26 November 2016

On the Purposes and Nature of Canon 603

Dear Sister O'Neal, was canon 603 established to regularize hermits in the Western Church? Does the church refer to or have recluses any more? I am asking because of the following passage: [[It may be interesting to note that now, the Western Church has, as recently as1983, developed a means to regularize hermits (the term recluse has dropped from Church use) by creating CL603.  Thus, hermits who wish to receive bishop approval and be publicly professed under that bishop's direction within their given diocese, may do so. At this time, the canon regulization (sic) is not at all pressure upon hermits who may still prefer private profession of vows within the Consecrated Life of the Church.  Some bishops may prefer to not have hermits in their dioceses nor to deal with the regulized (sic) aspect of CL603, either; but I know of no statistics current on this point.]] I know there are problems with referring to "private profession" "within the consecrated life" of the Church so I am not going to ask you about that. Thank you.]]

No, generally speaking canon 603 was not promulgated to "regularize" solitary hermits in the Western Church. The church from diocese to diocese rather than with universal law had done (or tried to do) that in the middle ages in a number of ways. Primary among these was establishing common Rules for hermits and funneling many of them into monastic communities and such. (Remember that regularize and Rule come from the same root, regula.) As a result solitary hermits in the Western Church pretty much died out by the 15th or 16th C. Canon 603 was established as a way of recognizing this significant but very rare vocation in universal law for the first time and allowing it to reveal itself on its own terms with ecclesial supervision. This was especially desirable because, as I have noted several times here, solemnly professed monks were discovering vocations to solitude after years in the monastery but because this was not an option for them under their institute's proper law, they had to leave their monasteries and be dispensed and secularized if they were to live as hermits at all. Bishop Remi de Roo and others argued at Vatican II that such a significant and prophetic vocation should be universally recognized as a "state of perfection." This finally occurred with canon 603 and the publication of the 1983 revised code of Canon Law.

Canon 603 serves to define eremitical life (c. 603.1) in well-accepted traditional terms and to provide for living it as an ecclesial vocation in the name of the Church under the supervision of the hermit's local bishop (c. 603.2). It is important to remember that this canon expects the hermit to write her own Rule rooted in her own experience of the way God is calling her to live this life. This is a necessary piece of the Church's discernment of the vocation and of readiness for vows. The bishop does NOT write the hermit's Rule nor is she forced to adopt an already-established Rule --- as was often the case in the Middle Ages. She lives the ecclesial definition of eremitical life in her own way according to her own rhythms, gifts, and needs, but she does so with the aid of a spiritual director and also a diocesan delegate who assists the Bishop in making sure the vocation is lived well and in a healthy, representative, and edifying way. There is nothing onerous about this arrangement for one called to this vocation precisely because eremitical life is not about simply doing as one pleases, but instead about responding to an ecclesially mediated vocation in ways which are edifying to the church even as they are life giving to the hermit.

Regarding recluses, the Church has not dropped the term. She uses it mainly for those very rare hermits who belong to certain Orders and are admitted to reclusion by their communities. The vocation to reclusion is supervised and supported by the congregation, particularly by the superior of the house where the recluse resides. Only the Camaldolese and the Carthusians are allowed to have recluses today. (This includes the Camaldolese nuns who are famous for supporting the vocation of Nazarena, a recluse who lived at the house in Rome.) A diocesan hermit who desires to become a recluse would need the permission of her bishop, recommendations by her spiritual director and her delegate along with significant support by her parish or diocesan community to make healthy reclusion possible. The urgency here is to maintain a specifically ecclesial vocation in which the hermit's vocation to authentic humanity is fostered. If solitary eremitical life is rare, vocations to genuine reclusion are rare to the nth degree but neither the vocation nor the term have been dropped by the Church. Instead, the Church is careful in allowing hermits to embrace reclusion and applies the term rarely.

Because she esteems the eremitical vocation as a gift of the Holy Spirit and understands not only how rare it is but also how easy it would be for misanthropes and other eccentrics to distort and misrepresent it the Church takes care to define it in universal law and to include it as a specific and new form of consecrated life. This means that not "anything goes". Misanthropes need not apply. Lone folks who are not actually embracing a life defined by the constitutive elements of the canon and who do not show clear signs of thriving in such a situation are not hermits despite the more common usage at large in our world. Meanwhile, those who have embraced an authentic desert vocation as canon 603 defines it cannot identify themselves as Catholic hermits unless the Church herself gives them this right in an explicit and public act of profession, consecration, and commissioning. Lay hermits (hermits who, vocationally speaking, are in the lay state, whether with or without private vows) exist and these vocations should be esteemed but they are not vocations to the consecrated state of life nor are they lived in the name of the Church.

Can we speak of canon 603 serving a regularizing purpose today? I suppose if one distinguishes the usage in history, recognizes the relative dearth of eremitical vocations in the Western Church over the past 4-5 centuries, and is clear about the extremely positive way eremitical life was spoken of in the interventions of Bp Remi de Roo at Vatican II and canon 603 subsequently came to be, it is possible to think of this canonical act of defining things carefully as an act of regularizing those who call themselves hermits. After all the canon is a norm which prevents misunderstanding, fraud, and hypocrisy and establishes a universal standard by which the whole Church can recognize and measure authentic eremitical life --- especially vocations to consecrated eremitical life. It brings such hermits under the norms of universal law and the structures associated with consecrated life in the Church. Still, we need to be clear that "regularization" was not the original or primary purpose of canon 603, especially when it is measured against the steps taken in earlier centuries to "regularize" the relative crowds of both authentic and inauthentic hermits who peopled Italy, England, Germany, etc.

Moreover, as noted above, given the canon's requirement that the hermit write her own Rule and thus its insurance of individuality, freedom, and flexibility in fidelity to a traditional and divine calling, even now "regularization" is a word we should probably use carefully. A delegate who serves the hermit and the diocese to protect in very personal ways the legitimate rights and obligations undertaken by the hermit in profession also suggests this. In particular, any suggestion that the canon is meant to shoehorn hermits into some kind of ecclesiastical or legal straitjacket which limits their freedom (or God's!) is one we should assiduously avoid. In my experience, with canon 603 we are faced with a norm which creates a kind of sacred space where an authentic vocation to solitary eremitical life may be recognized and flourish and where authentic human freedom is enabled to reach the perfection associated with holiness and communion with God. After all, one does not "regularize" a gift of the Holy Spirit; instead one defines or cooperates with the Spirit in defining sacred spaces and mediatory "structures" or channels where God's gift may be formally hallowed and recognized as hallowing the larger context of the Church and world. I think canon 603 functions in this way.