Of Abbots, Obedientiaries and Children in the Rule of St Benedict – part 1

Many have commented on the recent IICSA report into the abuse scandals at Ampleforth and Downside (I did so myself, see here). Without in any way wishing to contradict or dissent from their main conclusions, I have been struck by the way in which a few have identified the Rule of St Benedict as itself part of the problem. I think that is based on a misconception. Far from being part of the problem, the Rule, if properly followed, should be part of the solution. Obviously, I write as a nun, with no connection with schools, but the Rule has long been one of my areas of academic study and I have tried to live according to its precepts for nearly forty years; so I hope what I write will have some substance to it. To try to make it more digestible, I am dividing this post into at least two parts.

The authority of the abbot according to the Rule
Absolutely fundamental to any discussion of the Rule is Benedict’s conception of the role of the abbot and his authority. Some secular commentators have likened this to the authority of God the Father. Nowhere does the Rule do that. In every instance where abbatial authority is mentioned, in the two chapters specifically devoted to the abbot, RB 2 and RB 64, and at sundry other points, it is always likened to that of Christ. In saying, for example, that the abbot ‘is believed to represent Christ in the monastery’ (RB 2.2), Benedict is expressing an important truth: authority is to be exercised as service, and only insofar as it is service, is it genuine. Chapter 2 goes on to warn the abbot that he must not ‘teach, ordain or command anything contrary to the law of the Lord’ (RB 2.4); that both his teaching and the obedience of his disciples will come under God’s scrutiny, and that he will be answerable for the faults of all (RB 2.4–7). Again and again, the abbot is exhorted to set a good example (RB 2.13) or bear the consequences. In his relations with the community, the abbot is urged to be scrupulously fair and concerned for everyone’s welfare (cf RB  2.16, 22). He is to check evil-doing, never turning a blind eye to the sins of offenders (RB 2.26); and he is not to let concern for worldly things interfere with his concern for the salvation of souls (RB 2. 33–38). As if that were not enough, Benedict reminds the abbot that he will be judged by God on the way in which he has exercised his trust (RB 2. 6,7; RB 2.38, 39). If only every superior lived up to Benedict’s ideal!

RB 64 introduces some significant qualifications. For example, in discussing the election of the abbot, Benedict acknowledges that communities may sometimes wish to choose someone who winks at its vices (RB 64. 3). In such cases, Benedict explicitly enjoins the ‘local bishop and neighbouring abbots or Christians’ to intervene (RB 64. 4,5). For the rest, he lays down the kind of conduct the abbot should follow and the personal qualities he must cultivate, mindful always of the examination he will one day face (RB 64. 7–22). It is not a programme for the faint-hearted.

Moreover, I think it is worth noting that the abbot’s authority is by no means absolute. There is the chapter to which all are summoned and even the most junior are to be allowed their say (RB 3. 3). It is the abbot’s responsibility to make the final decision, but he is warned that he must ‘do all things in the fear of God and observance of the Rule, knowing that he will certainly have to render an account of all his judgements to God, the most just of judges’ (RB 3. 11). For their part, the monks are warned not to contend impudently with the abbot inside the monastery and not at all outside (RB 3. 8). Clearly, there can be abuses on either side and, over the centuries, RB 3 has been cited by both abbots and communities as justification for doing what they are explicitly told they should not do, ‘follow the will of their own heart’ (RB 3. 7), but where there is goodwill and a desire to grow in holiness, these checks and balances enable the community to flourish.

The abbot’s authority in practice
I have probably said enough to give you an idea of what the abbot should be. The problem comes with its realisation. Most Benedictines will have encountered superiors/communities who do not live up to the ideal. There are indeed abbots/abbesses who regard any questioning of their decisions as a failure in obedience; communities that are lax in observance or too comfortable for their own good. Mediocrity has always been the bane of Benedictinism, and it is easy to slip into. That said, I still think there is nothing in Benedict’s portrayal of the abbot or the kind of service he demands from him that could be said to be a fundamental weakness or structural/systemic failure. Once again, however, I want to add a few qualifications.

The monastery Benedict is writing about is a monastery without an external apostolate in the form of parishes. It is a monastery with children, which is not always the case nowadays, and one where all the community live together in one place, as nuns still usually do but monks not always. It is also likely to have been fairly small. Benedict is credited with having established twelve communities of twelve monks each — probably the number needed to ensure that all practical needs could be met from within the community. That is an important difference between the monastery of the sixth century and that of the twenty-first. Even in monasteries of monks leading a more or less cloistered life, those in priest’s orders may be absent for pastoral reasons, retreat-giving, studies, etc. There may therefore be less obvious cohesion and the abbot may not always know his monks as well as his sixth-century counterpart. But that is not the fault of the Rule. It is the fault, if that is the right word, of how it may be lived today.

One further point occurs to me, possibly only tangentially related to the abuse scandals. The Instruction Cor Orans is not very sympathetic to small communities of nuns, confusing autonomy and viability, and setting minimum numbers for their continued existence, yet St Benedict seems to have regarded small communities as being the most appropriate setting for the living of the Rule. Could it be that those who think the Rule is a problem have got it the wrong way round, i.e. it is not merely our personal failures, but also our institutional failure to remain small that is at least a contributory factor in some of the dreadful sexual abuse cases recently made public — and for abuses of authority in some other contexts? It is worth thinking about, although I don’t think there is any clear answer. There are large, fervent communities, with good abbots/abbesses. But I’d want to argue that they are so because of the Rule not in despite of it.

To be continued on Saturday, D.V. — I’m off for a PET scan and sarcoma clinic on Friday.


7 thoughts on “Of Abbots, Obedientiaries and Children in the Rule of St Benedict – part 1”

  1. Thank you so much for this post – I too have been very frustrated by some of the coverage seemingly blaming the Rule for the behaviour of individual superiors. I look forward to your next post!

  2. I honestly doubt whether anyone who has actually taken the time to read the Rule of Benedict (whether they study it further or not) could attribute the problem of abuse to it. It clearly speaks against wrongdoing and counsels the reader to know that God knows all our actions and thoughts…and to practice loving kindness, especially to the vulnerable in a community.

    I think the problem is that people look for a scapegoat….in this case, the church/ the Rule…..for human sin and failing. We are all absolutely capable of sinning without the help of the church, the Rule of Benedict or any other ‘voice’…..and I think it would be better to admit this (and try to rectify it) than to push the blame away onto an ‘other’……easy though that is!

    • I would agree, Shellie, but since it has been said, and many would accept the opinion unquestioningly, I think it’s worth taking the time to present some of the texts that should be considered, don’t you?

      • Yes, of course….and re-reading my comment I can see that it didn’t quite say what I meant the way that I meant it – the double-edged sword of communication that isn’t face to face!

        I was probably being over defensive about the Rule, having been told in the past (by someone who had never read it) that anything that was a ‘rule’ was bound to wrong. Of course, I realise that I don’t have to be defensive here…..apologies for how my comment sounded.

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