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Those other women in the Church

As in secular society, it seems that certain voices focused on “women in the Church” only care about women having governing power.

Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles chanting the Divine Office (benedictinesofmary.org/)

The role of women in the Church, and, particularly, how women can occupy more positions of power within her, has been a major discussion point in Pope Francis’s pontificate. Francis offered an address to a women’s group before the G-20 Summit and called for more leadership from women on the global stage. In the Church Francis has twice established commissions to study the possibility of women serving as deacons. Some are advocating for women to have other power roles, from voting at the Synod of Bishops to high-ranking positions in the Curia or in diocesan chanceries.

At the same time, forces in Francis’s Vatican have been moving to stifle those other women in the Church – the ones unseen, often forgotten, and often on the margins of settled places. They are female contemplatives, nuns whose prayers sustain the Church in her pilgrimage on earth.

Religious contemplatives not only sustain the Church. They remind all people that this world is not the end for which we are created. Today, in a secular culture and within a limping Church, their vocation can be difficult to fathom – especially since their chief desire is the precise opposite of those clamoring for women to have more ruling power. Religious contemplatives eschew power and Church politics; they want to be left alone to worship, to pray, and to live out the unique charism they have received from their saintly founders.

Yet amidst this storm for women’s power, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life is restricting female contemplative communities through the instruction Cor Orans, which itself is the application and clarification of Francis’ 2016 apostolic constitution on women’s consecrated life, Vultum Dei Quaerere. The autonomy of each individual monastery, long understood as essential for a community to maintain its charism, is suddenly being stripped and placed into the hands of a “Federal President” appointed by the Vatican. Individual institutes will be forced into “federations” that could require certain practices and forbid others that a monastery or institute has done for centuries.

In addition, Cor Orans doubles the required formation period of contemplative nuns to nine years, and stipulates that ongoing formation occur outside the monastery, a practice forbidden by St. Teresa of Avila in her constitutions for the Carmelite order. Should a monastery have only five professed nuns, it loses its right to elect its own superior; the Federal President would then take over. When St. Teresa opened her first monastery in 1562, she was joined by just four novices.

All of these demands are being imposed by the Congregation on female contemplative communities. Male contemplative communities are untouched by these regulations; they continue their practices unchanged and without the additional Vatican oversight that women are now receiving.

Why is this happening? For one, contemplative, cloistered nuns are the least powerful group in the Church. As in secular society, it seems that certain voices focused on “women in the Church” only care about women having governing power. Those women who renounce power, it seems, are not only to be forgotten; they are to be taken advantage of. So much for equality.

Second, given the collapse of vocations to the contemplative life since Vatican II, it cannot be a coincidence that the contemplative women being targeted by Cor Orans are members of traditional orders that maintain the centuries-long practices of their founders. These orders are the only ones gaining vocations. It is fair to ask, given the timeline of events, if the more recent attack on the Traditional Latin Mass launched with Traditionis Custodes can be viewed with Cor Orans as part of a broader reaction against any aspect of Catholicism that predates 1962.

Based on the 2020 letter of Archbishop José Carballo, Secretary for the Congregation for Consecrated Life, to the traditional Discalced Carmelites monasteries that wrote to him for clarifications concerning Cor Orans, this seems to be the case. Carballo writes that his office’s instruction flows from “the development of the theology of consecrated life in these years that separate us from the Council” and “of the ‘signs of the times.’”

In reality, this “development” is the change in approach from Pope John Paul II, who in 1999 affirmed traditional female contemplative practices and governance in Verbi Sponsa. Francis’ own apostolic constitution, and now the instruction Cor Orans, undermines monasteries’ autonomy and traditional practices. As Traditionis Custodes does to the Traditional Latin Mass Cor Orans does to traditionally-minded monasteries: they are placed under Vatican oversight, likely with the intention of squashing activities perceived as opposing the current Vatican’s preferred “signs of the times” – a dangerous, amorphous term if there ever was one.

Contemplative institutes are living proof that the Catholic faith was not born in 1962. Those attached to time-tested charisms should not be forced to relinquish them because the ideology of newness has infected the upper echelons of the Vatican. Women religious have the canonical right to live their charisms without exterior interference.

What can be done? First, the lay faithful should join contemplative nuns around the world in praying that exemptions to Cor Orans will be generously granted to all monasteries that seek them. Some monasteries may wish to join the newly invented federations envisioned by the Vatican. But those who wish to adhere to their own approved constitutions over this innovation should be free to do so.

Second, diocesan ordinaries should voice their support at the Vatican for the monasteries that wish to retain their traditional ways of life. These women are without power; bishops have power. Bishops, opposite the judge in the parable, ought to serve as a just authorities for the petitioning women who have no power of their own in this situation and nowhere else to turn.

