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 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.

“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.

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.”

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….”

From OSV News