[The same attitude toward contemplative religious life as toward the liturgy: “If it ain’t broke, let’s tinker with it and see if we can break it”]
Written by Hilary White
The pope has issued “new guidelines” for contemplative nuns, and it has set off every one of my alarms, long, loud and terrifying as an air raid siren. It is possibly one of the most sinister things I’ve seen coming from Bergoglio thus far, but I think few people will understand how serious it is or could be.
Hardly anyone gives a moment’s thought to cloistered nuns. Once they’re inside, the world forgets about them. But contemplative religious life is like the mitochondria of the Church. The power source of the cell that makes all the other systems function. The mitochondria are the most unobtrusive and hidden of the organelles of the body, and for a very long time their purpose was not fully understood. But now we know our lives depend on the health of this tiny, secret and hidden little thing. And mitochondrial disease – when the mitochondria fail to function – is devastating.
I believe that one of the major causes of the great collapse of Catholicism has been the torpedoing of the religious life. And make no mistake, that was done deliberately, consciously and with great malice. I believe that the two things that had to happen to effect the result we have seen, was the attack first on the Mass and then on the religious. It was necessary to stopper up the two great conduits of grace into the lives of the Faithful, the Holy Sacrifice and the life consecrated to prayer and penance. Both have been nearly destroyed by the revolutionaries, and what survives of both are now under renewed attack.
Let’s look first at the relevant sections of the document at hand. Titled Vultum Dei Quaerere, it was issued today, the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene (recently restored to the Novus Ordo concentration camp.) As someone said today, “once you get the sugar out of the way” there are some deeply disturbing items in there, if you know something about how the religious life works and something about the kind of men who are now in charge.
Mandated formation period: “no less than nine years”
First the document has mandated something that no pope has ever tried to do, to require a uniform length of time for formation for all contemplative communities, and one that is considerably longer than most communities currently have. This was the first thing I heard from a contact in Rome who called me this morning to ask how long the usual time is for formation. I said it varies from order to order and house to house, but generally it’s six months for postulancy, two years for novitiate and then three for “temporary” vows.
The trend since the Tridentine reforms has been to longer and longer preparation periods, and some of the cloistered orders extend this up to seven years. There have been some theologians decrying this trend saying that it is harmful to the religious and to the monastery community.
But that is all over now. Section 15 says, “They should ensure that candidates receive personalized guidance and adequate programmes of formation, always keeping in mind that for initial formation and that following temporary profession, to the extent possible, ‘ample time must be reserved,’ no less than nine years and not more than twelve.”
In the long history of the religious life, the Church has always wisely left the details of formation up to the individual community, allowing for general norms. Canon Law requires only that the novitiate include one “canonical year”. The notion of “temporary vows” is a new one (that is, prior to the 15th century, you just made vows after the novitiate and that was that) and its value is still broadly debated. There is a school of thought that says such lengthy periods of being in this indeterminate “temporary” situation in a monastery is inherently destabilizing both to the person and to the community. Francis’ new rule means that it will take a minimum of nine years to even know whether a nun will remain in the community.
It is doubly significant since in our times, monasteries are often small groups and there are a lot of offices in a monastery that cannot be held by a monk or nun who is not fully professed. In Benedictine monasteries, only fully professed nuns can sit in Chapter or on a governing council. Only fully professed nuns can be elected abbess or prioress or subprioress. Only fully professed nuns can even have a permanent choir stall in some places. One is, simply, not fully a member of the community until final profession.
There are a lot of implications for this from various perspectives, but think of this for a moment. Some contemplative communities accept women up to age 45 (Carmelites and Benedictines in England and Visitandines everywhere). A person who has a “late” vocation and enters at that age will not be able to even know if she will be able to stay, to “burn out her life for God,” until she is 54. She will not know if she is even going to remain as a member of the community until then. What kind of injury will this do to stability both interior and external, a major building block of the contemplative life?
For two thousand years, the Church has understood that such rules, in keeping with Christian freedom, must be left up to the community. Until now, until Pope Francis has decided that all these nuns deciding things for their communities is just a wee bit too much autonomy. For all Francis’ talk about “decentralizing” and “synodality,” he is turning into one of Catholic history’s most ruthless and outrageous power-grabbers, trampling the historic rights of the faithful.