St. Teresa desired that she and her daughters “would live occupied in praying for those who are the defenders of the Church, preachers and learned men who defend her.” It is time for lay people and bishops to become those defenders. If power is what is desired in the Church, let the women contemplatives remind the Vatican and those obsessed with status of the words of our Lord: “He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Mt 23:11-12).


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About David G. Bonagura, Jr. 12 Articles
David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism. and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation.

14 Comments

  1. Actually, the provisions of Cor Orans AREN’T all that drastic. Mgr Carballo is also very aware of spiritual and other types of abuse taking place in women’s communities – he wrote an impassioned foreword to Dom Dysmas de Lassus’ book on the topic – Risques et Derives de la vie religieuse, published 2020 (hopefully an English translation will appear soon).

    Mgr Carballo is head of CICLSAL in Rome (Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life), which is where all the petitions for dispensation from permanent vows in religious life arrive. So he actually can SEE with his own eyes what’s going on out there in religious-community-land, and there will be red flags popping up all over the place for some communities.

    I was in a religious community where there was a substantial exodus of perpetually professed sisters due to one superior general’s mismanagement, and this kind of thing gets noticed at CICLSAL. I’m sure mine is not the only community with this problem.

    I always appreciate the chivalry of laymen who want to defend nuns, but it’s usually not quite as simple as black hats vs white wimples.

    • Nice try, but Carballo has stated that he thinks contemplative orders no longer have a place in the Church. It’s not a matter of how drastic any given change is; Carballo is a progressive ideologue who would like to see contemplative orders go extinct.

      • I’m not sure what I was supposed to be ‘trying’. Given his job, I’d suggest that one of the reasons Mgr Carballo has his doubts about the contemplatives is that he’s receiving reports daily of perpetually professed sisters leaving after spiritual and sexual abuse in both contemplative and active communities. It’s usually a lot tougher on a sister leaving a contemplative community because she’s been de-skilled and will struggle to find work.

        Dr Theresa Burke, who founded the Grief to Grace program, is doing an increasing amount of work with sisters still in religious life, and ex-sisters who have left, who have experienced prolonged spiritual and sexual abuse in their communities. These sisters had nowhere to go, and no one to talk to, sometimes for years.

        This is a real problem. It needs to be faced. I know the current approach is a blunt instrument, and it will need refining. There is no easy way of cleaning out these messes, unfortunately.

    • “I was in a religious community where there was a substantial exodus of perpetually professed sisters due to one superior general’s mismanagement, and this kind of thing gets noticed at CICLSAL. I’m sure mine is not the only community with this problem.”

      Was this before or after the spirit of VCII entered in?

  2. Thank you for this article. The current group of Discalced Carmelite nuns may be facing the most serious internal opposition since the initial Teresian reform period. They are under the microscope right now. Any and all assistance is welcome.

  3. The goal of putting women into positions of leadership is a problem, because it does not result from Catholic practice and philosophy. It seems to come from current political fads which are inspired by revolutionaries, trouble-makers and malcontents, people who do not like the Catholic Church, its doctrines, traditions and people. The Church has done well with masculine leadership for more than 2000 years. Now, in the midst of all these fads, the Church is faltering. The dynamism has vanished. Men seem to have no place in the Church. Women and feminized men are the norm. That cannot work out well. In contrast, explicitly male-dominated religions, that is, the Muslims, have the dynamism and are expanding their influence without any opposition from present day Church leadership, it seems. Muslim men do not apologize for their masculinity. They do not try to hide it.

  4. The majority of people in my life who nurtured my faith and fostered my spirituality have been female.

    Cardinals, archbishops, and bishops — Church “leaders” all — rank very low on that list.

    • Do you have any other suggestions? Giving abusive and corrupt religious superiors MORE individual power in a community is probably going to be counter-productive.

      I think what gets forgotten in all this is that religious orders exist to serve the Church. They’re not quaint little communities of like-minded pious people who can do whatever they like. They are regulated by canon law. Some religious orders have the local bishop as their highest authority, but orders of pontifical right have to report to CICLSAL.

