17 May 2018

Reprising the Problem of Lay Hermits Who Falsely Claim to be Consecrated (Part 1)

It has been some time since I have written about the problem of lay hermits who misrepresent themselves as consecrated hermits but it is time to reprise the discussion. It is always an issue which serves as something of a flash point for those who believe consecrated hermits are demeaning those living eremitical life in the lay (baptized) state of life and it is not my preference to serve in this way. Moreover I found that in one particular case the lay hermit in question used the distinctions I was careful to articulate in order to make her own fraudulent misrepresentation more credible to those who were not knowledgeable of the critical questions her usage obscured. It's hard to write to educate only to find what one writes is used to make a fraud's misrepresentations more apparently cogent! But the simplicity and relative independence of the lives of canon 603 hermits make them relatively easy to simulate, and their consecration something far too easy to pretend to. Even so, it is important to review the issues involved.

This is so because the situation has come to the attention of CICLSAL (The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life) in Rome because there are reports about hermits who are not consecrated whether or not they have private vows, but who, at best, believe and allow others to believe they are consecrated hermits, or at worst, actively work to mislead others and misrepresent themselves in a way which is frankly fraudulent. These latter, among other things, can be found to call themselves "religious" or "Catholic Hermits", or "consecrated Catholic hermits" and describe themselves as "part of the consecrated life of the Church"; they sometimes focus  others' attention on descriptions of the liturgy during which they were (somehow) allowed to make private vows to give the errant sense these vows were received by the Church, beg money, give the sense the Church leaves them in abject poverty and dire medical circumstances while expecting they live a rigorous life of assiduous prayer, penance, and manual labor, and raise any number of other problematical issues. And so, Rome is looking to find ways to deal with the concerns of consecrated hermits, pastors, and bishops --- as well as confused faithful more generally who have been snookered by such hermits and non-hermits --- and is beginning to try to deal with the problem of lay hermits (or non-hermits!) who misrepresent themselves as consecrated hermits whether because they are simply ignorant of the Church's theology of consecrated life or because their fraud is more actively pursued by taking advantage of the theological ignorance of others.

What is really at issue?

So what is really at issue in all of this? We can certainly agree with CICLSAL  that the theology of consecrated life is at stake; from my perspective this means it is our sensitivity to the specifically public and ecclesial nature of consecrated eremitical lives and our recognition of the charismatic and prophetic natures of these vocations which is most at risk. While every vocation is a gift of God to the Church and world, not every vocation is an ecclesial one; not every vocation is discerned by both Church and individual or supervised specifically by the Church because it represents a public instance of the Church's holiness and call to holiness. Not every vocation is a public vocation with public profession (e.g., public vows or propositum), public rights, obligations, and commensurate expectations by the whole People of God (and world, for that matter). But the vocation to c 603 eremitical life is all of these things and more. We, whether consecrated hermits, pastors, bishops, or canonists, treat it with the regard appropriate to it as the specific gift of God it is. At the same time neither can we obscure, misrepresent, or allow to be obscured and misrepresented any dimension of this ecclesial gift or the paradoxical way it proclaims the Kingdom of God and Gospel of Jesus Christ. To do so is to betray the gifts of God with which we have been entrusted and, to some extent, to dishonor their giver as well.

The Nuts and Bolts of the Misunderstandings Involved:

Willful fraud aside for the moment there are some significant misunderstandings driving the confusions regarding who and what are consecrated hermits. Here is where the theology of consecrated life is central as issue. It seems to me four things contribute most significantly to these misunderstandings. 1) The casual use of the term  "consecrate" for an individual and ecclesially unmediated act of dedication to God, something which occurs across the entire spectrum of the Church; 2) a misreading of pars 920-921 of the CCC (the Catechism of the Catholic Church)  in conjunction with the heading of the section containing these paragraphs, 3) the failure to distinguish between the consecration of baptism and that additional ecclesially mediated act by which one enters a different (i.e., consecrated) state of life (this is the failure to distinguish between the lay and consecrated states of life) and 4) a failure to distinguish between an act of profession which is always public and the making of private vows.

1) The casual use of the term "consecrate" for any act of personal dedication, especially for an ecclesially unmediated act of self-dedication is problematical.  Vatican II, for instance, though very clear about the importance of baptismal consecration and the lay vocation, was, at the same time, very careful to distinguish between the action of God (consecratio) and the human counterpart of this action (dedicatio). Consecration is the setting  of something apart as holy or for the sake of holiness and this is, properly speaking, the action of God alone. Unfortunately, we are used today to speaking of consecrating ourselves in one way and another but this is simply inappropriate and misleading. It is also inaccurate to say that Religious are consecrated by the making of vows. When individuals enter the consecrated state of life they will use vows, other forms of sacred bonds, or the propositum associated with the consecration of virgins (c. 604) to express their own dedication but this is part of the Church's mediation of God's own consecration. A corresponding solemn act of consecration (during final or solemn vows or the consecration of virgins) completes an individual's initiation into the consecrated state of life.

We refer to being consecrated in the making of vows because in this instance the dedication of vows is a synedoche where the part stands for the whole (like "head" might stand for the whole person). We use the term consecration in a similar way in relation to the part, i.e., "making vows" only in this case the whole stands for a part. At the same time, consecrated life per se is a state of life and therefore is marked by particular forms of structure and stability. For the hermit this stability is marked by a Rule of Life, profession of the Evangelical counsels, legitimate superiors and/or the supervision by Church authority (which can include the service role of delegates). All of these dimensions and more besides are part of what it means to speak of this as a state of life and beyond that, as a stable state of life which is a gift of God to the Church and world.