Federations: Autonomy? What autonomy?
29. “No one contributes to the future in isolation, by his or her efforts alone, but by seeing himself or herself as part of a true communion which is constantly open to encounter, dialogue, attentive listening and mutual assistance”. For this reason, take care to avoid “the disease of self-absorption” and to preserve the value of communion between different monasteries as a path of openness towards the future and a means of updating and giving expression to the enduring and codified values of your autonomy.
30. Federation is an important structure of communion between monasteries sharing the same charism, lest they remain isolated.
The principal aim of a Federation is to promote the contemplative life in the member monasteries, in accordance with the demands of their proper charism, and to ensure assistance in initial and continuous formation as well as in practical needs, through the exchange of nuns and the sharing of material goods. In view of these aims, federations ought to be encouraged and increase in number.
In case anyone was wondering whether existing monasteries could be left alone, think again. The emphasis on federations is very important and very sinister… literally. Most of the Benedictine federations, for example, are hopelessly corrupted with neo-modernist “liberalism” and exert enormous pressure against any individual house who might want to return to the Traditional liturgical or monastic practices. Currently the decisions of Federations have no force of binding law. Technically each house is independently governed and the membership in the federation is voluntary and advisory, but this is really true only on paper. In practice the pressure to conform is used as a weapon against the tradition-minded. If Francis is trying to force everyone into a Federation, you can bet your last nickel that he intends to strengthen the powers of the federations over the individual member houses.
And yes, the purpose is clearly to force everyone into a federation. The last section of the document makes it explicit: you’re in a federation unless the Holy See gives you permission not to be. Art. 9 §1. Initially, all monasteries are to be part of a federation. If, for some special reason, a monastery cannot join a federation, after the vote of the chapter, permission to allow the monastery to remain outside a federation is to be sought from the Holy See, which is competent to study and decide the question.
A tradition-minded friend in Rome who is a theological consultant for a number of groups as well as being employed by a Vatican office, said that this is a “centralizing document,” aimed at redirecting authority from independent, autonomous religious communities back into Rome. He said it is “largely concerned with strengthening structures.”
This was also the assessment of the far-left Tablet magazine in the UK, who said, “This document is not the first centralising move by the Jesuit Pope on the matter of religious: earlier this year he ruled that bishops must consult with the Vatican before establishing a diocesan religious order.”
Indeed, the regulations section is full of these little provisos that for this or that exemption or change, approval or permission must be sought from the Congregation for Religious. Here’s another one regarding the type of cloister a community wishes to have: Art. 10 §1. Each monastery, following serious discernment and respecting its proper tradition and the demands of its constitutions, is to ask the Holy See what form of cloister it wishes to embrace, whenever a different form of cloister from the present one is called for.
And of course, once you’ve revised and adapted your constitutions to be in conformity with this document, they will have to pass muster: §2. Once they have been adapted to the new regulations, the articles of the constitutions or rules of individual institutes are to be submitted for approval by the Holy See.
Compare this micromanaging with the related clauses in one of the major documents it abrogates, Verbi Sponsa, 1999. Interesting differences in the wording. Verbi Sponsa also has a note about changing the form of cloister: “Every adaptation of the forms of separation from the outside world must be carried out in such a way ‘that physical separation is preserved,’ and it must be submitted to the approval of the Holy See.”
Subtle but important difference there from “to ask the Holy See what form of cloister it wishes to embrace…” The old paradigm assumed that monasteries would consider their needs and decide what they wanted, and then ask for approval. In the Bergoglian paradigm, you start by asking the Holy See “what form of cloister” you want to “embrace” and then you learn to like it.
My friend comments, “In the short term, this will probably be problematic for smaller communities, and for people wanting to start up communities.
“Specifically, groups with connections to larger religious bodies like Franciscan groups, with looser affiliations to the major religious ‘families,’ will probably see attempts to make them conform to the larger bodies.
