Saturday, September 29, 2007

Provincial Chapter, Part 1

I have returned recently from participation in my first Provincial Chapter as superior. For several years, I have wondered if Benedictine values would not be of some assistance in a reassessment of ecclesiology, as re-envisioned by Vatican II, with its emphasis on subsidiarity and participation of the laity. I was surprised to have my intuition corroborated by a remark coming from Abbot Leo Ryska, former abbot of Benet Lake in Wisconsin, who basically asked the same question.

What do I mean by this? Beginning with the reforms of Charlemagne and St. Benedict of Aniane (late 8th century), the monasteries of Europe began to be more and more consolidated under one supreme authority. Before that, monasteries more or less had independent existences. St. Benedict of Nursia, in his Rule, envisions monasteries over far-flung areas, but they seem to be more under the supervision of the local bishop and even the local church in general, at least in the case that an abbot becomes unequal to his task when internal disputes are harming the community. There is no recourse to Rome or to a superior-general of some kind to intervene. However, with Charlemagne's push for stability and uniformity in church discipline throughout his short-lived empire, monasteries began to be more dependent on one another, more accountable to one another.

There is much good in such an arrangement. Monasteries can profit a great deal from healthy fraternal bonds with other houses, as I have repeatedly found. However, with the advent of the gigantic community of Cluny in the 10th century, healthy fraternal relations gave way to dependency (here I mean this in the canonical sense and not the psychological). More and more houses looked to be dependent on the 'mother house', and the abbot of Cluny became the abbot of the whole congregation, which begins to resemble more and more an 'order' in the sense we understand it in the modern world.

Citeaux, founding house of the Cistercians, took this to a new level, instituting 'visitations' in which monks from the mother house would have the authority to implement decisions in a foundation house. Now again, I mean no particular criticism in simply recounting this history. There were very good reasons for this move toward centralization. However, in the Rule of St. Benedict, it is clear that the local abbot is meant to have final authority in community, with the consultation of the local chapter (that is, the monks in the community who have made vows). Centralization weakens the local abbot and kicks authority farther and farther up the scale and away from the local situation. It is noteworthy that these developments are parallel with the centralizing forces that gave rise to the super-power papacy of the 12th century. Innocent III is usually cited as being the supreme example of this sort of governance.

It is in the twelfth century that the true 'religious orders' are born, with the arrival of St. Francis and St. Dominic. Rome had by this time concentrated the authority to grant to individual movements the faculty of starting a new style of religious life. When St. Francis first went to Rome to ask permission to found an order, he was more or less told to join the Benedictines or the Cistercians. He explained that what he was looking for was the permission to preach outside the monastery, saying that the monks were already taking care of the important work of the Divine Office; now we needed activism in the burgeoning cities of Europe. So the idea of apostolic orders was born.

The Jesuits represent in some ways the height of this development, with an all-powerful Superior General in Rome, with direct jurisdiction over any member of the Society anywhere int he world at any time. True, he delegates this authority in most instances, but in theory and not infrequently in fact, the head of the Jesuits could act directly when he chose to (I put this in the past tense because the situation today, which canonically more or less the same, has been deeply affected by modern currents of subsidiarity).

The Benedictines during this development were pushed more and more into the background, but had throughout the benefit of a Rule written hundreds of years before the ideas of centralization had any meaning whatsoever. After the plundering of the monasteries during the Reformation and then during the French Revolution, slowly the Benedictines started to make a comeback. Always very close to the ressourcement movement because of the injunction of the Rule to read the approved Catholic Fathers, and also very involved in the liturgical movement because of the circumscribed position of priests in the Rule of St. Benedict, black Benedictines began to raise important questions about the structure of the order (since Leo XIII, we have had to become an actual Order of St. Benedict, even though we generally resist the name, as I will explain) which in turn raised questions about what was seen to be the clericalization and over-centralization of the Church itself. While the Church has officially addressed these questions in the documents of Vatican II, especially in Lumen Gentium, implementing them has been a different story.

This is not surprise. When I try to explain the structure of the 'Benedictine Order', people tend to look at me funny. The arrangement could almost be seen to be that the higher up you get in the hierarchy of the Benedictines, the less authority you actually have. So over the entire 'Confederation' (our preferred name, rather than 'Order'), we have an Abbot Primate, Notker Wolf of St. Ottilien's in Germany, who has almost no authority, save for moral authority. He is the rector of our school in Rome, but beside that, his main duty is to provide for fraternal relations between houses, which he does quite well, I should add.

Below this global Confederation are the individual 'Congregations', which are usually national in origin. In the United States, we have two large Congregations reflecting not only an American identity, but a German and a Swiss inheritance. These are the American Cassinese and Swiss American Congregations. The Congregation to which my house belongs throws a wrench into this neat set-up. The Subiaco Congregation began as an Italian reform movement, but quickly became international.

In any case, in most Congregations, the ruling authority is not an abbot but the General Chapter. This is usually an assembly of abbots and delegates who are non-superiors (in theory, the lowest ranking monk in a monastery could be elected a delegate). However, the authority they have is again highly circumscribed by the Constitutions of each Congregation. These Constitutions generally aim at keeping the authority of the local abbot primary in his own community, but resolving questions of houses working together or serious problems of discipline in an individual community. The General Chapter can only meet every so often, and so itself is not an effective governing body for the crises that do occur, and so it elects an Abbot President to act in its stead--usually only provisionally until the next Chapter meeting.

Our Congregation is large enough (about 60 houses worldwide), that we are divided into nine Provinces. The structure of the Province parallels that of the Congregation as a whole, being ruled primarily by the Provincial Chapter, which elects an 'Abbot Visitor' to act in its stead when not in session. When therefore, I write that I have just returned from Provincial Chapter, this means that the highest authority in our English Province has just been convoked. Most matters we were able to settle to what seemed to be the satisfaction of all the local superiors. In one instance, there is a serious question of the interpretation of our Constitutions, that can only be solved at the higher level of the General Chapter, which will meet next September.

However important that all sounds, being home now I can say that what was decided at the Chapter has little or no immediate effect on our house. Here, our own local chapter and the Prior have the authority day-to-day.

In the Church today, we have moved a far distance from the regal papacy of Innocent III, but there is still a certain amount of fear that either a lack of a strong papacy will cause degeneracy at the local level (hence the loud complaints about local bishops when people don't like what they say) or that the papacy and indeed the hierarchy in toto is too controlling and centralized to respond to the need for action 'on the ground'. In between a full monarchy and a full democracy is the possibility of subsidiarity. This arrangement requires real trust, brotherly openness and finally faith in the Holy Spirit's guidance. This takes courage and patience. Where it will all end up is the Lord's call, but again, I propose that the structure of the Benedictine Confederation be examined. Personally, I think it works very well at all levels, but perhaps it does so precisely because each individual monk is striving to be imbued with the spirit of the Holy Rule, Holy Scripture, the Liturgy and the Fathers in such a way that we can assume a commonality of aims and likeness of worldview (a generally broad worldview, I think). Would something like this be possible for the Church as a whole?

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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