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American Religious Life in Historical Perspective

Chapter 4

Constitution, Rules, Customs

Rev. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Bellarmine School of Theology
Chicago, IL

This is not a study of the juridical structure of religious communities. If it were, it would be necessary to trace, in some detail, the different forms of organization that groups of men and women took at different stages in the Church’s history. We would examine their institutional format of the present day, and project---with some degree of accuracy---what these forms might be in the future. All the while, we could evaluate these structures and suggest changes and adaptations to meet the changing times.

Some of this evaluation and examination is essential to the success of this work; however, the purpose is more refined. We want to convince ourselves that community life without institutional form is a nameless utopia; that some kind of structure is essential to community life as seen in the whole of the Church’s past history; and, that the task before us is not to remove these forms. That would destroy the religious life! But it is to improve them, up-date them, and make them more compatible with the crying need of today: a communal life that does not stifle personality but helps it grow in mature sanctity and makes for a more effective apostolate.

Constitutional Theory

The Rule of St. Benedict is the place to begin in any review of the constitutional history of religious communities.

Before his time, monastic life was structured, indeed, but the organization was essentially paternal in the elemental sense of that term. The head of the monastery governed his subjects according to a formalized pattern, but the Rule was basically designed only for the monks. It did not, as such, set up norms for the one who governed them. The high point of the Pachomian system probably ended with the death of Pachomius. Its later influence, though great, should be mainly attributed to its literary monuments and not to any juridical continuity from Pachomius to Benedict, and into later times.

Until Benedict came on the scene, therefore, religious life was flourishing but much as a wild growth of flowers or trees---with little cohesive structure beyond each monastery.

Benedict’s genius gave religious communities what they have all enjoyed since, namely the formulation of norms that applied with equal vigor to the abbot as well as to his monks. His Rule enjoined on both, certain objective principles which transcended space and time---space as regards a given monastery, and time as regards a given abbot or his council.

With Benedict, the concept of Rule developed into a particular way of life that held the promise of continuity into the distant future. Yet the continuity was more psychological than juridical. Moreover, it dealt only with a single self-contained, self-supporting and self-sufficient family. There was, in his day, no suggestion of any supervision by an authority outside the monastery except for the Holy See in approving the Rule, and a local bishop in correcting some grave disorder that might have crept into the community. There was no formal association between monasteries for enacting of laws or exercising discipline.

Ironically, St. Francis of Assisi, whose personality was worlds removed from structure and legislation, paved the way for the first strictly constitutional religious community in the Church.

Francis’ own bent of mind was to preach poverty in the following of Christ and to have as little as possible to do with organization and the minutiae of government. All the evidence indicates that the short rule he submitted for approval to Pope Innocent III was simply a few key passages from the Gospels joined together by a short explanation.

Later events showed that this was woefully inadequate. Humbly accepting the counsel of others, Francis composed a new Rule that gave the Church a new vision of religious life; it was not in opposition to, but parallel with, the earlier monastic models.

In essence, the Rule of Francis gave his followers freedom of mobility that monks had not enjoyed. Previous founders had led men and women away from the world and set before them life inside the monastery as an ideal. Francis, though as unworldly as Benedict or Bernard, wanted his friars to go about in the world preaching and helping others through the practice of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

Francis also changed the idea of institutional ownership of property. Not only were his disciples to be poor and moneyless personally; but also, in his original conception, the order was to own nothing corporately. Subsequent history showed how difficult, not to say impossible, this became when numbers increased and facilities had to be available, at least for training novices, and caring for the sick and the aged.

Furthermore unlike previous foundations, the Friars Minor was to be a family of indefinite size. As they grew in numbers, they divided but did not separate. The minister-general remained head of every new residence, in actuality, not only in spirit. His authority was supreme, with the right to send his men anywhere in the world to carry on the work of Christ.

It was also the Franciscans who made explicit what was more or less implicit in religious communities before. Having become an active apostolic order, they also became closely associated with Rome. Thus from St. Francis of Assisi the Church inherited the first fully centralized institute of religious men and women, based not on some motherhouse beyond the Alps nor even (ultimately) on the minister-general, but upon Rome. Inevitably the papacy used the organization for the advancement of the Church’s interest throughout the world.

Francis’ contemporary, the Spaniard St. Dominic, founded his own order to meet a need similar to the one Francis saw, but for a different level of people and in a different way. The two saints are believed to have met in Rome and Dominic is said to have offered a merger of his followers, with Francis at their head. No merger took place, but the two men profited immensely from each other’s insights.

Most significant for our purpose is to know that Dominic and his immediate successors drafted a new kind of religious structure which sought to avoid what actually befell the Franciscans: domination by an autocratic head of the community. Above all, the Dominicans introduced regular general and provincial chapters and the elective element. These typical features were later adopted by the Franciscans; some would say they were borrowed from the Dominicans. Historians believe that the timely intervention of Rome saved them. There the autocratic Brother Elias was formally deposed within a few years of the death of St. Francis.

Whatever else this shows, it illustrates the grave need for a clear and concise constitutional government once a religious community ventures beyond the monastic stage. Not even the mysticism of the Seraphic Francis could make up for this.

Ignatius of Loyola built on the wisdom of his predecessors, and benefited from the experience of a thousand years since Benedict, and three hundred years since Francis and Dominic. He is said to have been a great innovator and his Society has been called the ne plus ultra in the organization of a religious order.

No doubt Ignatius went beyond the friars in shedding the traditional monastic character of cloistered seclusion and elaborate liturgical prayer. Yet nothing in the Constitutions he wrote went counter to what religious had been doing since Monto Cassino. It is a matter of record that Ignatius owed his early spiritual direction to the Benedictines of Montserrat, and that in his Spiritual Exercises he included the famous Rule for Thinking With the Church.