“New groups – say, people who want to be Dominicans, or Passionists – will have a much harder time getting started, unless they are willing to adopt the predominating mindset of the larger bodies.”
And at the moment, nearly all the existing federations of all the orders are decidedly Vatican II liberals, if not “ultra-liberals”. This means, in short, that if you want to found a new Benedictine house that is along the lines of Fontgombault or Le Barroux or Clear Creek, you are going to have a very, very hard time indeed. And even more difficult will be moving an existing house that is part of one of these federations away from the liberalizing, desacralizing trends. If you’re in an existing house but your flower-power trendies have died off and you want to go back to traditional habits, Latin or Gregorian Chant, you’re out of luck.
My contact was quite specific about this, saying, “In practical terms, it seems this will make it all but impossible to start up a new ‘Tridentine’ type order.”
Someone asked me today, “How do you start a new order, which by definition is always tiny and alone, if it has to be part of a federation from the start?” It’s a good question. How is anyone expected to do this under these rules? Obviously, they’re not. This is the purpose of the thing, to make sure there will be a cap or a brake on what is obviously a trend that is alarming the men in the Bergoglian Vatican.
Someone else pointed out that under this document none of the currently flourishing conservative or “traditionalist” monasteries or communities could have been founded. This includes the specifically traditionalist Benedictines of Mary Queen of Apostles in Missouri or more mainstream “conservative” groups like the Sisters of Life in New York.
The deadman’s switch: Too many oldies? Too many Trads? You’re done.
Art. 8 §1. Juridical autonomy needs to be matched by a genuine autonomy of life. This entails a certain, even minimal, number of sisters, provided that the majority are not elderly, the vitality needed to practice and spread the charism, a real capacity to provide for formation and governance, dignity and quality of liturgical, fraternal and spiritual life, sign value and participation in life of the local Church, self-sufficiency and a suitably appointed monastery building. These criteria ought to be considered comprehensively and in an overall perspective.
§2. Whenever the requirements for a monastery’s genuine autonomy are lacking, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life will study the possibility of establishing an ad hoc commission made up of the ordinary, the president of the federation, a representative of the federation and the abbess or prioress of the monastery. In every case, the purpose of this intervention is to initiate a process of guidance for the revitalisation of the monastery, or to effect its closure.
And no sneakily recruiting from other countries either…
§6. Even though the establishment of international and multicultural communities is a sign of the universality of the charism, the recruitment of candidates from other countries solely for the sake of ensuring the survival of a monastery is to be absolutely avoided. To ensure that this is the case, certain criteria are to be determined.
This is the chopping block for nearly every monastery in Italy. This country has the world’s highest concentration of contemplative religious houses, and nearly all of them are constituted with one, two or three elderly Italians with the rest of the population being Philippinas, Indians or Africans. If you go cruising around the Italian language internet looking for “monache Benedettine” you will find this composition in nearly every house in the country. Recruiting from other countries has been the only reason the monasteries in Italy are still open.
This set of clauses gives the Congregation for Religious, currently headed by a man who manifestly loathes the traditional religious life and the Holy Catholic Faith, all the power they require to simply start at one end of the boot and work their way down with the axe, closing nearly every house in the country.
Moreover, that little note about the “sign value and participation in the life of the local Church” is more important than it sounds. Fitting in with the “life of the local Church” means that you must not scandalize the local Novus Ordo parish priest and his little cluster of domineering parish council ladies. It means that if you want Latin, you have to make sure that the “local Church” is OK with that. And here’s a hint; they’re not. It means that a monastery that wants to have the Old Mass can only do so if the idea is approved by the “local Church,” which means the Novusordoist parishes in the neighbourhood.
Now, before everyone starts lamenting and wailing, I actually believe this is a good sign for several reasons. First, the dismal state of the religious life is something that cannot be cured as long as the Church continues to maintain this false pseudo-religion within its institutions. One of the biggest bulwarks of this new pseudo-religion, “Novusordoism,” neo-modernism, Vaticantwoism… whatever you want to call it, has been the religious life. The monasteries embraced the new order, and the ones who have survived have been corrupted by it to varying degrees. The sooner we force the religious to choose between extinction and reverting to the true Faith, between getting the chop from a Vatican bent on destroying the Faith altogether and reforming themselves, the better. Either way we win.
The idea of a man like Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, being allowed by the pope to go up and down the Italian boot closing every monastery that he doesn’t like sounds horrifying until you realize the reality of life inside Italian monasteries. I had a conversation today with a priest who is friendly with a nun in a Roman monastery. She wanted to start a new monastery that would not allow television. She said, “the Italian nuns all watch soap operas twice a day on RAI,” the state secular broadcaster. This sister could find no more than four candidates willing to reform their lives and return to a fervent, devout, traditional religious life. I told my priest friend, “The reason your friend could find no vocations is that her requirements were Catholic and she was searching for candidates among a population that has become radically de-catholicized.”
Italian religious life is dying from the inside of the fungal infection caused by the new religion. Fervour is not really something one can find in any corner of the Italian Novusordoist Church. Frankly, it’s past time for some pruning.
Second, it is clear that this is a backlash against the growth of more new “conservative” and tradition-minded communities. That would seem like a bad thing on the face of it, but think for a moment. Why would such a backlash occur to these men if there were not something to lash against? The promulgation of this document, intended as it obviously was to quash such a revival, means there actually is a revival going on… It’s meant to squash the sprouts. It means the Hundred Years of Winter is showing signs of spring. Best news I’ve heard all week.
Moreover, this has been expected for some time. Since the new management was put in place in the Congregation for Religious, the Francis Vatican has been hinting darkly that the nuns just need to get with the programme, or else. If you were an LCWR anti-nun heretic, Marxist, abortion and women’s ordination supporter it’s been all dialogue, accompanying and fruit baskets. But if you’re the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate, watch out…
The document, in short, is an attempt to close off avenues of opposition to – and escape from – the new paradigm Francis and his friends have been busy installing in the Church, cementing the ultra-liberal direction and, in the words of his lieutenant Cardinal Maradiaga, making it so that his changes can never be undone. The permanent re-structuring of the entire Church from top to bottom, the installation of a radically different religious paradigm, has been the goal from the start.
So determined, in fact, is the regime to make sure there is no doubt about altering contemplative life, that Francis has stated in the text that this document trumps even Canon Law. He specifies that any canons that “directly contradict any article of the present Constitution” will be abrogated.
And don’t think they’re done with this document; one of its provisos is that we are to wait for a legislative document directly from the Congregation for Religious to give specifics on how the nuns are to “revise” their constitutions to adhere to this new legislation.
What do we do about it? For some time now, I have not supported the idea of a general revival of religious life throughout the Church. There has been a great deal of emotional capital invested in the little sprouts that pop up here and there, and they are undeniably a good sign. But a revival throughout the Church of the religious life, in any form, will not be possible until there is a revival of the Faith in the institution, until Rome, in short, returns to the Faith of our fathers. Until then, any little sprout is going to be vulnerable to the whimsical vicissitudes of bishops and their masters in the Vatican.
I do have a suggestion if anyone is interested. I believe that the only way the contemplative life – the mitochondria of the Body of Christ – is going to be preserved through the coming storm is in the same way they say mammals survived the dinosaur-extincting asteroid. I’m talking about groups so small and flexible and adaptive that they can’t find us to squash us.
It’s the guerilla solution of underground Christianity. Prayers under persecution are more powerful than any other sort; indeed, our entire civilization was founded on them. It seems possible that God is preparing us for exactly this kind of eventuality. And we must remember it is not civic or even ecclesiastical freedom and encouragement that brings about the flourishing of religious life or even lay spiritual life but the grace of the Holy Ghost.
Think about this: Private vows don’t have to go anywhere near a bishop, but can be made directly to a priest or abbot. One does not have to be recognised by a bishop under Canon 603 to live the lay eremitical life under the supervision and obediences of an abbot or prior or even a lowly parish priest. No bishop needs to know anything about it. In fact, such private supervision is something that no one but the sisters and their directors have to know anything about. They can be the contemplative prayer ninjas of the Catholic Church. And given the gift of the internet we can spread such a cure everywhere.