It seems that monastics, like other Christians, find it difficult to apply the universal law of the Church. Universal law, according to canon law, must be interpreted and applied within the context of the situation, since universal law is written with only the general situation in view. Canon 17 gives the principle that the law is "to be understood in accord with the proper meaning of the words considered in their text and context." Law is not merely the application of bare words to a given situation. Rather it is the consideration of the words within the whole text and within the concrete circumstances into which the words are being applied.
For monastics the context of the law is the monastic life, and more specifically, the lived monastic life of a given monastery. It is not merely Christian or religious life in general. Within the monastic life, tradition or custom is the primary type of law. Usually the written documents are only a codification of the lived tradition. Custom, according to the Code, is the best interpreter of law. Specifically, how has a given law been lived out over the years in the monastery? For monastics, then, universal law must be interpreted within the context of monasticism guided by the principle of tradition or custom.
This may seem vague. If it does, it is because interpretation of law is an art which can only be learned by living within the situation of monasticism while at the same time understanding the purpose of the law. Therefore it is important to give some examples.
The universal law of the Church repeatedly uses the term supreme moderator when referring to the top official of a religious institute. This term causes much confusion for the monastic congregations composed of autonomous monasteries because a monastic congregation is not a hierarchical model for governance. Supreme moderator is clearly understood as referring to the superior general of an apostolic religious institute. But within the monastic context does it refer to the president of the monastic congregation or to the abbot/abbess or prior/prioress of an individual monastery? In the writing of their constitutional documents, the various monastic congregations/federations recognized this problem. The Code could not merely be applied in the same way it would in an apostolic religious institute. Thus the constitutional documents specify either directly or in the delineation of authority that the authority given to a supreme moderator belongs to the local abbot/prioress except in one or two situations. The universal law is interpreted and applied within the monastic context.
The universal law requires that the abbot/prioress needs the consent of the monastic council for the submission of a dispensation. For an apostolic institute this does not seem to present difficulties because for many of these institutes, the council is composed of the leadership of the institute. This is not true within a monastery. The monastic council is not the leadership. The leadership is the abbot/prioress and staff. Therefore, should the details of the dispensation petition and interviews be given to the council members? The answer clearly seems to be negative since the petition and accompanying acts contain very personal and confidential information about the petitioner. Therefore, the application of the universal law requiring the council's consent has been interpreted in most monasteries to mean that the council gives its consent either pro forma or based only on the personal knowledge of each council member. The consent is not seen as making a judgment in the case but rather as acknowledging that this person should not be required to stay within the monastery against his/her will. This application of the universal law protects the petitioner, comports with the concept of the personal relationship of a monastic with the abbot/prioress, and recognizes that the function of the council is different within a monastery than it is within an apostolic institute.
Canon 690 states that the supreme moderator, with the consent of the council, can readmit a former member without the requirement of repeating the novitiate. It is clear within a monastic context that it is the decision of the local monastery whether or not to readmit a person and whether or not to require the repetition of the novitiate. Thus the monastic congregation/federation interprets "supreme moderator" in this context to mean the local abbot/prioress. But a problem still exists. Within an apostolic institute, the council is the body which approves the admission to the various stages of formation. The general membership does not vote on admission. This is not true within a monastery. In almost all monasteries, the monastic chapter consents to the entrance into the stages of formation, not the council. The canon must therefore be interpreted with this in mind. "Council" within the canon refers to the body which admits to the various stages of formation. Therefore, "council" within the monastic context must refer to the monastic chapter, since it is the body which admits candidates to the various stages of formation. It would be a problem for the council, for example, to waive repetition of the novitiate and then, after a probationary period of six months, have the chapter vote negatively on admission to first vows because the chapter members felt that a new novitiate should be required. Thus the monastic congregation/federation has either explicitly or implicitly interpreted this canon to mean that within the monastic context the consent of the chapter is required, not merely the consent of the council.
From the above, I hope that it is somewhat clear that a monastic must be careful when interpreting universal law. At times a monastic will come to the abbot/prioress citing the words of the universal law, and state that the monastery is not following the universal law. The monastic and the abbot/prioress, however, must be careful not to jump to a hasty conclusion about the universal law. The principles of canon 17 must be applied, and applied within the monastic context.