The Ignatian Constitutions have become normative for many religious communities that came into being since the sixteenth century. Most congregations of religious women have been deeply influence by these constitutions. Their provisions are in the full spirit of the great religious founders that preceded Loyola.

In view of their impact in modern times, it is instructive to include the articles of the Ignatian Constitutions which pertain to various important aspects of the religious life.

First of all, Ignatius gave his reasons for writing any sort of constitution:

As it was our Creator and Lord in His sovereign wisdom and goodness Who deigned to begin this least Society of Jesus, so it is He Who will preserve, govern, and foster its growth in His holy service.
On our part, the inner law of charity and love which the Holy Spirit traces and engraves upon the heart will contribute to this end more than any written constitutions. Divine Providence requires the cooperation of His creatures, and because the Vicar of Christ our Lord has so ordained, and the example of the saints, and reason itself so teach us in our Lord, we judge it necessary to draw up Constitutions which, in conformity with the purpose of our Institute, will the better help us to advance in the way of God’s service upon which we have entered. [1]

Then he spelled out, in a single sentence, the purpose of his institute:

The end of our Society is twofold: to devote ourselves with God’s grace to the salvation and perfection of our own members, and with the same grace zealously to exert ourselves for the salvation and perfection of others. [2]

On the side of innovation, Ignatius made it plain that his Society was not monastic, in the sense of being attached to one monastery and being confined to work in one locality, or being restricted to one geographically limited or cloistered territory, or obligated to choir in common and daily conventual Liturgy. In his own words, “It is within the scope of our vocation to go to various places, and to live in any part of the world, where there is no hope of God’s greater service and the help of souls.” Moreover, “For good reasons, our outward manner of life is ordinary, and should always be regulated with a view to God’s greater service.” [3]

But as we come to examine Ignatius’ principles of perfection and his ideas on the apostolate, they are thoroughly and unmistakable in the heritage of Benedict, Dominic and Francis. Often the very words are the same, and always the same spirit of community life, of poverty and celibacy, and especially of obedience occur.

His followers were to have no doubt they were to be religious who had left the world. They were to leave home, literally and unequivocally:

Everyone who enters the Society, following that counsel of Christ, “He who leaves his father, etc.,” should remember that he is to leave father, mother, brothers and sisters, and whatever else he had in the world. Indeed, he should consider these words as addressed to himself: “If anyone does not hate his father and mother, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”
He must, therefore, endeavor to divest himself of all merely natural affection for his relatives and change it into supernatural, and thus regard them with that love alone which a well-ordered charity demands, like one who being dead to the world and self-love lives solely for Christ our Lord, and Him in place of parents, brothers, and everything else. [4]

Ignatius knew that leaving home physically was not enough. A religious had also--and more radically to leave the world spiritually. He recommended the following to the members of his Society:

They must attentively consider, and, in the presence of our Creator and Lord, hold it to be of the utmost importance as a help to progress in the spiritual life, to abhor completely and without exception all that the world loves and embraces, and to accept and desire with all their strength whatever Christ our Lord loved and embraced.
For, as men of the world who follow the world love and very earnestly seek honors, distinctions, and the reputation of a great name among men, as the world teaches them; so they who are making progress in the spiritual life and are serious progress in the spiritual life and are serious about following Christ our Lord love and warmly desire the very opposite--to be clothed, in fact, in the same garments and wear the same attire as their Lord, out of love and reverence for Him: and this to such an extent, that if it could be done without offence to His Divine Majesty, or sin on the part of their neighbor, they should wish to suffer abuse, injustice, false accusations, and to be considered and treated as fools (without, however, giving occasion for such treatment), their whole desire being to resemble, and in some way imitate our Creator and Lord Jesus Christ, by being clothed in His garments and raiment, since he first so clothed Himself for our greater spiritual benefit, and gave us an example to lead us to seek, as far as possible with God’s grace, to imitate and follow Him, seeing He is the true Way which leads men to life. [5]
The better to reach so precious a degree of perfection in the spiritual life, each one should make it his first and foremost endeavor to seek in our Lord his greater abnegation and continuous mortification in all things possible. [6]

That last sentence is significant. It places the emphasis where Ignatius wanted it, because he wanted the pursuit of holiness to be basic to his institute. He was persuaded that this was the heart of religious life; it was a state of perfection in which a person’s first concern was to grow in intimacy with God through the practice of faith, hope and charity---and out of this union with God would flow his apostolic zeal. He never allowed his men to question where he placed the priority. He even made it plain that the spiritual life takes precedence over the academic; although he would demand of his men the longest and most exhaustive academic training in the history of religious institutes.

All who belong to the Society should devote themselves to the pursuit of the solid and perfect virtues, and the cultivation of spiritual interests. They should attach greater importance to these than to learning or other natural and human gifts, for they are the inward source from which must flow all outward effectiveness in the goal set before us. [7]

To leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that Ignatius envisioned a religious order--no less--he exacted such obedience in his men that to this day Ignatian “blind obedience” is considered the last word in subjection to superiors and therefore in living out the essence of community life. The community is assured of the members being united to one another because they are united to the head.

