Your husband has just left with his buddies… Not for the bar, not for the bowling alley, but for the Crusade. He will probably never return – the territory is unfamiliar and the enemy fierce. The organization of the ranks is questionable, too. You are left alone in your little Belgian village. A few years pass, and some wearied soldiers come back into town after the failed campaign. The Mr. is not one of them: you are off to the local Beguinage.
There, the organization of the ranks is questionable as well – just as most of the crusaders were not professional soldiers, the superior is likely ill-equipped: she is not a professional ecclesiastic (viz. a priest) or even a proper religious. The other women are only half-invested, since they can own their own property and leave at any time to get married. The local bishop is aware of the institution, but he has other, more pressing affairs to attend to. Many of the women bring tons of money with them after the sale of their land, so the community is overflowing with wealth.
What could go wrong?
A lot, as it turns out. The Beguines (and Beghards, the male version) were suppressed by the little-known Ecumenical Council of Vienne in 1312. These semi-monastic communities, mostly centered in the Low Country, had amassed enormous wealth and slipped into very bizarre spiritual doctrines. (Basically, their errors amounted to the thought that one was able to attain, in this life, their twisted vision of spiritual perfection. For the condemned propositions, see Denzinger 471-8, older numbering.) It is also difficult to imagine there were no “power issues,” given the nature of the structure of the communities and the strange ideas that eventually pervaded them. (The “no kissing rule” was especially weird… Yes, go on click that Denzinger link. You know you want to see what infallible statement the Church has made on kissing.) If you think you are perfect, and your inferiors think you are perfect, when you are definitely not, how would that not occasion terrible abuses? Even though the Beguines did not share property (unlike the Beghards) or take vows, there was still a superior of the community, and how could a perfect superior not wield undue control? (Coincidentally – or not – Vienne also dissolved the Knights Templar, who had begun a similar downfall into wealth, power abuse, lax membership requirements, and heresy. One is reminded of the Church in present-day Germany.)
The Beguinages did attract pious women who did plenty of good work for each other and their towns, but in the end they didn’t work in many important ways, namely in cultivating a mature spirituality among the members. (There are, however, still a few active Beguinages around… The suppression on the Beguines – not the Beghards – was lifted 9 years after the Council, but eventually, the need disappeared and so membership declined.) When wealth, power, and gross spiritual imperfection are mixed in an ill-defined religious community with limited ecclesiastical oversight, one should expect mayhem to ensue. This is the lesson which Church history teaches us, and I fear it is a lesson not being well-learned today. That means the error will be repeated… Let us turn now to the so-called “Benedict Option.”
A million articles have now been written in response to Rod Dreher’s book on the need to duck out of postmodern society and form intentional Christian enclaves – which, he opines, is sort of the point of Christianity anyway (made obvious in part by the comical slew of “original” variations on the theme – the “Marian Option,” the “Augustine Option,” etc.). The idea is basically that Western society is so bad that it should just be left to destroy itself while we preserve our faith and morals amongst our own rather than risk more bleeding by living out “in the wild,” and we can draw people into the Church by leading attractive lives and with some occasional missionary activity overflowing from the enclave.
While most critics of this idea are concerned with the abandonment of wandering souls to the Zeitgeist, which is a legitimate (although in my opinion overblown) concern, my critique is focused on the interior life of an “intentional Christian community” rather than its exterior missionary activity. We don’t always need to preach to Gehenna (Jesus didn’t bother!), but we do always need to know who is in charge, where the money goes, how the hierarchical Church is involved, and in general how the community lives its life together.
There is a chasm between the domestic church and the hierarchical church. It is easy to fall into it.
I could not give you an ecclesiology of an “intentional Christian community,” though this is now the primary buzzword, closely followed by “covenant community,” although these are distinct (albeit not mutually exclusive) realities. An “intentional Christian community” is just that – people who intentionally associate with one another to aid their discipleship. A “covenant community” involves signing a contract that pledges certain things for the good of the group… Like “obedience to the leadership.”
Let’s ask some questions.
First, is this or that community even specifically Catholic? If not, how will the Catholic Church be presented by non-Catholic members and leaders? Will there be requirements or “suggested opportunities” for members that don’t square with Catholic doctrine and morals? Is there a non-denominational-ish church which the community is obliged or semi-obliged to support, financially or otherwise? What is being preached and taught there? What about a school? Same questions. What kind of spirituality will the community develop and encourage that is not founded in or ordered to the Mass and the confessional? How exactly does one’s local parish pastor involve himself in the lives of Catholics in such a community? How do members relate to their parish in general? Is the leadership tempted to use the group’s ecumenical nature as a means of dodging episcopal oversight? How can a Catholic member in good conscience follow a non-Catholic spiritual leader, precisely insofar as he or she is a spiritual leader? These are serious questions, some of which don’t have easy answers. It can sometimes happen that, as far as the Church is concerned, what happens in such groups is more communism than ecumenism.
There are many other questions to be answered by any community, especially the ones that require signing a contract or “covenant” to join… Will the community be at the service of the parish and hierarchical church, or vice versa? How will a poorer family support both the community and the parish? What are the details of the “covenant” (viz. what is actually required, and why)? How does one opt out of the community, if it is possible at all? If it is not possible, why? How is personal information treated within the community? How are relationships between men and women monitored? Where does the money go, and how is transparency guaranteed? Are there inordinate pressures to take or leave certain jobs? Is there any restriction of relationship with people inside or outside the community for arbitrary reasons? What is required to become a member of the community? How does the community relate with the diocese and bishop? In whose name does the community exercise its ministries and evangelization projects – their own, the diocese’s, the parish’s, the individuals’? If priests or deacons are members, how does their membership and activity relate to their official ecclesiastical role wherever their bishop or superior has actually assigned them? Exactly what role does the leadership of the community play in the life of the group? What is required to become a leader in the community? Does all of the leadership rotate periodically? If no, why not? What is the understanding of the “grace of state” among the leaders?
