Diocesan hermit-theologian warned bishop ‘transgender hermit’ proposal would ‘misuse’ church law

11 mins read
Brother Christian Matson, a hermit within the Diocese of Lexington, Ky., formally came out as a transgender man May 19, 2024, with the permission of Bishop John E. Stowe of Lexington. (OSV News photo/courtesy Jennifer Hart Yonts)

(OSV News) — A Kentucky bishop’s decision to endorse a hermit who publicly identified as transgender has raised a number of questions and concerns — particularly from another diocesan hermit and theologian, who had counseled the bishop in writing nearly two years before that approving the individual as a hermit would “misuse” canon law governing that vocation, and set a precedent that could endanger the future of eremitical life itself.

Sister Laurel M. O’Neal, a systematic theologian, Camaldolese Oblate and professed hermit for the Diocese of Oakland, California, told OSV News she was among those stunned to learn Bishop John E. Stowe of Lexington had received “Brother Christian Matson,” formerly known as Cole Matson, as a hermit — and not only because of Matson’s May 19 public disclosure, made just under a year after profession, of being transgender.

Potential damage to the vocation of eremitical life

“I don’t think that Cole knows the damage he has done to an authentic and fragile vocation that has been struggling just for 41 years to be understood and to be known by Catholics,” said Sister Laurel, who undertook eremitical life in 1985 and made her perpetual profession in 2007.

OSV News communicated extensively with both Sister Laurel and Matson over the course of several phone conversations and email exchanges (as well as other experts and those with knowledge of Matson’s vocational pursuit) and is using pronouns referring to Matson as quoted.

Along with writing about eremitical life and its riches on her blog, Sister Laurel has worked with dioceses in discernment and formation for candidates seeking eremitical life, which — although tracing its roots to the third century — was only formally recognized by the universal church’s canon law in 1983.

Matson’s conversion and love for the creative arts

The 39-year-old Matson — who converted to Catholicism in 2010, four years after undergoing transgender medical interventions while in college — described to OSV News a daily schedule that blends prayer, the Divine Office and Mass, as well as regular performing arts work that provides both creative fulfillment and a self-supporting income, as the diocese provides Matson with neither a salary nor benefits.

“Despite the fact that my medical history is more complex, I’m just a regular guy like any other guy, who just wants to serve God. I feel called primarily to be in relationship with God in contemplative prayer and sit before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and be with him and pray,” said Matson, who underwent “hormonal therapy, a double mastectomy and ‘bottom surgery'” and presents as a man.

The creative arts are part of “how I pray” and are “inextricable from my sense of vocation,” Matson — who in 2016 co-founded the nonprofit Catholic Artist Connection — also told OSV News.

“And out of that prayer comes those experiences of prayer and of goodness and of love with others through creative arts,” said Matson. “And then (to) receive other people’s similar, inspired experiences shared through art, and (to) also share their lives and hear their stories and their needs, and (to) bring those back before the Blessed Sacrament. So that’s the way I’m going to approach it.”

Theological and canonical criticisms

But Sister Laurel told OSV News that in July 2022 she had sent a lengthy email to Bishop Stowe, detailing her concerns about Matson’s plans after corresponding with Matson directly in 2019 and 2022. She said Matson had contacted her for advice, having read her blog for several years.

In that email, a copy of which Sister Laurel provided to OSV News, she advised Bishop Stowe she had “serious concerns” regarding “a misuse” of Canon 603 — the section of canon law governing the eremitical life — in Matson’s case. Sister Laurel said its application “could not only be harmful to (Matson), but to the solitary eremitical vocation itself as well to those who are approaching profession under c 603 with their own dioceses.”

Sister Laurel made clear in her letter she wanted to “prescind from the issue of Cole’s transsexuality” — except to address where Matson raised the issue — for the purpose of conveying her core apprehensions.

“At no point in our correspondence did Cole Matson indicate a sincere sense of a vocation to solitary eremitical life,” Sister Laurel wrote. “In fact, he was clear that I would disapprove of the way he was proposing to use (Canon) 603 to be admitted to public vows/profession. In this he is entirely correct.”

Sister Laurel pointed out that the vocation of a hermit under canon law — like any vocation to consecrated life — requires “discernment and significant initial formation.”

“I appreciate that Cole has spent time considering and trying his vocation, but he has not spent any real time living or discerning a vocation to eremitical life, and especially not to solitary eremitical life under c 603,” she wrote.

