Leaving a Novice in Limbo

Q: Hello, I am a novice in [a religious institute in Rome]….  I have been a novice for ten years, and keep waiting for the novice master to decide that I can take my vows, but the time always gets extended.  I love this institute and want to become a member, but how long must I wait?  I don’t want to leave…. What can I do? –Renato

A: Renato has been preparing to become a member of a very small Italian religious institute which cares for the sick poor.  Like any Catholic institute of men or women religious, it has its own Constitutions, which were approved by competent ecclesiastical authorities around the time of the institute’s erection.  Readers may be surprised to learn that when it comes to the law governing religious institutes, the content of their Constitutions can be more pivotal than the Code of Canon Law.

The canons of the code that pertain to all religious institutes are little more than a generic, skeletal overview of the basic rules which are common to every one of them—and there’s a practical reason for that.  The raison d’être of religious institutes around the globe can vary dramatically, since they were established for different purposes, at different points in history, and in different regions of the world.  Compare, for example, the contemplative monastic life of Benedictine abbeys (established in the 6th century by St. Benedict), with the dramatically different, active life of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (founded by St. Frances Xavier Cabrini in the late 1800’s), and you will quickly get an idea of how difficult it can be to make generalizations about Catholic religious life!  The purpose of an institute naturally influences its overall structure, the daily life of its fully professed members, and the formation of its prospective new members.  This is why each institute has its own Constitutions (the contents of which are described in general in c. 587.1).  These Constitutions form a key part of a religious institute’s proper law—which, unlike the Church’s universal laws that are applicable to every Catholic, pertain only to members of the religious institute.  (See canon 598.2 for a good, basic example of how proper law applies to the members of each individual institute.)  As canon 587.2 tells us, every institute’s Constitutions had to be approved by competent church authority.  Canon 595.1, in turn, spells out which bishop/diocese constitutes “competent authority,” and see also “Canon Law and a Convent of Rebellious Sisters,” for more on this.

So as a general rule, when a member of a religious institute raises a canonical question as Renato did here, we should look at his/her institute’s Constitutions before drawing any final conclusions.  Theoretically, Renato’s institute might have some unusual, specific novitiate procedures that are unlike those of most other religious institutes.  That said, however, the Code of Canon Law does contain some basic, universal laws pertaining to all religious institutes’ novitiates—and the Constitutions of Renato’s institute can’t contradict them.  Let’s see how the canons of the code compare to the situation Renato describes in his own institute.

Canon 646 provides a definition of the novitiate:

The novitiate, through which life in an institute is begun, is arranged so that the novices better understand their divine vocation, and indeed one which is proper to the institute, experience the manner of living of the institute, and form their mind and heart in its spirit, and so that their intention and suitability are tested.

It makes no sense for a Catholic—even an enthusiastic one, fully convinced that God has called him/her to religious life—to walk into a convent, monastery, or other religious institution and immediately make vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience (a.k.a. the three evangelical counsels, cf. c. 573).  There has to be a trial period first, during which two things happen simultaneously: the prospective religious (the novice, in other words) finds out what religious life is going to be all about, and decides whether it is in fact what God is calling him/her to do; and religious superiors get to see whether the novice is a suitable candidate for religious life in that particular institute (cf. c. 642).  The novitiate, in short, is the trial period in which a novice’s “intention and suitability are tested” (c. 646).

But the Code of Canon Law does more than just define what a novitiate is; it also tells us how long it should last.  Canon 648.1 stipulates that for validity, the novitiate must last 12 months; canon 648.3 adds that the period of novitiate must not last longer than two years.  So we have a minimum and a maximum period explicitly stated right here.

There is one loophole, though!  Canon 653.2 explains what is to happen at the end of a novice’s period of novitiate:

At the end of the novitiate, if judged suitable, a novice is to be admitted to temporary profession; otherwise the novice is to be dismissed. If there is doubt about the suitability of a novice, the major superior can extend the time of probation according to the norm of proper law, but not beyond six months. (Emphasis added)

Thus the absolute maximum amount of time that a novice could conceivably spend in the novitiate is 2 ½ years, or 30 months—if an institute’s proper law provides for a possible six-month extension (and not all of them do).

But before we immediately leap to conclusions about Renato’s case, it’s worth noting that in religious institutes, “novitiate” and “period of formation” aren’t always synonymous.  Depending on the work which the members of a given religious institute are expected to perform, the preparation of prospective members might include other, critical elements which don’t meet the definition of a novitiate, which we already saw in canon 646 above.  To cite a longstanding and well known example, the Jesuits have an exceptionally long “period of formation” that typically lasts over a decade—but as can be seen here, the Jesuit “novitiate” comprises only two years of that (in full accord with the abovementioned canon 648.3).  The rest of the Jesuit formation period includes extensive university studies, as well as several years of ministerial work.  These types of activities cannot be part of a novitiate: canon 652 describes the spiritual nature of the novitiate, and adds that it “is to be devoted solely to the task of formation and consequently novices are not to be occupied with studies and functions which do not directly serve this formation”(c. 652.5, emphasis added).  Curious readers might want to check out information found here and here, regarding an entirely different, American monastery which has recently been under investigation—in part because the “novitiate” appears to amount to little more than unpaid manual labor, in direct violation of canon 652.5.