      • Actually,contemplative religious orders exist to serve GOD. It should not be within the right of one power-addled upper cleric to decide that certain religious orders, or liturgies for that matter, are obsolete according to HIS opinion. Spiritual people are often opposed and attacked by those above them ( Padre Pio for one) who fail to appreciate their value. It doesn’t make what they believe inappropriate nor should centuries of faithful tradition be subject to the whim of one person. It seems to me that since Vatican II and the subsequent mind-set of “how much like the seculars can we be”, the faithful , both lay and clerical, have been draining out of the church in droves. Except of course for the “quaint little communities” like the cloistered or contemplatives, and those who prefer the Latin Mass. They seem fit only to be stomped out , according to some of those at the higher levels. Should they succeed, the church as we know it will cease to exist. I will also add since convents no longer accept candidates at the age of 15, and most of those women are college grads, they should in fact have many life paths if they opt out of their orders. Finally, the Catholic Church has no monopoly on sexual predators, no matter how much the secular press likes to push that titillating narrative. Plenty of teachers, coaches, dentists, doctors, weird family members and in fact members of ALL walks of life have been similarly accused. It is foolish of the church to attempt to eradicate a “problem” which does not exist, and further centralization of power is a mistake. But as long as we are stuck with the current Pope, who does not appreciate tradition, and smilingly received Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden to the disgust of millions, we can only hope the damage can be reversed when this Pope is no longer in office.

  5. In the mid-nineties I had conversations with a Dominican nun, now deceased, about the history of convents: That many are many centuries old and all, except perhaps one connected to the Vatican, are self-sustaining via work and/or contributions. The Vatican gives no financial support. She did not refute the authority of the church hierarchy.
    All human institutions can be flawed, but since these ladies have been taking care of themselves and their convents, some founded in the 5th century or earlier, all by themselves for a very long time, certainly they are capable of fixing problems on their own. Maybe not overnight, but with time. What’s the church hierarchy’s track record for their own problems in that regard?

  6. Thank you for telling me that the most recent legislation for contemplative nuns was stifling me. I had no idea as I was experiencing just the opposite!
    Seriously, in 2014 the Congregation (CICLSAL) sent out a questionnaire to all
    federated monasteries dealing with three principal questions: the autonomy of the monasteries, formation and on the enclosure. They received nearly 2600 responses. Such a survey had never been done before. Why not to all the monasteries? Because, believe it or not, the Holy See doesn’t have contact information for every monastery in the world! Still, this is a very generous response!
    The Apostolic Constitution, Vultum Dei and the Instruction, Cor Orans, is the result of answers to this questionnaire. It comes from the concerns of the monasteries themselves.
    Vultum Dei replaced the Apostolic Constitution of Pius XII, Sponsa Christi in which he “invented” by Pius XII and the section in CO dealing with Federations comes almost entirely from this previous Constitution. Federations/Associations were NOT invented by Pope Francis, Arch. Carballo or CISLAL. Sponsa Christi was the legislation governing contemplative monasteries and the Congregation was bound to it but in reality much was obsolete. VDq responds to the needs of contemplative monasteries, particularly those experiencing difficulty because the nuns are very few and elderly. It is a reality. However, it also addresses those monasteries that are doing well or flourishing. Still, there are challenges. Novices come from this world and even in the best circumstances, are affected by it. Good, solid, theological formation is needed more than ever before.
    Cor Orans UPHOLDS Autonomy, See CO #15-19. This is the FIRST chapter of the Instruction.
    Federations DO NOT HAVE ANY authority in the internal governance of a monastery.

    CO upholds that formation should take place in the enclosure of a monastery, #258 VDq #14. Formation courses may take place outside the monastery and in another monastery and sometimes this is needed by a community that doesn’t have anyone as a novice mistress.

    VDq and CO is a document OF THE CHURCH and applies to all monastic communities, not just Carmelites. St. Teresa did NOT forbid a longer formation and in fact, said that if a novice has a true vocation she wouldn’t mind being a novice for 10 years!

    While many monasteries find the longer formation a bit of a challenge it is not against our way of life and given the high number of nuns asking for dispensation from their vows not longer after their final profession it is a wise decision.

    If a monastery is reduced to 5 nuns they lose the power to elect a prioress. A nun is appointed as a vicaress. The Federal President DOES NOT TAKE OVER. This provides the monastery a time to take a serious look at their current state and future. Usually the community is very elderly. Sometimes it is going over a period of regrowth. Two very different circumstances. The Federation isn’t a wrecking ball just waiting to come in and destroy the community. Maybe nuns from other monasteries can come in and help for a few years.

    VDq and CO orans actually give to monasteries the decision making “power” that was formally reserved to the bishop or the Holy See. It is now the prioress who gives permissions regarding leaving the enclosure. CO in NO WAY relaxes enclosure and specifically says that a monastery may choose an even stricter form of enclosure. CO #189. This squarely places the responsibility for enclosure in the hands of the nuns.

    Instead of writing a “hit piece” it would be helpful to everyone if you would READ these documents and ACCURATELY quote from them. Untruths does not serve the contemplative life of the Church.

    As a contemplative, cloistered nun of 30+ years I can assure you that I in no way feel stifled by the newest legislation of the Church. Living out of vow of obedience gives one the grace to be truly free for God alone, interceding for His people.
    God bless you!

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