Preamble: Recently there have been visitations, organized by the Congregation responsible for Religious, of at least two Carmelite monasteries. The Congregation is requiring many changes in the customs and manner of life of these communities, including the revision of their Constitutions. Among them: requiring the communities to relinquish some of their legitimate autonomy by joining a federation that would have authority over them; relaxing the rules of enclosure; requiring 9-12 years of formation instead of the traditional 4-5 years.
Question: What theological authority does the Congregation have to impose these changes?
Reflection: A person receives a vocation to the following of Christ in the evangelical counsels, not from the hierarchy of the Church, but as a charism and call that is from Christ himself. No priest or bishop, nor even the pope, has the authority to say ”Follow me”. When Paul writes to his communities and exhorts them to imitate him, that is not and has never been considered a personal calling.
It is true that all genuine charisms are charisms in the (hierarchical) Church, and must be recognized and approved by the Church to have an official status. Nothing, however, prevents a group of Catholics from living as a community organized around the Gospel counsels. In fact, many communities began that way. The desert fathers simply went out into the desert. Benedict began as a solitary and a community gathered around him.
One could say that religious life is more Marian and Johannine than Petrine.
Historically, such spontaneous communities eventually seek official recognition from their local bishop and, if they grow beyond a single diocese, from Rome. But this recognition is not the origin of the charism. When a religious community has a tradition that spans centuries, the role of the hierarchy is not to interpret the charism but to be a traditionis custos, a protector of the charism.
There are occasions where intervention from hierarchical authority is called for. Examples would be when a community deviates from its own tradition, or when it becomes corrupt in one way or another—as in heterodoxy or grave moral failings, or when there is an otherwise irremediable division within the community itself.
When a community has been faithful to its charism and tradition, when the community is flourishing, when there is peace, joy, and harmony among the members, there is no reason—and I would say no justification—for an external custos to interfere or intervene. The proper interpreter of the specific charism is the community whose constitutions have been approved and, in the case of Carmelites, stood the test of time for more than 400 years.
Canonical Note: Canon law seems ambiguous on this issue—as on many others.
For example: Canon 593 reads: “With due regard for the prescription of can. 586, institutes of pontifical right are immediately and exclusively subject to the power of the Apostolic See in internal government and discipline.” But this refers back to can. 586.
Canon 586, par. 1: For individual institutes there is acknowledged a rightful autonomy of life, especially of governance, by which they enjoy their own discipline in the Church and have the power to preserve their own patrimony intact as mentioned in can. 578.” This refers back to can. 578.
Canon 578: “The intention of the founders and their determination concerning the nature, purpose, spirit and character of the institute which have been ratified by competent ecclesiastical authority as well as its wholesome traditions, all of which constitute the patrimony of the institute itself, are to be observed faithfully by all.”
Another example: Canon 576 reads: “It belongs to the competent authority of the Church to interpret the evangelical counsels, to regulate their practice by laws, to constitute therefrom stable forms of living by canonical approbation, and, for its part, to take care that the institutes grow and flourish according to the spirit of the founders and wholesome traditions.”
But Canon 598, par. 1 reads: “Each institute, keeping in mind its own character and purpose is to define in its constitutions the manner in which the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience are to be observed for its way of living.” (emphasis added to all.)
Other relevant canons: 573, par 1 (following Christ under the action of the Holy Spirit); 631 (chapters according the norm of the constitutions); 648, par. 3 (novitiate no longer than two years); 662 (highest rule of life for religious: “the following of Christ as proposed in the gospel and expressed in the constitutions of their institute”); 667, pars. 2 & 3 (strict discipline of cloister & papal cloister).
• Related at CWR: “The other women in the Church” (Nov.15, 2021) by David G. Bonagura, Jr.
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