Thus it is possible for an institute to have a formation period which extends well beyond the two-year maximum period for a novitiate.  It could be that an institute which engages in missionary work requires its prospective members to spend, say, one year in the field, among the people to whom the institute ministers.  Alternately, candidates for membership in a teaching institute might be obliged, after the novitiate, to spend a period of time working directly in a school, or in teacher training.  Once again, the overall purpose of a religious institute will dictate what its proper law requires, and this can vary widely.

So how does Renato’s situation size up against the novitiate requirements we’ve just seen?  From other information which he provided (which is not discussed here), it does appear that when he speaks of being a “novice” for ten years, a part of that period was in fact spent in medical training and practice—which, as discussed above, is not technically part of the novitiate.  Nevertheless, it seems clear that something is definitely not right in Renato’s case.  Take another look at canon 653.2, quoted above, and you’ll see that it tells us that “At the end of the novitiate, if judged suitable, a novice is to be admitted to temporary profession; otherwise the novice is to be dismissed.”  Renato completed the period of novitiate as required by his institute—but instead of then allowing him to make his vows, he was simply sent on to the next aspect of formation.  In this way he has remained in a sort of canonical no-man’s land, as someone who has completed the novitiate … but somehow is still a novice.  In actual fact, once his novitiate was finished, Renato’s superiors were required to make a decision: either Renato was to make his vows, or he was to be deemed unsuitable and sent away.  For whatever reason, those superiors failed to make any decision, which is not Renato’s fault, but their own.

It could be that Renato’s religious superiors were on the fence about him!  Who knows, perhaps after he completed the novitiate they thought he was still too immature (spiritually or otherwise), and wanted to see whether with more time he would grow up, and better fit the role that members of the institute have to play in the world of caring for the sick.  But even if this sounds on the surface like a reasonable approach, it conflicts with canon law—and since the institute’s Constitutions, approved by competent authority, are undoubtedly in accord with the canon law, it undoubtedly conflicts with those Constitutions as well.  If Renato’s superiors weren’t willing to allow him to make his vows at the end of his novitiate, they should have told him to leave the institute.

Could the superiors really be ignorant of their institute’s Constitutions on this matter?  It’s quite unlikely!  Unfortunately, it’s far more probable that they are willfully choosing to ignore their own proper law.  So what can Renato do?

Legally speaking, the most obvious option is for Renato to meet with his superior(s) and ask them, respectfully, what is going on in his case—and point out that his current situation is in violation of canon law (and of the institute’s Constitutions as well).  It could be that the institute’s superiors will agree that Renato has waited far too long, and give him a date in the near future for his profession.  But it’s likewise possible that the superior(s) will respond by saying in effect, “If you don’t like it here, leave!” which is precisely what Renato wants to avoid.

Another procedural option may be for Renato to petition the appropriate Congregation in the Vatican, and apprise them of the situation and ask for assistance/clarification.  This might prompt the Vatican to give the institute a hard look—especially if it turns out that Renato is not the only novice who has been unjustly treated in this way.  But at the end of the day, what could very well happen in Renato’s case is that his superiors would be turned against him by his appeal to Rome … prompting them to conclude that he is “unsuitable” for the institute, and send him away.  And once again, this is exactly what Renato does not want.

Sadly, there is no easy answer in this case, apart from pointing out that Renato shouldn’t have waited so long to object to his situation.  Now he has given ten years of his life to this religious institute, and as a non-professed member he has no stability, no guarantee that he will be provided for by the institute in the future.  Canon 670 (in addition to individual institutes’ Constitutions) requires that a religious institute take care of its members, by providing them with whatever they need to carry out their role in the institute’s apostolate; but in Renato’s case, since he is not a professed member of the institute, he has no assurance that it will care for him if (let’s say) he is injured or falls sick in the course of his religious work!  Because he legally shouldn’t be in the institute in this amorphous status anyway, his superiors could simply tell him to depart at any moment, leaving him with nothing.  We can see here that while canon law and Constitutions place a lot of requirements on members of religious institutes, they are also designed to protect those members in turn.

Far too many prospective religious have it hammered into their heads by superiors that they need to obey, and there is of course truth in this.  But at the same time, members of religious institutes—and novices too—have many rights which are clearly spelled out in both the code and in their respective Constitutions, and it happens far too often that these rights aren’t hammered into their heads at all!  Religious superiors have no authority to govern on a whim; their decisions must be made within strict parameters of ethics and law.  Let’s pray for the members of religious institutes around the world, that they govern and are governed in accord with both the universal law and the proper law which church authorities have given to them.

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