This last one is huge. Grace of state is a gift that comes with occupying a certain office. In some cases, it can, in a sense, involve an infallible discernment of the will of God, which would imply obedience to that person’s demand under pain of sin. A few examples will suffice… The president of a country signs legislation that people must drive on the left side of the road. The local bishop chooses not to allow a tabernacle to be put in a certain rectory. The parents of a child tell him that he will go to the parish school. Who would argue that obedience in these examples is not a matter of moral precept? However, this does not mean the decisions were necessarily made for the right reasons… Perhaps the president is hoping that his new law will cause catastrophe for tourists. Maybe the bishop is jealous of the piety of the priest who lives in that rectory. It could be that the parents would actually do better to homeschool their child, but they are just lazy. It doesn’t matter: it is still the will of God precisely because these people have the right to demand these things of those under them in virtue of their offices – offices which ultimately derive from God, either through nature (like the government or the family) or through grace (like the hierarchical church).
In covenant communities, there is often an ambiguous commitment to “obey” the leadership. One could be shamed and thought of as impious or disobedient (or even Satanic) for not falling in line with whatever the leaders require. After all, don’t they have the grace of state to determine God’s will for the community?
No. There is no office of nature or of grace which authentically interprets the will of God for such a community which comes from within the community itself. That is the job of the pastor and/or bishop, or a duly appointed delegate. Even then, the scope of obedience only goes so far – the bishop, for instance, does not have the right to tell parents they must enroll their child in the parish school. The pastor does not have the right to demand a certain amount of tithing from his parishioners. Etc. These things can frequently be items of “discernment” in covenant communities which then become “suggestions” or “opportunities.” Pity the member who does not go along with the will of their leaders! In fact, it seems that all that a duly appointed ecclesiastical representative could really authentically interpret is how to relate the community to various real authorities, such as the pastor, the bishop, the government, families, and so on, according to those authorities’ proper roles. What one finds instead is often one or several people at the top, who were self-appointed, who never rotate, and who claim to be authentic prophetic voices for the community which is centered around their wills; in other words, cult leaders.
Signing a contract is an important action, and it should not be done lightly. However, we must realize that humans are not angels – they do not perfectly understand all the implications of their actions – and therefore, vows can (and sometimes must) be broken for the good of the individual or commonwealth. Unlike marriage, association with a community is certainly something “intrinsically dissoluble” – that is, either party can choose to step away once it becomes clear that it is best for either of them, so long as any inordinate injury is avoided… It does not require an intervention of a third-party, like the Pauline or Petrine privileges in the dissolution of non-sacramental marriages. A vow to a merely human society is not a vow to God, and so it is far less serious, though it is still a matter of justice insofar as the reckless abandonment of the promise can bring damage to either party… One does owe something to the person or persons to whom a vow is made simply by the nature of the vow itself.
But let’s examine the nature of private vows made to God. (See the relevant canons here.) Vows to God are much more serious (as a matter proper to the virtue of religion), such that the complete release from them requires a dispensation or commutation from the Church (or the time elapsing). And yet even here, one who undertakes a vow to God with insufficient understanding of what he is committing himself to by that vow can’t be morally bound to it. (Think of a pious 5th grader who, in a fit of religious fervor, promises to God after Mass one day that he will never marry. He is unquestionably not bound by this vow! Of course, determining what is “sufficient” is a difficult matter.) What’s more, a vow made to God must actually be possible (obviously) and for the sake of a better state or action than what one would otherwise be in or do without the vow, or else the vow does not bind. (A person who promises to God that he will not go to Mass except on Sundays is not bound by this vow unless he would really be doing harm to himself or others by going to Mass during the week. A person who promises to God that he will tie his left shoe before his right shoe is also not bound by the vow because it is not better to do this. Vows like this are vain and sinful, in fact, and rash or hasty vows can be sinful as well.) It must also be the case that the “better state or action” must really continue to be better for the one who made the vow in order for it to remain binding. (If a husband vows to spend several hours each week in private prayer, this would cease to bind if his wife became very sick and needed his constant attention.) In general, when more fundamental obligations become more serious, the obligations based on vows begin to decrease in gravity.
Given all this, it should be easy to see that the “covenant” part of covenant communities involves a serious but not that serious kind of promise. The public vows made when entering proper religious communities, or private vows made directly to God, are much more serious – and yet there are many qualifications and ways out. I wonder how well the nature of vows is understood by leaders in various covenant communities – and how well they explain that nature to aspiring members. Once it becomes clear that a community is bad for one’s children, isn’t it incumbent upon the parents to remove themselves from that community? If it is becoming harmful to one’s psychological, emotional, spiritual – or financial – welfare, isn’t it a duty to leave? As a person slowly realizes that he got himself into something he didn’t really understand the details of, doesn’t his obligation to stay begin to diminish? Of course. And all the while, the leaders of these communities will still not be authentically interpreting the will of God, because they are only appointed or elected for the good of a merely man-made and non-fundamental collective to which people can freely come and from which people can freely go, usually without sin. This is unlike the government, this is unlike the Church, and it is unlike the family.
The “Beguinage Option” is not the right way – but clearly, the desire for intense communal discipleship is good. How can it be fulfilled in the lives of lay people who can’t enter or don’t want to enter religious life?
In the next post of this 3 part series, I will look at a few specific examples of covenant communities as case studies (including one with which I have some personal connection), and then finally I will propose a model or two of my own.
Main image: The Beguinage in Bruges, Belgium. By Navy8300 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons