A Reply to the Anonymous Critic at Rorate Caeli

My recent article in Catholic World Report presenting another side of the story about the Vatican intervention in the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate prompted a “rebuttal” by an anonymous “very well-informed source” that was published at the Rorate Caeli blog (which is managed by the anonymous “New Catholic”).  In it I am accused of “uncritically repeating arguments, some of which were answered months ago….” 

First, I wish to say that I appreciate the generally civil tone of the blog post.  I will reply briefly to some of the arguments made in it. 

The survey results appear in the following format at the FFI’s official website www.immacolata.com, which was the basis of my summary and discussion of them:


Everything is essentially going well:  36%

There are problems: 64%

that can be resolved by the Ordinary General Chapter:   23%

that can be resolved by an Extraordinary General Chapter /Commissioner:  77%

Plainly, the groups described in the first two lines (let’s call them “A” and “B”) are mutually exclusive (A + B = 100 percent).  Lines three and four (“C” and “D”) are grammatically subordinate to line two (“B”); this and the indentation clearly mark a subdivision of line two.  In my article, I indicated this by saying “of the latter group,” or “of them.”  To put the information in line three into words, you can say:  “Of the 64 percent who think there are problems, 23 percent thought that those problems can be resolved by the Ordinary General Chapter.”  Simple logic makes it obvious that the statement “77 percent of the friars called for an Extraordinary General Chapter” is not supported by the survey data.  To my knowledge no serious commentator made that claim.  Still, to make this point perfectly clear in my article, I even “did the math” on line 4 of Question 2, and said that “about half of the respondents…77 percent of 64 percent = 49.3 percent” thought an Extraordinary General Chapter was necessary to resolve that problem.

Caution is often needed when drawing conclusions from statistics.  No reasonable observer, however, would claim that the data, as presented in the Apostolic Visitor’s report, had been “manipulated.”  The anonymous critic at Rorate Caeli claims that “the survey or questionnaire…was debunked” and then goes on to misstate the case himself.  He says that the statistics were presented “A, B/(100%-A), (C+D)/(100%-A)”.  As I have just explained, the actual correct format on the official website is:  “A, B, C/(100%-A), D/(100%-A).”

Now it is possible that three months ago there was some misleading report that presented data in the illogical format described by the critic.  But then his argument is not with me.  Based on the official survey report, I stand by my conclusion:  “The statistics summarized above clearly indicate that it was nevertheless high time for the FFI to seek outside help from the authorities in Rome and that there was significant support for that petition.”

To the objection that “certainly not all the friars” responded, I reply that not all members of a religious community have an active “voice” or say in the community’s official business, but only those who are permanently professed.  Therefore the survey was sent only to them.  To the rhetorical question, “So why were the percentages published in the first place?”, I reply:  for the record, for the sake of transparency, and so as not to withhold significant information that sheds light on the subsequent Vatican decision to appoint an Apostolic Commissioner. 

The anonymous critic cannot resist another rhetorical question:  “If one were today to send a questionnaire to the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate regarding the style of government of Fr. Volpi and his decisions in liturgical matters, how many do you suppose would say that there are serious problems…?”  He then slyly segues to a fascinating bit of news:  more than 200 of them had signed a petition asking to found a new Institute.  Sarcasm plus non sequitur proves nothing.  The critic fails to note that the petition was to reorganize as a new community under the Ecclesia Dei Commission, which, among other things, is responsible for religious congregations devoted to the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.  The petition with 200 signatures may not be a reflection on Father Volpi’s leadership at all, but rather a hopeful first step toward a proper, canonical solution to the liturgical tension within the FFI in recent years. 

I am not acquainted with the particulars of the charges against Father Bruno.  I merely reported that the Apostolic Commissioner (himself the victim of character assassination in the Italian press and in the traditionalist blogosphere since July 2013) found it necessary to defend the Secretary General, both with appeals to religious solidarity and, if necessary, with canonical sanctions against calumny.

The critic makes the odd argument that Father Volpi’s decisions restricting Father Manelli’s movements were “arbitrary” “since this canon applies to all of the religious.”  Canon 665 reads, “Religious are to reside in their own religious house and observe the common life; they are not to stay elsewhere except with the permission of the Superior.”  The canon does not oblige the Superior to treat all religious alike, but it does say that he can grant permission for travel or not at his discretion.  For members of an Institute so devoted to evangelical poverty, it is not surprising that travel outside of the diocese of residence should be restricted.  Furthermore the unique status of Father Manelli as founder and former General Superior calls for him to ask permissions of the Apostolic Commissioner directly: both out of respect for Father Manelli and also out of due administrative caution, to prevent conflicting reports.  Taken with the other explanations in my article, it is clear that no injustice whatsoever has been done to Father Manelli with regard to his residence. 

Contrary to what the critic insinuates, I did not write that “Fr. Manelli’s poor health was just an excuse for not answering Fr. Volpi’s questions,” nor did I suggest that Father Volpi doubted the medical report.  Given the fact of the founder’s poor health, however, is it not all the more urgent for him to comply and answer the Apostolic Commissioner’s questions promptly so as to ensure the future of his foundation? 

The distinction between the ownership and the administration of temporal goods is elementary in religious life.  I do not know who holds or has held the titles to the land, buildings, publishing houses, or multimedia centers used by the FI.  But Father Volpi complains in his letter to Signore Nevano (a partner of one of the lay proprietary associations) that “the Statutes of the proprietary associations of our temporal goods…have been revised in such manner as to exclude the Superior General from any future act of disposing of his goods.”  Both the ownership and the administration of Church goods are regulated in canon law (see canons 634-640, esp. 638 §3 and, more generally, 1273-1289).  Large-scale transfers of either in a parish or a religious community cannot be made without approval from the competent superior, in the present case, the Vatican. 

Having read all of the Apostolic Commissioner’s statements and correspondence posted at the FFI website, I can say that he deals patiently and courteously with even the most disrespectful questions and challenges;  I cannot imagine Father Volpi rudely addressing to the founder a complex question (a hypothetical example: “Have you stopped mismanaging ecclesiastical goods yet?”)  The words cited disapprovingly by the critic are a paraphrase of his question.  On the other hand, the anonymous critic again cannot refrain from sniping at Father Volpi:  “If anyone has deprived the friars of temporal goods they need for their life and apostolate, it is the Commissioner.” 

I thank the critic for pointing out that the first of the four concluding points in my article mistakenly conflates two things: the appointment of the Apostolic Commissioner (a papal decision against which there is no recourse) and certain individual administrative decisions made by that Commissioner or his assistants (against which legal recourse is still possible, as Father Volpi reminded one correspondent).   

Commenting on the second point concerning the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate, the critic assures his reader that this “demonstrates that Mr. Miller did not actually base his article solely on the documentation posted at www.immacolata.com, but also has some other source, evidently close to the Commissioner.”  However, the statement about the Sisters’ General Chapter exceeding its competence by modifying their Rule is found in the “Reply of October 9, 2013,” an appendix to the posted correspondence with Signora Scrosati. 

As for the third point, a distinction should first be made between “all Masses” said at the seminaries and novitiates (among which there were still some in the Ordinary Form) and the “Conventual Mass,” that is, the Mass that seminarians and novices are obliged to attend.  My source in the FFI, who was present at the General Council in November 2011, writes:  “The General Council promulgated norms for the celebration of the Vetus Ordo [Extraordinary Form] that exhorted us to use the VO for all conventual Masses. While the document made it clear the the ‘norms’ were only exhortations, it also made clear that the goal was universal compliance.”  Father Volpi’s charge is accurate, although expressed very concisely.

My replies to what Rorate Caeli touts as a “most thorough account” have shown that the critic’s discussion itself contains several errors, misunderstandings, and obfuscations, and manifests clear signs of animus against the Apostolic Commissioner. 

With the exception of the conflation in summary point one, I stand by the statements in my article.

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About Michael J. Miller 127 Articles
Michael J. Miller Michael J. Miller translated Priesthood and Diaconate by Gerhard Ludwig Müller for Ignatius Press and Eucharist and Divorce: A Change in Doctrine? for the Pontifical John Paul II Institute.