It is a very special help to progress, and is in fact, very necessary, for all to surrender themselves to perfect obedience. They should recognize that the Superior, whoever he is, holds the place of Christ our Lord, and they should show him an inward reverence and love. Their obedience should extend not merely to the outward execution of a command, which should be complete, prompt, courageous, and done with becoming humility, without pleading excuses, even though the command has to do with something difficult and repugnant to nature: but they should also make every effort to have an inward resignation and a true denial of their own will and judgment. They will, moreover, conform that will and judgment to the will and judgment of the Superior in all things that are free from sin, and will then look upon the will and judgment of the Superior as a norm for their own will and judgment, their purpose being a more perfect conformity with the first and highest norm of every good will and judgment, that is, the Eternal Goodness and Wisdom. [8]
With true obedience, they should leave the Superior free to dispose of them and all that concerns them, as he sees fit. They should keep nothing concealed from him, not even their own conscience. They should not object or contradict, or in any way show their judgment to be opposed to his. As a result of this union of opinion and will and a becoming submission, they will be the better sustained and make greater progress in God’s service. [9]

I have dwelt at such length on the Ignatian Constitutions not because I know them so well, but because I am firmly persuaded that a balanced understanding of them will go a long way towards correcting some strange ideas about the religious life.

No matter what renewal or updating is done, unless the change is in the direction of greater union with God, abnegation of self, and an uncompromising attitude towards secularism and a worldly outlook on life---renewal is regression and updating is downgrading what religious life should be.

Ignatius lived in times not unlike ours. He saw the need for greater freedom from external forms and the regulations of monastic regime. But for that very reason he insisted all the more on self-denial, the most complete submission of will (even mind) through obedience, and the need for intimacy with Christ.

As a matter of record, when the Society of Jesus in 1967 published its latest decrees, after two years of formal session of its General Congregation, it left unchanged all the substantials of Ignatius’ Constitutions. Yet while it adapted and adjusted them to meet the needs of today, their updating was done to a degree that could satisfy the genius of a Karl Rahner, or the zeal of a Jean Danielou, as well, as the modernity of the youngest novice.

Since the time of Ignatius numerous religious congregations of women have come into existence. It is not coincidental that the first beginnings of these institutes of women came within a short span of time. All were clustered around the time of the Counter Reformation and all were imbued with something of the same spirit that animated Ignatius Loyola. They, too, wanted greater freedom of movement and less conformity to the strictly cloistered and monastic type of life. This need was felt to be in the interest of a wider and more effective apostolate.

Certain names stand out prominently, and no appraisal of the religious life of women in the Church today can be understood without reference to men like Charles Borromeo and Vincent de Paul, or to women like Angela Merici and Louise de Marillac.

They succeeded in doing for women’s religious congregations what Ignatius had done for the men’s.

Yet the same judgment holds here as holds for Ignatius. The Ursulines and Sisters of Charity, who pioneered in apostolic religious life for women, were religious communities and not mere laywomen who happened to be engaged in religious activity. If some writers tend to leave a different impression and quote passages from St. Angela or St. Vincent de Paul, this can be explained by the difference between their original intentions and what actually came into fruition as experience showed the need for more definite form of religious life.

It is true, for example, that Angela Merici’s first plan was to have the women associated with her live in their own homes and from there, under obedience, engage in teaching and catechizing the young. Her reason for doing this was to meet the challenge of the Reformers who attacked the cloister and succeeded in driving thousands of men and women out of the monasteries. Her company would prove that virginal ideals could be maintained without any cloister at all.

She proved her point. But as the storm passed away and the Church’s life was gradually revitalized, the followers of Angela banded together in communities and they have remained this way ever since.

Her main aim, however, had been achieved. What she was after, and what she accomplished, was to have religious women exempt from the strict obligations of cloister in order to free them for the great apostolic work of teaching.

Sisters throughout the world, now engaged in every sort of apostolate, are debtors to Angela for her courage and foresight in opening the teaching of Christ’s Gospel by women under vows living in community.

Present Situation

I doubt if any aspect of religious life today has aroused more widespread interest inside and outside the convent (or religious institute) than the revision of the Constitutions which the Church has urged upon all communities.

This in itself should allay the fears of those who are not sure that any change was called for. We have the assurance; in fact, the mandate, of the Church that adaptation and renewal are to be made.

What the Church needs today is women who have the vision of Angela Merici and Louise de Marillac; but who also have the wisdom and humility to submit this vision to the Church’s judgment and, if need be, have it modified by the Church’s authority.

The changes projected are in the constitutions, regulations and customs of existing religious communities of men as well as women.

In one sense this is unique in the history of religious communities. Never before have all of them, simultaneously, been asked (or told) to update their juridical forms. The occasion for the universal revision was, of course, the decree of the Second Vatican Council which prescribed that “constitutions, directories, custom books, books of prayer and ceremonies and such like be suitably re-edited.” (Perfectae Caritatis, 3)

As a short parenthesis, I might observe that the more common but less accurate translation of this critical passage speaks of revision rather than re-editing. The latter is a correct rendering of the original Latin text. Also the same translation pulls out of context words to make a full and impressive concluding sentence of what, officially, is only a passing phrase. “Obsolete laws being suppressed,” becomes “This task will require the suppression of outmoded regulations.” In view of subsequent events, this can be described as tampering with a conciliar document.

Until the Council ordered a re-editing of existing community laws and regulations, not much was made of the distinction between such things as constitutions and rules, customs and directives. That was a pity, for it has now come to haunt religious women everywhere.

Objectively and juridically, the constitutions of a religious community are the basic principles on which the community is to operate: rules are the directives for implementing these principles; and, customs are generally the quasi-prescriptive norms that differ from region to region (or province to province) within a single large community.

Failure to distinguish between a fundamental principle and an easily adjustable (or dispensable) rule has caused more heartache and suffering than can be described. Personality development in the best sense of the word has often been stunted or blunted by someone’s mistaken notion that the rule of silence was more important than the law of charity.