2) Misreading paragraphs 920-921 of the Catechism: I don't know how often this misreading of the Catechism occurs (the English version is ambiguous at best), but I do know of one case in particular where a lay hermit builds her entire case of supposedly being in the consecrated state of life on paragraphs 920-921 of the CCC.  I have also received questions about this. The section is headed, "The Consecrated Life of the Church". The paragraphs noted refer to eremitical life and one crucial phrase says that one need not always make vows publicly. What is intended may be an obscure reference to the private vows some lay hermits make, but in such a case the general heading is misleading. Alternately, the CCC may have meant to refer to the "other sacred bonds" besides vows c 603 hermits are allowed to use for their public profession, but if so, the reference is, once again, awkward at best. The question of using private vows for entering the consecrated state of life can only be resolved by referring to the Church's larger theology of the consecrated state which is ALWAYS entered through public profession (c 604 uses a "propositum" rather than vows and c 603 can, as already noted, used sacred bonds other than vows but these are still acts of profession, and thus too, public ecclesial acts). While contextualizing the text in this way is critical, clarification of the meaning of the CCC text, however, would be very helpful in combating misunderstandings and outright fraudulent representations by some lay hermits.

[Addendum: I wrote a post on the Latin original of this section of the CCC on July 29, 2016. It is very clear that profession is ALWAYS public; the English version of the text has interjected the phrase "while not" before always in an awkward attempt to point to the fact that vows are not always necessarily used for this PUBLIC profession. This is what the Church must make clear to pastors, bishops and candidates for c 603 life. Sorry I was not clear myself in this regard in the post at hand.]

A variation here which gives priority to the CCC text, even in interpreting c 603, includes the notion that c 603 is an option or "proviso" which postdates this section of the Catechism and which may or may not be used by the solitary consecrated hermit. Of course this misrepresentation neglects the fact that c. 603 was promulgated long before the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Canon 603  is not merely a "proviso" or option added to that of CCC; it is the way the Church establishes the vocation of the consecrated solitary hermit "in law", that is, officially in the life of the Church. On the other hand, the text of the CCC is descriptive, not prescriptive and cannot be given the kind of priority or weight some lay hermits are giving it in order to diminish the importance of  the Code of Canon Law and c 603.

3) Failing to distinguish between baptismal consecration and the consecration by which one enters the consecrated state of life. It used to be common knowledge that those entering the consecrated state of life did so through a second and ecclesially mediated act of consecration which was akin to a second baptism. The notion of baptismal consecration was not widely applied; the terminology was not commonly used. Moreover, one was understood to definitively enter the "religious state" with perpetual or solemn profession. Other forms of consecrated life did not exist so there was no reason to confuse initiation into the religious state with Sacramental initiation into the Body of Christ. With Vatican II and the fresh esteem given to the lay state of life, the idea of baptismal consecration was revitalized and given wider currency in the Church as a whole. Similarly, besides the religious state the Church gave greater recognition to other forms of consecrated life (hermits, virgins, societies of apostolic life). The term "consecration" was applied to each of these and the distinction between baptismal consecration (initiation into the lay state of life) and initiation into the consecrated state was blurred and sometimes lost sight of altogether. However, the Church's theology of the consecrated state has not changed and it remains important to distinguish between this and the lay state of life (the vocational rather than the hierarchical sense of lay life) in order to honor either of these appropriately.

4) Profession versus private vows: While it is common for folks to use the verb profess or the noun profession for any act of making vows, whether public or private, this is a mistake. Profession refers to an act larger than simply the making of vows which initiates one into another state of life. Profession is therefore used to distinguish the making of public vows from the making of private vows. Private vows do not initiate a person into another state of life; public profession does. The noun profession thus never refers to the making of private vows.

A related misusage stems from the failure to understand what the Church means by the terms private and public in referring to vows.  Because making vows occurs in a way where people know about them, this does not make the vows public. For vows to be public means they are associated with the assumption of public rights and obligations; it means the Church mediates these vows in a way which allows the entire Church to have certain expectations of the one who is publicly professed.  Private vows mark an entirely private commitment which change nothing about a person's public rights and obligations within the Church. They are not insignificant but neither are they akin to public profession by which the Church entrusts one with public rights and obligations or signal to the church and world that the Holy Spirit is working within them in this specific way. If a lay person makes private vows they remain a lay person in the vocational sense as well as the hierarchical sense; they do not enter the consecrated state of life.

A final misusage is the application of the term "Catholic" as in "Catholic Hermit" by those who are not consecrated. This term does not merely mean one is Catholic AND a hermit. Instead it means that one lives the eremitical life in the name of the Church. Canon law is very clear that the term Catholic cannot be applied to a thing, person, or enterprise without appropriate authorization. This is true of religious institutes, TV stations, theologians, and many other things besides; one cannot append the name Catholic to the thing without the permission of the local ordinary. Catholic hermits are representatives of what the Church recognizes, governs, and supervises as eremitical life. (Catholic laity are given the right to call themselves Catholic by virtue of their baptism. To become a Catholic hermit  however, one must be consecrated and thus given permission to style themselves in this way.)

Summary and call for Comments:

At this point I am merely reprising major points of misunderstanding. There are still questions to look at but I would very much like to hear from folks who have questions and thoughts about the problem. I would also like to hear from people who have run across lay hermits who claim to be consecrated and who can describe their experience. Consecrated solitary Hermits form a miniscule part of the consecrated life of the Church but the presence of fraudulent hermits falsely claiming to be consecrated can lead to dioceses failing to deal adequately with genuine instances of the eremitical call. It can lead to a cynicism and suspicion which should not exist about this vocation --- from my perspective, that is. Please let me hear your own perspective on all of this.