On August 24, 1855, Pope Pius IX gave approbation to the establishment of the American-Cassinese Congregation, O.S.B., and thus began the first American monastic congregation. Subsequently, papal approbation was given to another men's and three women's American monastic congregations of autonomous monasteries. Papal approbation also was given to an American women's centralized monastic congregation. The struggle and journey of the establishment of these monastic congregations is as varied as the monasteries which belong to them. Yet, despite the varying origins and histories, much similarity exists among the American monastic congregations and member monasteries.
When the 1983 Code of Canon Law initiated the necessity to redraft the laws of a monastic congregation and seek the Apostolic See's approval of the congregation's fundamental law, the American monastic congregations (some now have member monasteries in other countries) worked on or at least shared the process and resulting norms with each other. Most monastics probably know about the development of their own monastic congregation's new legislation, but are unaware of the development of the other monastic congregations' legislation. Therefore, this article will give a brief summary of the progress of each of the congregations/federations' new legislation and some comparative points about the legislation.
The universal law requires that each monastic congregation submit to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL) its fundamental law or constitution for approval. To obtain approval, the secondary norms, which implement or give more details to the constitutional norms, must also be submitted with the constitution. The secondary norms do not need Roman approval but are used by CICLSAL to determine if everything has been covered and whether some of the norms in the secondary document should be in the constitution.
The Roman procedure for approval is a three-stage process. At the time of the first reading of the constitution and secondary norms a "specialist" is assigned to read and comment. These comments along with the "congresso's" comments are resubmitted to the monastic congregation. Generally these comments ask for clarity in certain areas and removal of some secondary norms to the constitution. The monastic congregation then resubmits its corrections to CICLSAL. It may make other changes, but CICLSAL does not seem to be concerned about these changes. The norms are then read by the "congresso" which generally approves the submissions but may ask, and usually does, for some minor changes and a suggested date for approval such as a feast day particular to the monastic congregation. Formal approbation is then given when the corrections are resubmitted.
The first American monastic congregation to receive approval was the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. Its approval was received prior to the effective date of the Code, but the legislation comports with the Code since it was based on the already released text. However, at a recent general chapter of the congregation certain changes have been made, especially as regards perpetual adoration.
The next congregation to receive approval was the Federation of St. Benedict, which received approval on July 11, 1987. The Federation's approval process followed the above-mentioned three submissions.
The Federation of St. Scholastica received approbation shortly thereafter. Interestingly, this federation's procedure only required three submissions even though the document submitted the second time was almost entirely a new document. Only a few corrections were required in this second document, as is the practice with the second submission. This practice has resulted in different requirements from CICLSAL regarding what has to be in the constitution and what can be left in the secondary norms, such as the term of office for the prioress. Also, differences have resulted in what will be acceptable and what will not, such as the power of interpretation by the monastic congregation/federation vis-à-vis CICLSAL.
The American-Cassinese Congregation submitted its norms for their second reading after receiving corrections between the first and second sessions of their general chapter. The first session had approved the constitutional norms and the second session had approved the secondary norms. Final approval was given on October 2, 1988.
The Federation of St. Gertrude held two sessions of its federation chapter to develop its norms. They were made effective prior to CICLSAL's approbation in order to "test" them against practical experience. When the corrections were received from CICLSAL they were added to the corrections desired by the member monasteries after use of the entire legislation. These corrections were approved by the federation chapter in June, 1987, but have not been resubmitted to CICLSAL pending some editing. (Editor's note: Final approval was given on November 16, 1989, feast of St. Gertrude the Great.)
The Swiss-American Benedictine Congregation approved its legislation for submission to CICLSAL at its general chapter held in July, 1987. Word has not been received on its first submission. (Editor's note: Final approval was given December 8, 1988.)
In comparing the various legislation submitted, it seems that the longest, or at least the most detailed, is that of the American-Cassinese Congregation, while the shortest or least detailed is that of the Swiss-American Benedictine Congregation. The terminology for the various documents varies. The American-Cassinese, the Swiss-American, St. Scholastica and Perpetual Adoration, term their CICLSAL-approved legislation as constitutions. St. Benedict and St. Gertrude use the term general norms. The secondary documents have a variety of names: directory (Perpetual Adoration and American-Cassinese), specific norms (St. Benedict, St. Gertrude and St. Scholastica) and statutes (Swiss-American). St. Scholastica's also contained declarations on the Rule which are more descriptive and theological than legal. None of the documents contain fundamental material which replaces the Rule. Such material is required of most other religious institutions since they do not have a basic Rule from which they derive the particular charism of their institutions.
Each of the congregations made a concerted effort to use monastic terminology. The five congregations of autonomous monasteries emphasized the nature of the congregation vis-à-vis the member monasteries. For instance, the monasteries belong to the congregation but not the individual monastics, who are members of their own monasteries. The authority of the congregation is very limited within the monasteries and usually must be exercised through the abbot/prioress or by the removal of the abbot/prioress. The three women's congregations of autonomous monasteries have reclaimed much of the monastic heritage lost when their legal situation was resolved by the Apostolic See in a decree issued December 6, 1859. In that decree, the women's communities were to be diocesan and the members were to be in simple rather than in solemn vows. Now all three of the women's federations, for example, have moved toward reclaiming the tradition of total renunciation. In fact, St. Scholastica's requires total renunciation for all future members of the member monasteries. St. Gertrude's permits each monastery to adopt total renunciation if it desires. St. Benedict's permits it on an individual basis for each monastic.
No congregation/federation opted for lifetime abbots/prioresses. The women's federations/congregations have definite terms, although now the three federations permit the monasteries discretion in setting the length of term for the prioress. The three have a set a minimum of 4 years and a maximum of 12 years, including reelections. The American-Cassinese retained their previous limit of 75 years of age or 8 years of office, whichever is longer, with a possibility of reelection. The Swiss-Americans established an indefinite period but specifically stated that this is "not the same as the former election of an abbot for life." The Perpetual Adoration retained 6 years with one reelection possibility for the prioress general.
Reflecting the concern of the Code for financial accountability, each of the congregations/federations of autonomous monasteries established norms which require a monastery to seek the congregation's approval for alienation and indebtedness above a set amount.
The suppression of an autonomous monastery is done by the president with the consent of his council in the Swiss-American Congregation and by the president's council, acting collegially, in St. Scholastica's Federation. St. Gertrude's permits a monastery to be voluntarily suppressed by the president with the consent of her council, but involuntary suppression requires action by the federation chapter. The American-Cassinese permit the president's council acting collegially to suppress a monastery whose chapter requests suppression by a two-thirds vote. Involuntary suppression is left to the general chapter. St. Benedict's leaves the suppression of an autonomous monastery to the federation chapter.
Hopefully this article gives some flavor of the various American monastic congregations' new legislation. While each congregation is somewhat different, the legislation reveals much similarity and bondedness among the congregations and the monasteries of the United States.