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The Relation of Religious to Their Bishops.

Westminster, Maryland: Order of the Holy Cross, no date.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, 2009


[From time to time circumstances or discussions have called up the question as to what relation exists between a Religious Community and the Bishop of the diocese in which the Mother House of the Community is situated or in which such a Community is working. There is a widespread impression that the relation is a very close one; that, according to the mind of the Church and the purpose of our Blessed Lord, the members of a Religious Community, whether in Holy Orders or not, should be directly subject to the Bishop's authority and should be directed by him to a far greater extent than either parish priests or ordinary lay-people. So far as this impression indicates a deep reverence for the office of a Bishop it should be a cause of joy. But it still [1/2] remains to inquire whether, since authority and responsibility must go together, the Church has made the Bishop of the diocese responsible for all the Religious Communities within his jurisdiction; whether, in joining together in such organizations, priests or lay-people become part of the regular ministry of the Church under the control of the Bishop, or whether, on the other hand, the very character of Religious Communities does not imply a certain free and voluntary association, with independent initiative and the ability to make experiments without compromising the Church in case of failure.

This question was very fully discussed some five years ago in the Society of St. John the Evangelist, at a meeting of the professed Fathers at the Mother House, Cowley, Oxford, England. At this time a paper, prepared by Fr. Puller, S.S.J.E. was read. It was printed, privately, a year ago for circulation at the Lambeth Conference; it is now, through, the kindness of the Fr. General, S.S.J.E., and of Fr. Puller, given to the public, through the columns of our magazine, some portions referring to the interests of the [2/3] Society of St. John the Evangelist being omitted. As the question of the relation of Religious to their Bishops will probably come up at the meeting of the General Convention of the Church in this land at Washington City next autumn, we ask our readers to read Fr. Puller's article with careful attention.]


In the earliest stage of the Dedicated Life, when the ascetics, whether male or female, took vows of celibacy and lived a very severe life of abnegation, but did not retire into deserts or into monastic and cenobitic Communities, "the greatest freedom," as Duchesne [ Origines du Culte Chretien, pp. 406, 407] says, "presided over their entry into the virginal estate. No ceremony consecrated its beginning."

Later on these dedicated persons were ranked next to the clergy and above the rest of the laity; they were given a special place of honour in the assemblies of the Church for worship, and special mention was made of them in the prayers. Receiving thus from the Church special honours and privileges, it is no subject [3/4] for wonder that they came into closer relations with the Bishops, at least to this extent, that a virgin if she was to be recognised publicly as such, had to be veiled by the Bishop or by his deputy. There was no similar ceremony for men. Their primitive freedom seems to have continued.

Of course the primitive ascetics were in no way exempted from the ordinary control of the Bishops. If they were lay people they shared with other lay persons the ordinary subjection of a layman to his Bishop. If they were clergymen they shared with other clergymen the subjection of a clergyman to his Bishop. But the fact of their being dedicated to the celibate and ascetic life brought them into no fresh relation to the Bishop.

I do not think that there is the least evidence that monastic Communities, when they began to grow up, were in any special way subject to the Bishop. The members of them were individually subject, whether as clergymen or laymen. Probably, however, the tendency at first was not to greater subjection, but to a claim of greater freedom. St. Epiphanius seems to have [4/5] thought that he was at liberty to ordain St. Jerome's brother, Paulinianus, although he held the ordination outside of his own diocese, because he did it in a monastery. He seems to imply that a monastery was an exempt place. Whether his view of the case was correct or not, it shows the tendency of the time. To me it would seem that any such claim to exemption from the Bishop's ordinary authority is to be entirely deprecated. Religious as such ought to claim no exemption, and ought also to be burdened with no disabilities. However, the tendency to claim exemption from the Bishop's ordinary authority must be emphasized, in order that we may understand aright the 4th Canon of the Council of Chalcedon, which decreed that "the monks in every city or place shall be subject to the Bishop." I do not think that there is the least proof that this Canon gave any authority to the Bishop to interfere in the internal arrangements of the monastic houses. It seems to me to be an assertion of his ordinary authority over the monks. Dr. Bright says that "this Canon was directed against irregular and anarchical tendencies which [5/6] had shown themselves among the monks of the East, and had produced results at once scandalous and tragical during the recent Eutychian controversy." The Canon was not proposed either by the Bishops or by the monks; it was "proposed by the Emperor in person," for the Bishops' consideration. The Emperor no doubt had in view the interests of public order, not the internal discipline of the Religious Communities.