Broader implications for hermetical life and the Church

Sister Laurel explained to Bishop Stowe that bishops and chanceries have sometimes failed to appreciate that the hermit is a genuine vocation, allowing the eremitical life instead to be misused as a “stopgap” or “fallback” vocation for people who do not have a genuine call, or they have used it as a means to deal with “difficult cases” involving clergy or others. Rather, she said, the hermit’s vocation is meant to give a living witness to people, such as “those marginalized by chronic illness or other life circumstances which cannot be changed and cannot be opted out of,” that even for them “human wholeness and holiness is possible in communion with God in the silence of solitude.”

Sister Laurel pointed out that Matson’s additional correspondence with her did not indicate “the settled heart and mind of someone approaching (a religious) profession.”

She quoted Matson’s written admission to her in June 2022 that being a diocesan hermit was the kind of second-best option she had counseled against: “I was hesitant to share this with you because I know you write a lot about ‘stopgap’ and ‘fall back’ vocations. To be frank, I feel called to community religious life and still hope to be given brothers, either through formation of a new community or by being able to formally enter the community where I found a home last year. Maybe one day I could enter and make solemn vows with that community. … But in the meantime, being a diocesan hermit feels truer to my vocation than forming a lay community. … I understand if this situation goes against your position on the use of canon 603, but I also hope you’ll understand the complexities of the situation. Both my bishop and I believe that I am called to public profession, and that it is a matter of justice in the Church.”

Therese Ivers, a canon lawyer and consecrated virgin living in the Diocese of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, told OSV News that under canon law, “if you are making vows in a way of life that forbids community with a full intention of creating community, that’s invalid.”

Stressing that she “could only speak in hypotheticals” since Ivers did not specifically know the intentions of either Bishop Stowe or Matson, Ivers said there was in Matson’s case a “scenario of possibly invalid vows.”

However, Sister Laurel explained that Matson’s framing of the reasons for becoming a hermit with public vows as “a matter of justice in the Church” indicated to her that Matson was “speaking about doing justice to transsexuals (et. al.) who cannot, at this point in time, enter religious, consecrated, or ordained life in the Church.”

Sister Laurel pointed out to Bishop Stowe that such an agenda has nothing to do with the eremitical life and so would constitute a “fraudulent motive” for pursuing canonical profession as a hermit. She noted Matson’s grief over the loss of religious community life, having been told to leave a Benedictine monastery; she stressed the “grief over this loss must be healed and/or negotiated” before Matson is “even potentially in any position to discern a vocation of any sort.”

Responses from Church authorities

Without entering into the vocation with the right motive, Sister Laurel warned “the most profound healing of past trauma, rejection, and any correlative search for identity and value” that can come from the hermit’s solitude with God would not be possible for Matson. She warned Bishop Stowe that the ramifications of permitting Matson to become a diocesan hermit without proper discernment could be significant, especially for hermits in the midst of their own vocational doubt.

“If the church’s own discernment of the truth of this vocation is driven by anything other than the most rigorous honesty of perception and judgment, the entire vocation can be undermined just when the hermit’s own life is most vulnerable to redemption and transfiguration,” she wrote. “The result can be disastrous.”

In early August 2022, Sister Laurel — acting on what she said was the advice of two canon lawyers — sent another email to Bishop Stowe, directing it as well to the archbishop of his province, Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre of Louisville, and to the papal nuncio, then-Archbishop (now-Cardinal) Christophe Pierre. She told OSV News that Bishop Stowe offered a “gracious and brief response” acknowledging her understanding of Canon 603 and her vocation. Archbishop Fabre deferred to Bishop Stowe in his reply, and the papal nuncio did not respond.

In her message to all three, a copy of which she provided to OSV News, Sister Laurel acknowledged Bishop Stowe’s response to her previous email, and explained that her follow-up message had been prompted by “deep sadness,” as well as “deep love for my vocation, for Canon 603 itself, and for the well-being of consecrated life in the church.” In this email, Sister Laurel recapitulated the concerns she detailed to Bishop Stowe, but was even more direct, arguing that allowing Matson’s profession to go forward posed the risk of creating “serious scandal and even sacrilege.”

Matson’s “proposed profession is essentially a dishonest and selfish act without real regard for the fact that vocations to consecrated life/states of perfection belong primarily to the church, not to the individual to whom she mediates such a call,” Sister Laurel wrote. She argued that Matson was using Canon 603 “as a means to get to his goal, namely public profession,” because Matson’s transsexuality blocked the path to religious community life due to its rejection of the intrinsic unity of soul and body and of sexual differentiation. The church holds that sexual differentiation, along with the unity of the soul and the body, are fundamental to human identity as created by God, and urges compassion and pastoral accompaniment for those who experience suffering and confusion in this regard.

“Admitting Cole to profession in a state of perfection with a fundamental act of deception at the heart of said profession calls into question Cole’s capacity to live this profession for the sake of the salvation of others,” she said, arguing that introducing Matson as “Brother Christian” would also involve “a public act of deception” upon the faithful.

