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The position of women within the Church is undergoing change. This is also true within monasticism. The changes center around various aspects of monastic life. One of these aspects is equality. The Code itself recognizes this equality. How does this legal recognition affect monasticism?

Canon 606 states: "Whatever is determined about institutes of consecrated life and their members applies equally to either sex, unless the contrary is apparent from the context of the wording or the nature of the matter." It seems that men and women as monastics should be treated the same since inherently there in nothing in the wording or the nature of monasticism which would demand a difference. Therefore let us examine some of the previous inequalities and how they can be treated now in light of the Code of Canon Law.

The history of Benedictine monasticism in North America reveals that the monks and nuns came to live, pray and work in a similar fashion. Basically the style of monasticism was not to be different for the monks and the nuns. But within the legal structures of the Church, the monks and the nuns were treated differently. While both had many members living and working outside the enclosure of the monastery, the monks retained their monastic status, while the nuns were re-categorized as sisters governed by the norms for apostolic communities. The women monastics lost solemn vows, titles of abbey and abbesses, lifetime superiors, the monastic office, and legal effects of monastic profession such as total renunciation.

Effects of Profession

In light of the provisions of the new Code, monastic women can reclaim their heritage and do so on an equal basis with monastic men. First, the Code permits each religious institute to define the effects of profession. For monastic women this means that they can reclaim their heritage of total renunciation within monastic poverty. Many of the monasteries are already doing this.

Tenure of Office

Second, the Code permits monastics to establish a tenure of office for the head of the community which is different from the requirements for an apostolic community (canon 634.1).Since the wording and nature of the canon indicate an equality between men and women, both have leeway in light of the lived monastic tradition to determine life tenure or shorter tenure. Men have moved away from life tenure while women have moved to permit longer tenure than previously observed.

Legal Effect of Monastic Chastity

Third, the legal effect of monastic chastity is now the same for both men and women, namely that all finally professed monastics cannot validly marry without a dispensation. Previously monks could not, but sisters could as their profession only caused the marriage to be illicit.


Fourth, the controversy of the nineteenth century over cloister is ended. The Code establishes a category of cloister which applies equally to Benedictine men and women. Recognition is made that there is a monastic lifestyle "ordered to the contemplative life" but not strictly cloistered (canon 667.2). This is the lifestyle of both North American Benedictine men and women. This is further recognized in the paragraph on papal cloister for women strictly ordered to the contemplative life. This paragraph also states that "other monasteries of nuns are to observe cloister adapted to their own character and defined in the constitutions" (canon 667.3). This latter statement clarifies the fact that now there can be nuns who do not observe papal cloister. This surely indicates that present-day Benedictine women can be considered nuns.


The above leads to an obvious conclusion. If Benedictine women can reclaim their heritage as monastics under the law, they should also be able to reclaim the outward symbols of this heritage, namely abbey and abbess. Why should a monastic community of men and a monastic community of women existing side by side with similar lifestyles have a different status for the monastery and the head of the monastery: Abbot John Smith of St. Ivan's Abbey and Prioress Jane Doe of St. Hildegard's Priory? The rite for the blessing of an abbot/abbess does not indicate that only women with papal cloister may have an abbess. It does indicate that there must be a cloister, but then monastic women are to have some form of cloister since they are ordered to the contemplative life. It seems that the rite would permit monastic women to reclaim the title of abbess. Of course, this also presupposes reclaiming the title of abbey and the other aspects of the monastic tradition mentioned above which contrast monastic and apostolic religious institutes.

Women monastics seem to be on the road to equality with their brother monastics. Many women's monasteries have reclaimed the tradition of total renunciation. The women's federations refer to the member communities as monasteries. At the last meeting of the conference of prioresses, the request was made to study the reclaiming of the terms abbey and abbess. It seems to me that all of this is based not only on the right to equality, but also on the authenticity of reclaiming the lived monastic tradition.

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