16 April 2019

On Canon 603 and Proliferating Laws on Eremitical Life

[[Dear Sister, I saw a video recently by a hermit who said the development of canonical standing was kind of humorous to her. After all, hermits are and always have been uncommon, unique individuals so that trying to apply laws to them seemed counterintuitive (my word, not hers!). The result, she seemed to be saying, was that there was a proliferation of laws, rules, and precedents correcting earlier laws and more and more trying to restrain and then correct errors. My question is about canon 603 in light of this video and the followup one which spoke of canon 603 being "manipulated". Is it an evolving thing and does it lead to more laws? Was it the result of past attempts to write laws for hermits? Did it correct abuses? Does law prevent you from being free as a hermit or from being an individual?]]

Thanks for your questions. There are other articles on similar questions so take a look at the topics to your right; check under the labels "canon 603 - history of" and "canon 603 and freedom". One article is entitled "On Herding Cats" which responds to a humorous description by a hermit in Australia. In general no, there have not been many canon laws regarding hermits. Canon 603 is the single canon regarding eremitical life existing in the Church's universal law. Neither is it a redaction of earlier canon law (the 1917 Code) which never addressed eremitical life at all. Canon 603 is a new thing; promulgated in 1983 it represents the first time ever eremitical life has been recognized as a form of consecrated life in the entire Church. Of course, throughout the history of the church individual bishops have sponsored or supervised hermits in their own dioceses. Local laws and customs developed from place to place before hermits largely died out in the Western church. Canon 603 then, far from representing an instance of proliferating laws, represents a single canon governing solitary eremitical life in the universal church and replacing any existing and varying statutes in individual dioceses.

Canon 603 and a Putative Proliferation of Laws, Rules, Precedents, etc:

I have been personally mystified by references to and accusations of supposed proliferating laws and rules when these were mentioned in the past because there is simply no such thing. But recently I heard a comment by someone about this which gave me a clue to what the person who posts most about this was actually talking about. Apparently she has been referring to the various terms that must be defined and understood in order to actually understand canon 603, the nature of profession, initiation into the consecrated state, the nature of a legitimate superior, what canon 603 means by referring to a bishop as the hermit's director, the meaning of the word "status" in "canonical status", and other such things. Because there was ignorance about the technical meaning of terms this commentator seems to have mistakenly taken explanations as "proliferating laws, rules, precedents, etc." So, for instance, one might speak of consecrating oneself to God, but find that despite the common (mis)use of this phrase Vatican II was careful and clear to speak of dedicating oneself while it distinguished that from "consecration" which is always and only God's own work.

Similarly one might speak of "professing" private vows only to find that for the Church herself, the term profession more accurately refers to a public act of dedication which is received in the name of the church and initiates one into a new state of life. Private vows are not an act of profession. Likewise, pointing out that the term "status" and the "desire for canonical status" refer to "standing in law" and the "desire for such standing" and not to some sort of social prestige or prideful desire, is not a matter of creating new rules or precedents; it is simply a matter of clarifying the meaning of terms already well-understood in the Church itself and undergirding a meaningful reading of canon 603. Spelling out the theological contexts for terms, or the historical context of something like canon 603 does not mean one is creating rules or precedents though it well may point out when one has used terms inaccurately and been led to misunderstand the nature of the Church's theology of consecrated or eremitical life.

Canon 603, a Way of Addressing Abuses?

Canon 603 was not promulgated to fight abuses; it was created to address a significant deficiency in the Church's theology and codification of consecrated life and respond to the way the Holy Spirit was at work in the Church; namely, it was promulgated to establish and include solitary eremitical life as a form of that life. Remember, as noted above, solitary eremitical life had pretty much died out in the Western Church. Congregations like the Carthusians and Camaldolese kept eremitical life alive within a disciplined and nurturing context but solitary hermits had nothing like this unless their diocese set some rules or customs for them. At the same time the few lay hermits that existed were relatively invisible to everyone; a canon to initiate them into the consecrated state so that one could contend with abuses would have been absurd and counterproductive. (One does not call attention to hidden abuses that harm no one, create a canon to raise those committing abuses these to a public vocation, and then use more canons to exclude these hermits from the consecrated state!)

