Benedictine FAQ's Part II: Is there such a thing as "the Order of St Benedict"?

I want to continue today, my series of Frequently Asked Questions about the Benedictine Order and its spirituality.  As I've previously flagged, a key issue whether there is in fact any such thing as the "order of St Benedict'!

If you hunt around Benedictine websites and books, particularly those of recent decades, one of the more bemusing things to stumble across are assertions to the effect that there is no such thing as the Order of St Benedict. 

It is often followed by claims that St Benedict had no intention of forming an order, and that the saint is not the founder in any real sense, of monasteries claiming to be Benedictine.

Are these claims correct?  Personally I don't think so. 

Here is why.

The 'Order of St Benedict' has, for centuries, appeared in the lists of historico-canonical precedence for religious orders put out annually by the Vatican in its annual statistics book, Annuario Pontificio, and is listed as having been founded in the sixth century for this purpose.   It still appears in the modern version, under Institutes of Consecrated Life. 

So if there is no such thing as the Benedictine Order, it would appear to be news to the Vatican!

Canon law and the Order of St Benedict

But let's take a look at the arguments of those who claim there is no such thing as the Order of St Benedict. 

Take for example, Fr Luke Dysinger OSB's version of the storyline, which pretty well encapsulates most of the standard arguments. 

He starts his treatment of the subject by saying:

"PREPARE yourself for a shock: from the perspective of canon law there is no such thing as "The Benedictine Order."

That's sort of true. 

But only because, in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, there is no longer such a thing as a 'religious order' at all, technically speaking! 

I'm not a canonist, but the old 1917 Code of Canon Law (and pre-1917 canonical conventions) did talk about religious orders, and basically defined membership of them in terms of those religious who took solemn (as opposed to simple) vows. 

What made a religious a member of a religious order prior to 1983, rather than a 'religious congregation', in other words, was not a matter of how they were centrally organized, but about the effects of their vows.

And on that definition of course, most, though not all, Benedictines were considered members of a religious order (the story is complicated by the existence of active, missionary institutes, and the loss of the right to take solemn vows by American Benedictine women's monasteries).

It is true though that the 1983 Code however drops all these older distinctions and talks only about Institutes of Consecrated Life.  Still, if you are going to talk about religious orders, then the weight of ecclesial tradition would suggest that 'the Order of St Benedict' certainly is one'!

The arguments don't just rest on canonical history or technicalities, however.

The early history of the Benedictine 'order'

Fr Dysinger goes on to argue that there is no order because Benedictine monasticism predates the very concept:

"Are you surprised? You should be. After all, everyone knows that O.S.B., the letters which Benedictine monastics (sisters, nuns and monks) sign after their names stand for Ordine Sancti Benedicti - the Order of St. Benedict. However, there is no Benedictine "Order." There were Benedictine monks and nuns long before anyone spoke of religious orders: in fact, for several centuries, Benedictine monasticism was the only form of religious life in the Western Church. Benedictines are thus much older than the concept of a religious order."

But is it really true that Benedictine monasticism was the only form of religious life in the Church for several centuries?  Well actually no.

In fact of course there were a wide variety of forms of religious life, and many different rules (and collections of rules) in use throughout the first millennium of the churches life.

Indeed, when the Benedictines, at the time of Pope St Pius V, tried to argue for precedence for the Order over all later comers using just the type of argument adduced by Fr Luke, that claim was rejected in favour of the Canons Regular of St Augustine on the basis that their rule was dated earlier, and two popes ruled the canons regular concept at least in fact had apostolic origins!  To this day, the Annuario Pontificio credits them as having been founded in the fourth century.

Does continuity matter?

Some argue that one of the reasons for rejecting the idea that there is an 'order of Benedict' is that there is no clear chain of continuity from the founder himself down through history.  The continuity, they argue, rests only within individual Benedictine Congregations.

It should be noted first that Pope Pius V's sixteenth century ruling on the precedence of the Augustinians didn't rest on any claim of continuity, because there was none in their case!  After the death of St Augustine, Africa was largely lost to Christianity, and there is no evidence that his concept of organising the priests of a diocese in a quasi-monastic way survived that destruction.  Rather, the Augustinian Canons were a later revival of the charism.  So even if it were true, as some have argued, that Benedictine monasticism is a Carolingian invention (a view I for one reject!), that doesn't mean that there is no such thing as the Benedictine Order.

I also think a reasonably strong case for some considerable degree of continuity in the Benedictine charism can actually be made.  The case rests, it is true, partly on an oral tradition written down much later, partly on extrapolation from what we do know.  But the counter-argument basically starts from a hermeneutic of suspicion: if a hard document such as a charter can't be produced proving that the rule was passed on by a disciple of St Benedict and used, then it clearly didn't happen.  Yet we know perfectly well that very little of the records of this period have survived.  But what has is consistent with the traditional storyline of how the Order spread!  In any case, I've set out some of the possible links in the chain my series on St Benedict for the Novena leading up to his feastday. 