What makes this issue so vital is that such misjudgments, to give them the kindest term, have become the occasion for calling into question the whole structure of religious life. Because of often justified reaction against abuses of authority and misuses of obsolete laws and regulations, some are now ready to throw everything overboard and to have---if possible---no rules or directives, no laws or normative prescriptive to hamper the “free spirit of the children of God.”

This reaction, though inexcusable, is at least explainable. It would also, in the normal course of time, gradually subside as people realized that you couldn’t have any society---from the Kiwanis to a corporation---without some norms and directives. A lawless society is literally anarchy, which is simply the Greek for “no law.”

But something drastically new has entered the scene, and the prospects are grave.

Speakers and writers, ostensibly Catholic, have begun to question not the existence of laws or constitutions but the Church’s right to approve or disapprove what communities had decided these constitutions or laws ought to be.

At its devastating peak, the highest authority established by Christ is challenged to prove its claim to legislate for those who allegedly were not represented at the Vatican Council. I quote from a widely circulated book on the subject of renewal, written by a religious woman:

The Council may have embraced theologically the most advanced position on cultural and intellectual development. But the Church finds herself existing in a rigid, inherited structure which is most visible in traditional religious communities. The question of urgent and profound adaptation for sisters touches off many emotional responses. Like all human products each Council document shows the amount of time, debate and rewriting that went into it. The decree on religious life renewal is not a creative document. It includes wonderful statements for future focus as well as approbation of present dead structural forms which must be gradually replaced. The section on the vows, for example, takes no note of the extensive writing and thinking that has been done on this topic over the last ten years. Worst of all, for religious women, they were in no way involved in the discussion or writing of the decree, or of the Motu Proprio which further specified it. The principle of dialogue will surely remedy this as evidenced by beginnings of such consultation of religious superiors in Rome.
Granting the structural non-existence of women in the Church as she has developed so far, all of this is understandable. But it is no reason for simply acting like domesticated pigeons who have been given their share of the conciliar grain. Too sudden docility has descended on some authoritarian types in women’s communities. Sisters are to wait with bated breath for further and more precise directives from men who usually are not religious and obviously not women. For some, canon lawyers supersede the New Testament and the insights of the sisters themselves. As a panic reaction this is an understandable situation, to be met with compassion but also with courage. [10]

You do not argue with this attitude because there is no common ground on which to answer its implications. They are not Catholic.

No one who still believes in the Church is divinely authorized to lead mankind to salvation can deny that Church the right to decide the means of sanctification. If the Vatican Council cannot validly decree on the norms of renewal in the religious life, then, to paraphrase St. Paul, “our faith is in vain and we catholics, of all people, are most to be pitied because we have stultified ourselves to follow a mirage.”

It would be convenient to say that the attitude just expressed was an isolated opinion that no one took seriously. Not only do many take it seriously, but also they have been acting on it---with consequences to community harmony and interior peace of soul that only those who know religious intimately can understand.

One of the themes we promised ourselves to explore was personality development in the religious life. In view of some of the things happening in some communities it would be more accurate to use the term personality survival in the religious life.

Communities that have been spared the turmoil created by opposing factions---one side maintaining the Church’s right to legislate and the other against this right---should thank God for the grace and allow no one, in the congregation or out of it, to stir up conflict.

There is a passage in the letter of James that is very pertinent. He is talking about the discernment of spirits, on how to distinguish between the wisdom from God and error that is not from Him. Religious today need these Jacobean norms as they perhaps never needed them before. The passage is six verses long, but every word breathes the Holy Spirit.

Who among you is wise or clever? Let his right conduct give practical proof of it, with the modesty that comes of wisdom. But if you are harboring bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, consider whether your claims are not false, and a defiance of the truth.
This is not the wisdom that comes from above; it is earthbound, sensual, and demonic. For with jealousy and ambition comes disorder and evil of every kind.
But the wisdom from above is in the first place pure; and then peace-loving, considerate and open to reason. It is straightforward and sincere, rich in mercy and in the kindly deeds that are its fruit. True justice is the harvest reaped by peacemakers from seeds sown in a spirit of peace. [11]

The application is clear enough. To identify the truth of what someone says on religious matters, ask two questions: what kind of a person is he (or she), and what effects do the person’s statements produce? If, in James’ words, he is merciful and kind; and the results of what he says are a harvest of peace---you can trust him and his ideas as coming from God. But if, as James so decisively says, he shows bitterness or jealousy or ambition, and the effect of his words is to produce disorder and evil of every sort---then this is not the wisdom that comes from above.

Revelation, Rome and Religious Life

A proper understanding of the relationship of these three things will dissolve many phases of the authority crisis we have been facing. In one simple sentence of the Second Vatican Council’s Document on the Church we have the revelation basis for the religious life. The Council states, “The evangelical counsels of chastity dedicated to God, poverty, and obedience are based upon the words and example of the Lord.” (43)

In other words, not unlike the Trinity or the Incarnation, the necessity of Baptism, and the Real Presence---when God became man, He also revealed to the world what had been hidden until then: that besides the priesthood and the sacramental state of marriage, there should be in Christianity men and women who would follow in His footsteps as celibates, as poor and obedient members of His Church---in a word, that there would be religious. The moment we say that the religious state is not something accessible to mere reason, that it had to be revealed to be even known, we also say that it calls for supernatural faith to accept it, and for the lights and strength of supernatural grace to grasp and carry it into effect.