Matson’s point of view

From Matson’s point of view, coming forward as a hermit who is publicly transgender has helped give other people, particularly those who identify as transgender, second thoughts about God and the church.

“I’m getting emails from trans people all over the world as well as from personal friends saying, ‘I didn’t feel like I could have a relationship with God or the church before, but now this gives me hope seeing how the church has welcomed you, and that’s Bishop John (Stowe) right there,” Matson told OSV News, adding a wish to “formally object” to Sister Laurel’s decision to share the emails with OSV News.

Regarding Sister Laurel’s concerns about Matson possibly using the eremitical life as a “stopgap” vocation and entering religious life with unhealed grief from previous rejections by other orders, Matson told OSV News, “During my formation” at Portsmouth Abbey in Portsmouth, Rhode Island — undertaken with the aim of “(starting) a private association … with an intent of becoming an institute of religious life … I really felt that I discovered a monastic vocation.

“I don’t think ‘monastic’ is a term I would have applied to myself, but I really felt at home in myself in the monastic context,” said Matson. “But since it wasn’t possible for me to enter that community, but I still felt called to be a monk, the only canonical form that could take would be a diocesan hermit with Bishop John.”

Yet Sister Laurel and one other well-placed source (who wished to remain unnamed due to pastoral concerns), disputed that Matson’s time at Portsmouth — which Matson said was ended after five months due to “a person outside the monastery (who) wanted me to leave, and made it so that I was forced to leave, against the will of the monastery and myself” — constituted an actual novitiate, but was rather undertaken in an informal capacity.

OSV News has attempted to reach Portsmouth’s abbot three times for confirmation of Matson’s status while there but has not yet received a response.

The removal from Portsmouth felt like “an attempted abortion,” Matson told OSV News, adding, “Everybody agreed that my call was to religious life and that the best way to heal from that pain was to continue in religious life in a welcoming community, which was the diocese.”

In response to a request to speak with Bishop Stowe about Matson’s coming out as transgender on Pentecost Sunday, the diocese referred OSV News to its May 21 statement of support for Matson, whom it said “has long sought to consecrate his life to Christ in the Church by living the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience.”

Bishop Stowe told Religion News Service in a May 19 article that he regarded Matson as “a sincere person seeking a way to serve the church.”

The bishop also told the outlet that “hermits are a rarely used form of religious life … but they can be either male or female. Because there’s no pursuit of priesthood or engagement in sacramental ministry, and because the hermit is a relatively quiet and secluded type of vocation, I didn’t see any harm in letting him live this vocation.”

In search of a vocation in the Church

“It’s in a messy period of discernment right now,” Matson told OSV News. “The community is not currently available to me, but diocesan hermit is available to me, so I went, ‘Well, let’s see if that fits with how I feel called,’ and I feel like over the past two years, it is fitting more and more.”

Matson added, “I believe in the mind-body unity of the person, and I believe in sexual differentiation, yet I’m still transgender. … When the church has talked about being transgender, they almost universally phrase it in terms of adherence to gender ideology. And pretty much anything they’ve ever listed as part of gender ideology, I actually disagree with.”

Matson said that “part of the reason (for) going public about this (is) that the church is making a mistake when it claims that being transgender is a result of believing in gender ideology, or says that the only way to justify medical transition is by basing it on gender ideology. I believe that’s completely false.”

Matson claimed “the church has not taken the time to do the theology” and that “human sexuality is complicated,” with “different factors which go into determining a person’s sexual identity,” and with “being transgender is a category of intersex condition” — although “some people may identify as trans as more of a choice or performance art.”

Matson told OSV News, “We (Bishop Stowe and Matson) both think that it is a matter of justice that LGBT people be considered based on their character and on their actual gifts and their actual love of God and (being) desirous of the church, as opposed to saying (that) this state of being, whether it’s your sexual orientation or gender identity, in itself makes you unfit and uncallable by God.”

OSV News has contacted the Vatican’s Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life three times about Matson’s case and is awaiting a response. Archbishop Fabre’s office confirmed to OSV News that the archbishop had deferred to Bishop Stowe on Sister Laurel’s concerns about Matson. Cardinal Pierre’s office has not yet responded to OSV News’ request for confirmation that the nuncio had received Sister Laurel’s email.

Sister Laurel told OSV News that while she did not believe the vocation of a hermit was proper for Matson, that did not preclude having some kind of vocation within the life of the church.

She said her interactions with Matson showed “he felt called to create a community for artists,” a vocation she said seemed “absolutely genuine for Cole. … When he spoke about that, he just came alive with it.”

Gina Christian

Gina Christian is a National Reporter for OSV News.