However, if the "subjection" decreed by the Chalcedonian Canon, really gave to the Bishops a jurisdiction within the monasteries, it was something perfectly new, and the arrangement made by the Canon was not accepted in the West. Neither in East or West was any inherent right of the Bishops to interfere in things pertaining to the Religious life recognised. If such a right was created by the Chalcedonian Canon, which I very much doubt, it was a new right resting on positive legislation, and that positive legislation was limited in its scope to the East. Most of the Chalcedonian disciplinary legislation was limited in its scope to the East. Several of the canons, e.g. the [6/7] 9th, would have had no meaning in the West.


Let us turn now to the West, and begin with Gaul. St. Martin of Tours was the first great propagator of monasticism in Gaul. St. Martin was himself a Bishop. He combined the two offices of Bishop and Abbot, so that it is not easy to discover what in his view was the exact relation of the Bishop qua Bishop to the monastic Community. There is proof, however, that in 674 the Bishop of Tours had no authority in the basilica and monastery of St. Martin of Tours, except only the ordination of priests and deacons and the providing of chrism. [ Mabillon, Ann. Ben. i. 523.] However, that was 300 years after the time of St. Martin, and does not count for much.

The next great monastic centre in Gaul was Lerins, founded about A.D. 405, by St. Honoratus. The custom at Lerins was that the monks qua monks should be subject to their Abbot, but that such monks as were clergymen were subject to the Bishop of Frejus, the Diocesan, as regards their clerical ministrations. [7/8] St. Leontius was Bishop of Frejus at that time. About 50 years after the foundation of the monastery, the then Bishop of Frejus began to claim the right to meddle with the internal concerns of the monastery. A council of the Bishops of Southern Gaul was held at Arles, in 455 or 456, a few years later than the Council of Chalcedon, and they decided that their brother-Bishop was quite wrong, and that he could only claim to control the clerical ministrations of the clerical monks. Mabillon [ Annal. Bened. i. 18.] says:--"This is that celebrated decree of Arles, which provided the model for the subsequent privileges of monasteries."

The principle which underlay the decree of Arles was also acted on in North Africa. Many of the monasteries there claimed and exercised the right to choose their own episcopal visitor. A certain Bishop, Liberatus, attempted to invade the freedom of one of the monasteries in his diocese. The Abbot appealed to the plenary council of the North African Church, assembled under the presidency of Boniface of Carthage, in A.D. 525. The [8/9] council formulated its decision as follows, in general terms, which applied to all the North African monasteries:--"All the monasteries shall be in the future, as they always have been in the past, altogether and in every way free from the subject condition of clerics, yielding obedience only to themselves and to God" (sibi tantum et Deo placentia).

Ten years afterwards this decision was confirmed by another plenary council of North Africa, assembled at Carthage under the presidency of Boniface's successor, Reparatus, in A.D. 535. The wording of the decision is most important. It will be found in Coleti, v. 931, 932. The right to ordain monastic clerics and to consecrate the monastic oratories is reserved to the diocesan Bishop; but apart from these two reserved rights, the monasteries are to enjoy ''libertate plenissima." The Bishop is forbidden to make any appointment "quamvis levissimam" in the monasteries of his diocese, excepting only the ordination of clerics, if the monks wish to have some; "for," as the council says, "the monks ought to be in the power of their Abbots." "And when the [9/10] Abbots themselves die, let their successors be elected by the judgment of the Community, and let not the Bishop claim or take to himself the right of making this election."