There are many phases of the religious life that are much like other forms of dedicated communal living, but in its essence this life partakes of mystery; its inner nature and deepest recesses are fully understood by God alone. What we do know, and it is considerable, has come to us only because God, in the person of Jesus Christ, has revealed it.

With this as our basic premise, that the religious life is part of divine revelation, the next question is: to whom has Christ committed the preservation, exploration, and working out of this life? Not all Christians answer this question in the same way.

In the 16th century, when Protestant Reformation divided Christendom, it was precisely over the answer to this question that several thousand convents and monasteries were emptied of their members. The two ideas that gained acceptance were that religious life was not part of divine revelation, and secondly that if the following of Christ as previously understood by monks and nuns was indeed part of the Gospel message, it was not the hierarchical Church which had a divine right to say whether a life of the counsels was in keeping with the teachings of Christ.

Not surprisingly, all the major confessions of the Protestant religion before the middle of the 17th century positively excluded communal celibacy, poverty and obedience as even consistent with Christianity, let alone especially pleasing to God. But Catholicism, then as before and ever since, believes that since the life of the counsels belongs to God’s revelation in Christ, therefore the Church founded by Christ is alone authorized to protect this life from foreign encroachment, to clarify what this life essentially requires and stands for, and, if necessary, to legislate what conditions must be fulfilled to insure that the blessings promised to religions are actually received from God.

Over the centuries the Church has been the guardian and interpreter of such mysteries as Christ’s nature, defended at Nicea, Mary’s divine motherhood, defined at Ephesus, and the sacramental system, declared at Trent. In the same category, repeating the Church’s tradition since apostolic times belongs the teaching of Vatican II in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, relative to the religious life. Never in all its history has the Church spoken at greater length, with more lucidity, and with less ambiguity then in the latest ecumenical council, notably in the sixth chapter of Lumen Gentium, the document on the Church.

When we say that religious life belongs to revelation, that by the will of Christ only the Church has the right to determine this revelation and to decide on its meaning and implications, we also say that, within the Church it is ultimately the successor of Peter who has the responsibility for assuring that the Church’s determination and decisions are what Christ wants them to be. Any other estimate is un-Catholic in the fundamental sense of being alien to what the Roman Catholic Church has always believed and professed: that the Vicar of Christ has final judgment in matters of faith and morals, and in this case, of faith in the existence and meaning of religious life; of morals, as to how this life of the counsels should be, in fact must be, lived if it is to square with the will of God and the people of God.

Collegiality and Religious Communities

The issue so far is clear enough and, except for those who question or deny the Roman Primacy, there is no problem in principle, though there may be practical difficulties in always accepting the teachings of the Holy See. But there is another angle to the Church’s authority over religious communities that has only lately appeared above the surface. It touches on the delicate question of episcopal as distinct from papal authority.

Before the Council met, there would have been no practical reason for raising the issue and asking: Who has authority over religious communities? Obviously, we would have said, the bishops and ultimately the pope, never giving the matter another thought.

But we are living in the post-conciliar age, and a new concept has entered the Church’s vocabulary, collegiality, which has great promise for the future. It may also cause confusion in the religious life---and in religious personalities---unless properly understood and legitimately carried out.

A few years ago, this could have been an academic question. It is explosively active now. A year or two ago, the press and news media of the country were highlighting a situation that developed in an American diocese where the bishop first asked and then required that certain conciliar norms for the religious life (as he understood them) should be followed by a religious community.

The community took issue with the bishop and threatened to withdraw from the diocese unless allowed to follow its own interpretation of renewal and adaptation. Meanwhile the bishop appealed to Rome, which supported the bishop’s stand and told the sisters not to resist the ordinary of the diocese. Rome also briefly specified in what areas the community was to obey.

Our purpose here is not to go any further into the merits of this tussle between the bishop and the sisters. What prompts a close examination, however, are the sentiments which this controversy evoked in Catholic Journalistic circles.

Some were merely angry over what had happened. Said one: “The decision of the Congregation of Religious…is one of the greatest tragedies in the history of American Catholicism. It will not destroy the Church in the United States, if it is not revoked but it could easily cripple it for the next century.”

Others were more precise. Commenting on Rome’s entering the case, a prominent Catholic editor said, “The issue that is uppermost in the minds of American sisters is this….Will the Congregation of Religious continue to hold the possibility of a veto over everything we decide…or will its relationship be educational, cooperative and advisor?” His plea was consistent with the growing number who is willing to have religious communities responsible to American bishops but not to the Holy See--except to advise, counsel and cooperate with the unilateral decisions made this side of Rome.

If the issue we are about to examine seems far removed from personality fulfillment, let me say it is not. We are talking about religious whose characters are determined by what they believe. If they are torn between two loyalties of their faith, (to the bishop of their diocese and to the Holy See) the consequence can be traumatic. And I speak from experience when I say that the trauma is not imaginary.

At the heart of the matter, theologically, is the principle of collegiality, which had been implicit in the Church’s faith since apostolic times but which became fully articulated only with the Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council.

What is collegiality? What are its implications for the constitutional structure and juridical operation of religious communities? I make no claims to reading the future. But I believe the future prosperity of religious life and the personal happiness of those who live it will be as assured (or not) as all concerned understand and humbly resolve the dilemma which collegiality raises for every believing Catholic.

At the risk of seeming to give too much attention to what looks like a technicality (but is not), let me first trace the meaning of collegiality and its relation to the papal primacy, then consider some of its inherent values for the Church, and finally take a hard look at what this should mean to the practice of obedience by religious communities, not to their own superiors, but to the hierarchy and the papacy under which Christ wants them to cooperate for the up-building of His Mystical Body.