In any case, when more than a dozen monks in solemn vows for years discovered they were called to greater solitude in the 20C, their communities could not accommodate hermits in their midst; the monks were required to either give up on becoming hermits or leave their vows and monasteries, become secularized and live eremitical life in this new context. The Bishop who became their bishop protector intervened at Vatican II regarding the great gift eremitical life was to the Church and asked the Council to recognize these vocations in law. Eventually (@20 years later) canon 603 was the result of Bishop Remi De Roo's intervention.

Canon 603 and Freedom:

My own experience of canon 603 is that it creates freedom, specifically, the freedom to live as a hermit in the heart of the Church without concern for what folks in the world around me think of that or expect. The Church, in the persons of my bishop and others discerned this vocation with me and affirmed me in it by admitting me to public profession and consecration. I do not need to worry whether this is my vocation and am free to explore its boundaries and shape in whatever way the Spirit calls me to do. Canon 603 sets forth the central elements which must be lived if one is to be a hermit as the Church understands this vocation but one of these elements is a Rule which the hermit herself creates on the basis of her own experience of responding to the grace of God over time in the silence of solitude. This means canon 603 is a wonderful combination of non-negotiable elements and personal flexibility and responsiveness. Since I understand freedom as the power to be the one whom one is called to be even (and especially) in the midst of constraints, this combination corresponds to and nurtures genuine freedom and individuality in one called to c 603 eremitical life. (Meanwhile, the non-negotiable elements, mutual discernment, and life under authority protects against an individualism which is rampant in today's culture.)

One question that may have been implicit in your question about c 603 being an evolving thing is whether canon 603 itself will become more complicated or whether new canons will be added to the Code (or sections to the canon itself) to clarify questions which may be problematical. My sense is no hermit needs additional canons or sections of canons added to the Code. On the other hand we do want to see education of bishops and vicars re the distinction between lone pious individuals and hermits along with accounts of what kind of formation and experience has been essential for those who have been professed for some time and which were necessary for these hermits' success under c. 603; similarly there should be some way to convey the kinds of time frames which are typically required for this vocation since these do not correspond to canon law for those in religious institutes.

Finally, one issue that comes up is the nature of a livable Rule and the time and experience it takes to actually write one that can be binding in law. I have recommended and continue to recommend writing several Rules over several stages of personal formation as a way of reflecting one's experience and stages of growth as one approaches profession; I recognize that such a project can guide assistance with formation and mutual discernment with one's diocese, but most dioceses know nothing of this. Still, the purpose of such a suggestion to dioceses is not to create more laws but rather to help dioceses ensure they are professing good candidates and also have a way to allow more candidates to participate in a formation and  mutual discernment processes which are 1) not onerous to the diocese, 2) is individualized and flexible for the hermit and, 3) is sufficiently informative for all involved in working with and evaluating the vocation at hand. When the candidate writes several Rules over time they pretty much guide their own formation, identify their own needs in this process, and give invaluable information to those who assist in formation and participate in a meaningful process of mutual ecclesial discernment.


There has been no proliferation of laws, rules, or precedents with regard to Canon 603 except those precedents naturally resulting from the use of the canon to accommodate solitary eremitical vocations wisely. The explanation of technical terminology for those who are ignorant of such does not constitute the creation of new rules, laws, or precedents. Because one does not understand one is not initiated into the consecrated state by private vows, or that a person living eremitical life in the lay state is a lay hermit, this does not make explanations of such things "additional laws", made up terms, etc. Freedom is the power to be the persons we are called to be. There are always constraints in life. Canon 603 sets up necessary constraints as it empowers a more essential and edifying freedom to live eremitical life in a world which militates against it and authentic solitude in every way. Similarly it empowers individual eremitical life which is both traditional, countercultural, and flexible even as it militates against individualism.