It is very important to notice that all these decisions, whether in Gaul or Africa were made by Bishops, and the North African Bishops were quite alive to the importance of upholding the dignity of the episcopate, and of claiming their full rights; but they knew that historically the monasteries had always in times past been free, and they found by experience the ill effects of allowing the Bishops to meddle in matters which concerned the Religious life of the Communities.

Dom Mabillon, after explaining the decrees of these two Carthaginian councils, says: "It seemed desirable to relate these things at length on account of the importance of the matter, because they throw light on the monastic privileges of subsequent times, which relied on the decree of the former of these two Carthaginian Councils as their authority and their model. And in truth the authority of that Council is of the weightiest kind; [10/11] first because it was a general Council of all Africa; and secondly because it was composed of Bishops, who were for the most part very holy persons, who had endured dire persecutions from Trasamund (the Arian King of the Vandals). We may gather from all this that at that time it was the custom in Africa, as it was also the custom which very largely prevailed throughout the East, that monasteries, in whatever diocese or province they might be founded, were in immediate subjection to him to whom their founders wished to subject them. . . . There is no safer, there is no more undoubted foundation of privilege, says the very learned Thomassinus, than the will of founders, who are free to give their possessions and themselves to whomsoever they will. [ Annal. Bened. i. 44.]

Of course founders could not act in that way if the diocesan Bishop had an inherent right to be the visitor of the monastic bodies within his diocese. But Mabillon evidently knew of no such inherent right, and "the very learned Thomassinus" was equally ignorant. I suppose that in [11/12] questions of this kind it would be difficult to name any authority who would not have to give way before the authority of Mabillon.


It follows from all this that members of the Religious Communities in a diocese are subject to the Bishop, whether as laymen or as clergymen; their Religious profession does not exempt them from the Bishop's inherent jurisdiction, but neither does it add to that jurisdiction. If the Bishop is to acquire visitatorial jurisdiction, it must be by the free grant of the Religious, either given once for all or given each time by election. I am assuming that Convocation does not pass any Canon subjecting Religious houses to the visitatorial jurisdiction of the Bishop. Of course, if it should do so, the state of things would be altered. But I contend that, as things are, our present constitution goes on strictly Catholic lines. We are, of course, at liberty, if we like, to make a grant of visitatorial jurisdiction to the Bishop of the diocese, but we are not at liberty, as it seems to me, [12/13] to recognise an inherent visitatorial jurisdiction in him.


I have not referred to the later middle ages, because from the time of Charlemagne onwards, the whole state of things was so utterly unlike our present condition. Charlemagne welded the Church and the monastic institute and the State into one compact system, in which the coactive temporal jurisdiction of the State and the spiritual jurisdiction of the Church and the internal Religious jurisdiction of the monastic Superiors were all combined and inextricably interlaced. According to his system the Abbots were to be subject to the Bishops, and the Bishops were to be subject to the emperor. When once the strong hand of the State had meddled with the business, it was natural that the monks should look out for some powerful protector, and such a protector they found in the growing power of the Popes. The monks now sought to obtain exemptions from the Popes, whereas in the earlier days they claimed their freedom as their own inherent right. The Popes were quite willing to intervene. [13/14] Nothing could have furthered their own policy better. They gladly granted exemptions for a consideration. They gave as a papal favour what the monks might canonically have claimed as a right; but the Popes reserved to the Roman see that visitatorial jurisdiction, which they were taking away from the Bishops. Ultimately in the year 1215 Innocent III. went the length of prohibiting the erection of any new Religious Order without the consent of the Pope. It is on this perfectly novel decree that the present discipline in the Roman Communion rests. New Religious Orders must be approved at Rome, not because there is any inherent necessity for Religious Orders to have ecclesiastical approval, but because by a papal law of the year 1215, the old freedom was taken away. I am in no way criticising Innocent's action. In the general muddle of Church and State and monasticism, which then prevailed, it may have been a wise law. It certainly does not bind us in England now. It was not a law in favour of the Bishops; it was a papal law in favour of the Popes.