Meaning of Collegiality

Until recent years, the term “collegiality” was rarely used. It was generally subsumed under the concept of “hierarch” to describe a variety of episcopal activities whenever the bishops worked together as a community.

We already see the Apostles convening at Jerusalem to settle the thorny problem of whether Christian converts had to follow the Jewish Laws.

The history of the early Church is a series of similar cooperative actions by the successors of the Apostles. By the end of the first century, there were about one hundred Christian communities with episcopoi who periodically met together on a regular basis. As the Church expanded, so did the number and frequency of their meetings. We know that whenever matters of greater import were discussed and major decisions were made, the Bishop of Rome was consulted and his judgment was crucial. Thus the problem about the date of Easter in Asia Minor, the rebaptism controversy in North Africa and the threat of Gnosticism---all involved collective episcopal action coordinated with deference to Rome as final arbiter.

With the Council of Nicea in 325, this collective activity reached worldwide proportion. The very name, ecumenical council, describes the two elements that have since become intrinsic to the idea of collegiality: a council because the bishops met for united action, and ecumenical because their meeting represented the whole Christian world.

The first form of collegiality, therefore, may be called geographical. The bishops of a given territory, or, on rare occasion, of all Christendom collaborate and reach a joint conclusion that affects all the faithful under their jurisdiction.

Another form is not geographic but temporal. Again a number of bishops enter into common deliberation and decide on a common policy but without actually meeting in one place or even as representing a certain regional area. Written correspondence between bishops goes back to St. Paul, whose epistles can best be understood as a practical means of securing or maintaining cooperation among the Churches in the apostolic age.

A third kind of collegiality is not directly between bishops but between the head of an episcopal see and the bishop of Rome. To coin a phrase, this is “centripetal collegiality,” i.e., a bishop deals immediately with the pope and thus indirectly with his fellow-bishops who are doing the same.

The foregoing modes of collegiality may cut across the whole gamut of ecclesiastical life---whether doctrinal, sacramental, or moral and juridical. But there is one type of communal action that is distinctive. From ancient times, we know, several bishops were asked to participate in the election and consecration of a new member of the episcopate. This exercise of collegiality is liturgical and goes back to the choice of Matthias in the Acts of the Apostles and his consecration into the apostolic college.

One final type of collegiality is a permanent institution in the Church. It is local and has been in operation since the rise of what are now called metropolitan areas, in which one prelate, e.g., a patriarch or archbishop, coordinates the work of his suffrages who are more or less subordinate to him.

Against this historical background we see that collegiality is as old as the Church. Taken comprehensively it is the community of the Church’s episcopate, living and acting in consort with each other and with the bishop of Rome as successors of the Apostles and visible representatives of Christ in the Christian world.

Relation to the Primacy

With the rise of the Modern State, the concept of collegiality took on a new dimension that was only implicit in former times. There has always been a built-in tension between the rights of bishops and rights of Rome. Already in Jerusalem Paul withstood Peter to his face when he felt that Cephas lacked the courage of his convictions and seemed to say one thing and do another. Over the centuries the dialectic has not changed. Stephen and Cyprian, Nestorius and Celestine, Nicholas and Photius are examples of how difficult it has always been to reconcile the two authorities in the Church: episcopal on the local level and papal for all the people of God.

As the nations of Europe and Afro-Asia became divided and nationalism took root in political life, the normal tension was aggravated. It is, in fact, the one fact of history most responsible for the divisions in Christianity that have since become crystallized into churches that rival and challenge the authority of Rome. It is no coincidence that Eastern Orthodoxy has been identified for nine hundred years with Eastern political power; nor that Lutheranism has been the state religion of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and until recently, large sections of Germany; nor that England should have developed its own form of Protestantism which is still called Anglicanism.

When the question of collegiality was discussed at the Council of Trent, the issue was shelved mainly because of this spirit of nationalism which threatened the solidarity of a united supranational Catholicism.

By the time of the Second Vatican Council a new ethos had entered political and religious thought. The stress now was on internationalism and, consequently, the dangers inherent in an uninhibited collegiality were considered minimal. In plain words, it was felt there was not the same risk of national churches sprouting into existence wherever the national pride was unwilling to take orders from an alien Rome. So collegiality became a part of the Council’s Constitution on the Church and promises to be its single most significant contribution to the cause of religion in modern times.

Yet just because of the great potential for good which collegiality implies, it has to be seen in relation to the primacy, without which it cannot be conceived. The bishops who worked on drafting the document recall that no question was more on their minds than this: how to express their faith in the episcopal community without infringing on the rights of papal authority. By actual count the Roman primacy is explicitly mentioned thirty-three times in the single chapter on the episcopate, and ten times in one paragraph where collegiality is described.

Not satisfied with the precaution, the Constitution is unique in having an appendix officially added “under higher authority” to clarify the delicate relationship of the episcopal college to the Holy See.

What is this relationship? First of all it is not a mere juridical dependence on the bishop of Rome, and still less, an authoritarian tyranny that Rome holds over the bishops. It is a relationship created by Christ Himself and therefore independent of the whims of man.

When the bishop is consecrated he receives, in virtue of the consecration, the fullness of the sacrament of orders. He receives that fullness of power which is called the high priesthood. But consecration alone does not make him a member of that community which succeeds the Apostles. He must also be received as confrere by the other members of the Catholic episcopate. While his consecration makes him bishop, it must be supplemented with acceptance by the episcopate under its head to incorporate him into the episcopal college. Of course, he must also intend to accept his fellow bishops under the pope.

