02 January 2017

The Incoherence of Vowing "Canonical Obedience" in a Private Vow

Dear Sister Laurel, What does it mean to say one is vowed to "canonical obedience"? Something I read recently confused me. It was the vows of a privately professed Catholic hermit in which the hermit vowed "canonical obedience" despite her vows being private. From what you have written in the past I can't see how the term can be used but maybe I am just missing something. Here is the vow I didn't understand: [["I, [full name including Confirmation name], offer and present myself to the goodness of God to serve in the order of a hermit [anchorite is the technical term used from Medieval Ancrene Riwle]; and according to the rule of that order I promise to remain henceforward in the service of God through the grace of God and the guidance of the Roman Catholic Church and to render canonical obedience to my spiritual fathers.]]

Important question. Thanks for asking it. Canonical obedience refers to obedience owed under canon law to legitimate superiors. It is part of the obligations assumed in the making of canonical (public) vows. The problem with the vow you cited is that it is a private vow and does not obligate or bind to legitimate superiors. This is because the hermit involved is making a private act of dedication to God, not a public one which involves the whole Church through the mediation of those who assume the role of legitimate superior. No one assumes the role of legitimate superior in private vows. Assumption of this role occurs in PUBLIC professions where admittance to vows is carefully discerned and the assumption of public rights and obligations are similarly accomplished in relationships that are mutually established and governed in canon law. (The legitimate superior is bound both morally and in law to serve the hermit as the hermit is bound both morally in law to obey the legitimate superior; the parameters of the relationship are spelled out in canon law and the hermit's Rule of Life.) One makes a public vow of obedience which is canonical or one does not. In private vows there is no "canonical obedience."  Moreover, as a matter of terminology, "spiritual fathers" is a phrase which tends to be used of spiritual directors and not of other roles; in the contemporary church spiritual directors do not represent a role in which they bind in obedience.

There is another set of problems with this vow, namely the reference to an order of hermits or anchorites and to their Rule. When this hermit vows to serve "according to the Rule of that order" what Rule is she speaking of? What order? You see, there is today no "order of hermits" in the same sense that there is, for instance, an order of consecrated virgins. Canon 603, for instance, does not refer to an order of hermits and did not intend one. And Orders like the Carthusians or the Camaldolese are different matters (and a different usage) yet again. Likewise the ancient "Ancrene Riwle" exists today --- one can certainly find and read it if one wants to --- though the accepted title is Ancrene Wisse or "Guide for Anchorites". The problem here? Ancrene Wisse is more "antirule" than rule --- written to guide anchorites who were asking for a Rule rather like that of St Benedict with matters of prayer, rest, work, etc. all spelled out, but whose spiritual guide resisted providing one! Ancrene Wisse is not and never was the Rule of an order of anchorites or hermits.

Linda Georgianna, in her book The Solitary Self, Individuality in the Ancrene Wisse, writes: [[The kind [of Rule the author of Wisse] chooses to emphasize bears little resemblance to anything we would recognize as a religious rule and is in fact best understood as an antirule. It is descriptive rather than prescriptive . . . and if its message could be summarized in one sentence it would have to be that the religious life is much more unruly than the young anchoresses might have first have supposed. The term "inner rule" is finally less a generic reference than a polemical term, a metaphor for an inner life that cannot be controlled by external precepts or religious rules.]] Finally, anchorite is not a technical term for hermit. It represents a particular kind of eremitical life which is marked by much greater physical stability than ordinarily obtains for the hermit. In this stability the anchorite is bound in some way (sometimes literally through being walled in!) to a particular residence or cell which she does not leave!
To summarize regarding your question on the phrase "canonical obedience" your sense here is exactly right: it is quite literally incoherent in the text and context provided. This is because it is only meaningful in the case of public vows (i.e., profession) where (1) one binds oneself in obedience to God, (2) through legitimate superiors who supervise or "govern" this vocation on behalf of the Church, (3) according to the canon laws which pertain to such public and ecclesial commitments. All  of this makes a vow "canonical." Accordingly, there is something missing in what you cited but it is not your deficiency; instead the phrase simply lacks coherence in a private vow. Once again let me say that private vows are significant forms of private dedication to God and should be esteemed. However, the persons making them should not conflate them with public vows and must take care not to make claims or pretend to obligations which do not really exist or even make sense. Language is important here and must not be thrown around to give the sense that what one purports to be doing is other than what one actually does.

