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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