In the earlier ages the freedom of [14/15] the monks in regard to their own Religious life and obedience combined with subjection to rightful episcopal authority was not the outcome of crude and irregular methods; it was the rightful inheritance of the monks, confirmed to them over and over again by the episcopate of the Churches of Africa and Gaul. In Ireland and Scotland things went to the other extreme, and there the Bishops were wholly subject to the Abbots. I in no way approve of that arrangement. The Gallican and African way was the well-tempered mean, which secured for each side their rights.


To say that Religious obedience cannot be rightly paid to a Religious Superior, unless the Community has been specially authorised by the Church, and unless ecclesiastical authority has been specially delegated to the Superior, appears to me to be a position fundamentally subversive of the Religious life and absolutely unhistorical. It would mean that the Religious life, when it was in its prime and in its glory, when it was subduing Europe [15/16] to Christ, and handing down the torch of religion and learning, was based upon a fundamental mistake, and that it was only in the 13th century, when the glory was waning, that any true jurisdiction was possessed by the monastic Superiors. The Church does not possess Religious jurisdiction. An ecumenical council cannot create Religious jurisdiction. That can only come from the free donation of the Religious, who have themselves been called by Christ to the life of obedience. That is the core of the matter. The Church may clothe the Abbot with additional ecclesiastical powers, but his essentially Religious authority it cannot give to him, because it does not possess it. "Nemo dat quod non habet."

Suarez in his discussions on the Religious state is dealing with the modern Roman system, in which the Religious, and the ecclesiastical authority, and in some countries the coactive authority of the temporal power, are very much mixed up together. Yet even Suarez distinguishes carefully the core of the matter from its adventitious clothing. He says [ Humphrey's Digest, i. 17.]--"The [16/17] dominative . . . . power which exists in the Abbot, prior, or other immediate Superior, is, without any other proper spiritual jurisdiction, sufficient to constitute a true Religious state." On the previous page he had defined this "dominative power" thus:--"By dominative power is to be understood a right which has been acquired by the Religious body and its prelates to rule the Religious and to avail themselves of their labours as they may judge fitting. This power does not belong to the keys, nor does it descend from Christ by a special donation made to His Church, but springs radically from the will of those who profess the Rule, and who give themselves to the Religious body with a promise and obligation of obedience according to Rule. This power is therefore distinct from that of the keys, and consequently is distinct from jurisdiction properly so called." Further on Suarez says:--"In virtue of this paternal spiritual power, derived from voluntary compact, along with accepted delivery of themselves, and confirmed by the vow of obedience, a Religious prelate possesses, apart from proper jurisdiction, power to prescribe to [17/18] his subjects, to coerce them and to punish them with a moderate and regulated punishment, such as should suffice in order to the ordinary ruling of a family."

As I have already pointed out, since the year 1215 no Religious Order can exist as a Religious Order in the Roman Communion unless it has been formally approved. Before that time such approval was not needed, and even since that time people may take the three vows and may unite together to form a body bound by the three vows, only they have no claim to be recognized by the Roman Church as being technically Religious, and as inheriting the special exemptions and privileges, which by positive law have been annexed to the estate of those who are recognised as being technically Religious.

Suarez [ i. 204.] says:--"According to the present law and usage of the [Roman] Church there cannot be a true Religious state save in a Religious body which has been approved by the Church." But he also says: [ ii. 4.]--"Although a special approbation of the Church is necessary in order to the [18/19] Religious state, strictly and properly so called, yet it is not necessary for every mode of life which in some manner partakes of the nature of that state or imitates it. He who vows obedience delivers and subjects himself to another whom he thereby constitutes his Superior; and thus obedience becomes possible. It is not necessary for this that a Superior so constituted should have power derived to him from the Church, because it is not by power of jurisdiction, but by dominative power, that he is to prescribe; and this power he can receive privately from him who makes the vow. It is not necessary that he should have any public or authoritative approbation, for a vow of this kind is not public, but private. It is sufficient that in the exercise of prudent judgment, or with moral probability, the person selected should be considered apt and able, and such as that one may commit to him the care of one's soul by a special obedience."

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