No one is served by such confusions, not eremitical life which, whether publicly or privately undertaken, is already too often misunderstood, not individual hermits who must know what they are committing themselves to if they are not to make the vocation unbelievable in the process of trying to live it, not the Church who esteems and mediates public vocations in the name of God, and certainly not the God of truth who gifts these vocations charismatically to the whole Church in the life of the solitary canonical hermit. This is why the vow formulas of solitary canonical hermits, for instance, are carefully checked by canonists prior to profession to ensure they say precisely what they must say in responding to such a call and making such an ecclesial commitment. It is also why the term Catholic hermit is restricted to those making public profession. Words have meaning and their misuse, whether willful or inadvertent, brings confusion which can destroy credibility and trust.

Again, thanks for your question. It is an important one.

Follow-up question:

[[Dear Sister, Are you saying that private profession should not include a vow of obedience? I thought you were implying that.  Also do canonical religious use the phrase "canonical obedience"?]]

Excellent follow-up! I am torn on the issue of private vows of obedience. I think every Catholic is bound to be obedient in the NT sense of the word. It is part of the baptismal commitments we each make, part of what it means to believe in God, his Christ, his Spirit and Church. For this reason I think every Christian is committed to obedience in the sense of being attentive and responsive to God in Christ in Scripture, Sacraments, relationships, and the ordinary events of every day. No vow is necessary because we don't make vows for things we are already obligated to. However if one feels a need to specify the contents of this baptismal commitment more clearly that has seemed to me to be a good thing. Unfortunately, the fact that some are misrepresenting specific private vows with the qualifier "canonical" as the person who was cited above seems to do, leads me to  reconsider what I thought could be a good thing; consequently I am coming to agree with canonists who say private vows of obedience make no sense.

But if individuals choose to make such private vows they must understand that these vows are specifications of one's lay commitment -- no more nor less. They are not a profession ---an act which initiates one into a new state of life (hence we do not "profess" private vows). One may dedicate oneself to God in an act which makes one's baptismal consecration, one's baptismal vows and commitments more explicit and contemporary --- but such an act is not the same thing as making public profession of vows that are somehow "canonical",  include being consecrated by God, or result in religious obedience being owed a legitimate superior.

The fact that in profession one comes to live ones life  under new canon laws (canon laws which do not apply to everyone in the church and which require a public commitment beyond baptism) and in this way embrace new canonically defined and moderated relationships and a Rule and constitutions (proper law) which bind canonically is something we sometimes believe everyone in the Church understands --- but in this I think we have been na├»ve. The post which was cited earlier demonstrates a significant ignorance or perhaps an outright disregard of Church usage so perhaps there is a need for greater clarity in speaking of canonical vows of obedience, for instance. Many Religious have also been careless in speaking of consecrating ourselves in making our vows. We dedicate ourselves to God in public vows and (in perpetual profession) this act is received by the Church and followed by a prayer of solemn consecration. (In temporary profession there is a prayer of blessing following the vow making.) These two movements, dedication and consecration, are part of a single act of perpetual or definitive profession but human beings dedicate themselves; God consecrates. In the grammar of "synecdoche" we can refer popularly to the WHOLE ACT as either profession or consecration but again, we do not consecrate ourselves. Only God may consecrate --- a distinction Vatican II maintained throughout any documents pertaining to these matters.

Regarding your second question, ordinarily since private vows do not include obedience except in the NT sense (which is already included in one's baptismal commitments), there is usually no reason for religious who make public or canonical vows of religious obedience to specify "canonical obedience." Religious are more apt to say "religious obedience" which includes the idea of  public commitments and the concepts of legitimate superiors as well as canonical rights and responsibilities beyond those assumed with baptism alone.. Usually though we simply say "obedience" because it is typical of religious life and not of lay life.
I hope this helps!