A careful distinction should be made among the three powers inherent in the Catholic episcopate. The first is the power of administering the sacraments, including the consecration of other men as bishops. The second is the office of teaching authoritatively and sharing in the Church’s divine guidance of communicating revealed truth. The third is the right to govern and direct the people of God according to norms of conduct which are binding on the consciences of the faithful.

The first of these three prerogatives comes to a bishop in virtue of his consecration. It is intrinsic to him as a man who has received the fullness of Christ’s priesthood. He should not exercise these powers except with the approval of the bishop of Rome. But if he does, he acts validly and the sacraments he confers (including the episcopal consecration) take their effect ex opera operato.

It is quite otherwise as regards teaching authority and pastoral government. Certainly they are rooted in the sacramental consecration of a bishop, but this consecration confers only the virtual capacity, not its actual realization.

At this crucial point the explanatory note added to the Constitution on the Church is mot relevant:

In consecration is given an ontological participation in sacred functions, as is clear beyond doubt from tradition, even liturgical. The word functions is deliberately employed, rather than powers, since this latter word could be understood as ready to go into action. But for such ready power to be had, it needs canonical or juridical determination by hierarchical authority. [12]

The passage in the Constitution which this note clarifies, says that episcopal consecration does indeed confer the fullness of priestly orders which includes “the office of teaching and of governing.” But this office “of its very nature, can be exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head and the members of the college.” [13]

The Latin text speaks of munera for “functions” and potestates for “power.” This is equivalent to saying that episcopal consecration gives a man the objective (ontological) ability to teach and govern with divine authority in the Catholic Church. However, unless this munus is actuated by hierarchical authority under the pope, it lacks the subjective (existential) determination for being put into effect.

It is immediately seen, therefore, that episcopal collegiality becomes operative only if a bishop (or a group of bishops) is in actual communion with Rome and the rest of the hierarchy united with the pope. In terms of what has been said above, this is centripetal collegiality. Without it any other collegial action has no assurance of divine approval, no matter how many prelates may agree among themselves on a course of action independent of Rome and the bishops in obedience to the Holy See.

There is an obverse side to this relationship between collegiality and the primacy. Bishops depend on Rome for the actualization of their authority, whether acting as individuals with respect to the people under their immediate care or as a college with responsibility to the whole Church of God. It is not so with the pope. Nothing that the Second Vatican Council says about collegiality undermines what the First Vatican Council said about the primacy.

On the other hand, “The college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head (Collegium autem seu corpus Episcoporum auctoritatem non habet, nisi simul cum Pontifice Romano, successore Petri, ut capite eius intellegatur).” In other words, the Vicar of Christ determines whether and how much authority the bishops actually exercise.

On the other hand the pope is not determined by a corresponding approval from the bishops.

The pope’s power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power.” [14]

If this language from Second Vatican sounds familiar, it should, because it recapitulates what First Vatican had said.

Now the question: has the Church changed its mind on the primacy since collegiality has come to the fore? No, there has been a development but no break with Christian tradition. No doubt the contemporary emphasis on the episcopal community brings out facets of the Church’s nature that were more latent before. But the idea of primacy already presupposes a college or body within which and over which the primate rules. When First Vatican defined papal primacy it by no means excluded episcopal collegiality. Quite the contrary:

This power of the Supreme Pontiff is far from standing in the way of the power of ordinary and immediate episcopal jurisdiction by which the bishops who, under appointment of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 20:28), succeeded in the place of the Apostles, feed and rule individually, as true shepherds, the particular flock assigned to them. [15]

Much has happened in the past century to call for an explication of the bishops’ role as shepherds of the flock committed to their care. The development of easy communication between people and nations has reduced the need for detailed directives from Rome to the bishops of the Church. Correspondingly the growth of Catholic population, from 100,000,000 in 1900 to almost 600,000,000 in 1960, makes it impossible to consult Rome or depend on its guidance except in the more serious and pressing issues affecting the people of God. We might say that collegiality implies in its essence the Roman primacy, and without it is only Episcopalianism in disguise. Conversely the primacy implies collegiality and, lack of it, in today’s world, would mean incompetence and a presumption on divine providence.

Values of Collegiality

Unfortunately so much attention has been paid to clarifying terms that the concepts behind them may be overlooked. New words create new difficulties, and collegiality is no exception. It has to be explained at the risk of either diluting its meaning or having it get mixed up with other ideas. An added problem was created by those who honestly, but wrongly, supposed that collegiality meant the end of papal primacy or, at least, its slow decline. What was said above should help to set the record straight.

Properly understood collegiality is neither complex nor controversial. In operation in the Church since the First Pentecost, it has been the mainstay of the Church’s solidarity and the main reason, under God, why Catholicism is still the mother of nations in a world divided against itself.

Collegiality is not a juridical construct. It is another name for the governance in the Church by those who are bidden to rule the faithful as a community of charity. The Church, no less than families, is a hierarchy of love. In every society there are those who direct and others who are directed, those who rule and those to be ruled. In the degree to which a society is founded on divine principles, to that extent it is sound and its prosperous existence is assured. Among these principles, none stands higher than the law of charity in which those called superiors love those whom they call their subjects, and in which their love is returned.

It was no coincidence that when Christ was founding His Church He insisted on the spirit of charity that was to pervade His society. He told the Apostles they were not to behave as rulers in the secular world, lording over those under their care. Conferring the primacy on Peter, He asked Simon if he loved his Master and then in three dramatic statements told him to feed the lambs and the sheep. The whole tone of Christ’s commission to the Apostles and their successors was that of generous, self-sacrificing love for the sheep entrusted to their care. If necessary, they should be willing to die for the flock.