In fact I think in many ways a stronger case for continuity in the Benedictine Order can be made for the earlier period than for more recent times.  The founder of the nineteenth century revival of Benedictine Monasticism, for example, Dom Prosper Gueranger, didn't even meet his first Benedictine monk until four years after his the foundation of his monastery.  And that meeting (with the English Congregation monk, Dom William Ullathorne) was on the road to Rome where Gueranger did a whole fortnight by way of 'noviciate' at St Paul Without-the Walls before making his solemn profession and being formally appointed Abbot of Solesmes!

I'm not suggesting that there was in reality no continuity with the earlier form of the Benedictine charism in the case of Solesmes: quite the contrary.  In fact Dom Gueranger and his monks undertook detailed studies of earlier monastic customs and interpretations of the Rule.  But the continuity in the end came mostly from living the Rule, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, not some notional apprenticeship system down the centuries!

Lack of a central organizational structure

Another argument often put is that the real distinction between Benedictines and other religious orders has to do with organizational structures.  Dysinger says:

"THE TERM "religious order" usually implies an international structure in which common observance is maintained through submission to a single authority figure, usually a "superior general." Benedictines have never had such a structure. That is, there has never been a single abbot who could claim jurisdiction over all Benedictine monasteries. Only the Holy Father in Rome can claim that privilege."

It is true that Benedictines lack a central governing structure with the sort of powers that many other orders give to a superior general. 

You can't just set up a monastery and claim to be members of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans) for example, unless the official order accepts you.  Mind you, of course, these days there are more than a few Dominicans by any other name (such as the traditionalist Fraternity of St Vincent Ferrer) who don't call themselves OP, but do claim the spirituality!

By contrast, you can (in theory at least; in practice the bishop and/or the Holy See will need some convincing that you really are Benedictine) set up a Benedictine monastery and write OSB after your names without the agreement of any official Benedictine central governing body. 

There is, it is true, a 'Benedictine Confederation' (established in the nineteenth century) which monasteries and groups of monasteries can affiliate with. 

But there are also more than a few very prominent, indisputably Benedictine monasteries, that are not, or have not been until very recently (such as Le Barroux for example) members of it.

It is also true that many do think of religious orders as highly centralized affairs with a central governing body. But in reality, there are others who, like the Benedictines, do not have such a structure - including those old rivals, the Augustinian Canons - yet have always been accepted as religious orders

The root of the problem: agreeing on what it means to be Benedictine!

The root cause of the modern reluctance to lay claim to being an order in any real sense, I would suggest, goes to some very longstanding, often quite bitter, and in many cases still unresolved disputes about just what the nature of the Benedictine 'Black Monk' charism really is.

When it comes down to it, when we talk about a particular religious order, we usually really mean a distinctive spirituality and mode of operation associated with a particular founder or foundress.  Benedictines have always been extremely diverse, but the last several decades have seen major divides in most religious orders as to just what their charism really is.  And some, I would suggest, just don't want to be associated with certain other views of Benedictine spirituality...

In reality the first grouping of monasteries to look like the later religious orders, in the sense of having a central governing authority and many closely regulated offshoots, was arguably the Cluniac Congregation of Benedictines, founded in the tenth century. 

And the first really public great debate on the nature of the Benedictine charism was in the twelfth century between the Cluniacs (particularly under Peter the Venerable) and the Cistercians (particularly under Bernard of Clairvaux).  So great was the divide between the two interpretations of the Rule, that the Cistercians became a separate religious order(s) to the Black Monks.

In reality, many of the issues debated back then and down the centuries in subsequent outbreaks of hostilities within the Order about what it means to follow the Rule are still much contested. 

There are those, for example, who have held, from the nineteenth century revival onwards, that the Benedictine charism is strictly contemplative, and that those congregations or monasteries who undertake active apostolic works should be considered oblates only, not monks or nuns.  This view gained ground in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, with more than a few monasteries of women in particular being forced to either abandon their limited apostolic works (such as schools within the cloister) or lose the right to make solemn vows. Others, however, point out that the Benedictine charism has historically embraced a very wide variety of forms indeed, and point to the early missionary tradition!

The ins and outs of the various debates on the nature of the charism  are perhaps best left for possible future posts.

Suffice it to suggest that the tradition of the fiercely guarded autonomy of individual monasteries and/or congregations, and resistance to central authority, is a reaction to the Order's long history.

OSB?

All the same, there surely is such as thing as the 'Order of St Benedict' - after all, would so many write it after their names if it doesn't actually mean anything?

But do let me know if you agree or not, or want more detail or references for any of the points I've made.

And if you have suggestions for future FAQs to cover, do let me know.

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