of the Holy Spirit. Similarly, the argument that canon 603 is a deviation from and even a distortion of the traditional practice of just going off on one's own to live as a hermit is even more clearly specious than I have demonstrated in the past. Far from being the norm for hermits in the Roman Catholic Church, the examples mentioned above point to a widespread ecclesiastical practice of discouraging or even prohibiting this form of eremitical life as "false". The Church has always acted (though perhaps not always carefully or consistently enough) in a variety of ways to protect a fragile but vital vocation from multiple kinds of "falseness." In this, and in other things, law is used in an attempt to serve love.

References in this article are mainly taken from the doctoral dissertation mentioned. I am not sure how available it is generally but again, the work is entitled, Canon  603 Diocesan Hermits in the Light of Eremitical Tradition by Mark Gerard Miles. Gregorian Pontifical University, Rome 2003.