What has happened? In the minds of some, the Church has become legalized, institutionalized and so structure-laden that nothing but radical surgery can cure the disease. Part of the surgery, it is intimated, is to uproot the laws and institutions and, if possible, completely change the structure. For those who think this way, collegiality is an evolutionary myth and suggests a Church in the future which was simply unknown in the past.

Actually collegiality is the very link which binds the Church today with that of Peter and Augustine and Aquinas. It is also the only sure bond which promises that the Church of the future will still be the Church of Christ. For it is the love that Christ had for His Apostles and they for Him which set the pattern for that collegial love those bishops have for the Vicar of Christ and that he has for them. Similarly Christ’s love for the people is a pattern of the bishops’ love for the faithful, which Christ, no less than bishops, wants to have reciprocated. This mutual charity is at the root of collegiality. It has nothing to do with setting bishops over the pope or of people over their shepherds. It recognizes that all society is made up of different people, notably those in authority and those under it. Yet the very prepositions “in” and “under” are misleading. They do not imply in any society (and certainly not in the Church) that some dominate and others are enslaved, or that some seek to control and others chafe under constraint. They mean that the Church, more than other societies, demands of those who rule to be bound together (colligari) by a mutual love among themselves and with those whom they direct in the ways of God.

There is something remarkably new about episcopal collegiality that the Second Vatican Council bought to the surface in modern times. This is the realization that bishops are not lackeys of the pope, nor are they mere delegates of the people. As successors of the Apostles, they share in the chrisms of the Apostles. Certainly the situation today is not the same as in the days of Peter and Paul. But the office which the bishops hold is essentially the same as that of the Apostles. If the Church in the first century called for initiative and enterprise, it calls for the same today. If the needs of the first century were met by apostolic gifts of wisdom and courage, then similar needs are to be met by corresponding gifts in the successors of the Apostles now.

Collegiality offers the promise of bishops rising to the stature which their office expects of them. Just because they are bishops, they have received at consecration all the graces which the present trying times demand. After all, it is one thing for a person to have received a title to God’s grace, and something else for him to realize what he has. In my judgment nothing is more desperately needed in the Church today than bishops who understand what they have received from God. In terms of collegiality, it is the sum-total of all the divine assistance they need to direct God’s people as a living community. This means especially the knowledge and desire to foster unity around them with other bishops, below them with the faithful under their charge, between them and those whom they govern in Christ’s name, and above them with the one divinely appointed to unify the Church of God.

Collegiality pertains not only to bishops, nor only to the pope as their head, but to all members of the Church. What binds the faithful together is basically the same Spirit that unites the bishops among themselves. If collegiality is more commonly applied to the episcopate, that is only because the term is still novel and its full implications are only vaguely surmised.

Collegiality pertains to the whole Church. Indeed, unless it is put into practice by others as well as bishops, the latter will find it hard to exercise what people have not learned from experience is at the heart of Catholic Christianity. Authority is only a word unless someone obeys, and directing people in the ways of God is possible only if this direction is accepted as coming from God. Some would call this passive collegiality. I prefer to think of it as the subjective response to Christ’s objective will for His followers, “that they all may be one” because they are unified in a common faith and common allegiance to those who guide the Church in His name.

What this Means to Religious

It should plain by now what this means to religious, superiors and members, and how crucially relevant is their sound grasp of collegiality and response to its meaning.

They can take one to two stands---and how much depends on where they stand! They can either play one authority against the other, episcopal versus papal (or vice versa), according to which is more pliant to their wishes. Or they can wisely refuse to be caught between the two loyalties, remain steadfast in both and all the while recognize that Rome is the final arbiter in everything that pertains to the ways of God.

No bishop or group of bishops are assured divine light to know what the religious life is, or divine authorization to govern men and women in the religious life except insofar as they are in agreement with the See of Peter. The Bishop of Rome is normative for them, not they for him. Any other interpretation of the religious life is built on sand, as the past five-year’s experience has already shown.

Religious men and women have a noble task set before them by Providence in the near future. It is to help bishops initiate and maintain works of Christian charity, to cooperate to the limit of their resources in the two great apostolates in America that are mainly in the hands of religious---schools and hospitals---and to resist as a temptation any attempt by anyone, under any pretext, to drive a wedge between the Vicar of Christ and the successors of the Apostles.

There is nothing that religious want more today than peace of mind---the peace that comes to one who knows he (or she) is doing the will of God.

This peace is not easily come by and takes more effort than most of us have so far been willing to make. The effort here is to be simultaneously loyal to two authorities in the Church, both founded by Christ, both exercised by human beings.

The greatest hope for religious communities rests with those who do not choose between the two but struggle to remain loyal to both. If this is done, collegiality will become what Christ wants it to be---a powerful means of coordinating His Church where coordination most counts, inside the mind and heart of those who believe.


Chapter 4: Constitutions, Rules, and Customs

  1. Rules of the Society of Jesus, p. 5.

  2. Ibid., pp. 5-6.

  3. Ibid., p. 6.

  4. Ibid., pp. 7-8.

  5. Ibid., pp. 9-10.

  6. Ibid., p. 10.

  7. Ibid., p. 11.

  8. Ibid., p. 17.

  9. Ibid., pp. 17-18.

  10. Sister Charles Borromeo Muckenhirm, The Implications of Renewal, (Notre Dame, Ind.: Fides Press, 1967), p. 278.

  11. James 3:13-18.

  12. Addenda to Lumen Gentium (Abbott translation, p. 99).

  13. Constitution on the Church, 21.

  14. Ibid., 22.

  15. The Church Teaches, (St. Louis: Herder Book Co., 1955), #208, p. 98.

Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica

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