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Notes and question about the new directives on contemplative convents

A person receives a vocation to the following of Christ in the evangelical counsels, not from the hierarchy of the Church, but as a charism and call that is from Christ himself.

(Image: Mateus Campos Felipe/Unsplash.com)

Preamble: Recently there have been visitations, organized by the Congregation responsible for Religious, of at least two Carmelite monasteries. The Congregation is requiring many changes in the customs and manner of life of these communities, including the revision of their Constitutions. Among them: requiring the communities to relinquish some of their legitimate autonomy by joining a federation that would have authority over them; relaxing the rules of enclosure; requiring 9-12 years of formation instead of the traditional 4-5 years.

Question: What theological authority does the Congregation have to impose these changes?

Reflection: A person receives a vocation to the following of Christ in the evangelical counsels, not from the hierarchy of the Church, but as a charism and call that is from Christ himself. No priest or bishop, nor even the pope, has the authority to say ”Follow me”. When Paul writes to his communities and exhorts them to imitate him, that is not and has never been considered a personal calling.

It is true that all genuine charisms are charisms in the (hierarchical) Church, and must be recognized and approved by the Church to have an official status. Nothing, however, prevents a group of Catholics from living as a community organized around the Gospel counsels. In fact, many communities began that way. The desert fathers simply went out into the desert. Benedict began as a solitary and a community gathered around him.

One could say that religious life is more Marian and Johannine than Petrine.

Historically, such spontaneous communities eventually seek official recognition from their local bishop and, if they grow beyond a single diocese, from Rome. But this recognition is not the origin of the charism. When a religious community has a tradition that spans centuries, the role of the hierarchy is not to interpret the charism but to be a traditionis custos, a protector of the charism.

There are occasions where intervention from hierarchical authority is called for. Examples would be when a community deviates from its own tradition, or when it becomes corrupt in one way or another—as in heterodoxy or grave moral failings, or when there is an otherwise irremediable division within the community itself.

When a community has been faithful to its charism and tradition, when the community is flourishing, when there is peace, joy, and harmony among the members, there is no reason—and I would say no justification—for an external custos to interfere or intervene. The proper interpreter of the specific charism is the community whose constitutions have been approved and, in the case of Carmelites, stood the test of time for more than 400 years.

Canonical Note: Canon law seems ambiguous on this issue—as on many others.

For example: Canon 593 reads: “With due regard for the prescription of can. 586, institutes of pontifical right are immediately and exclusively subject to the power of the Apostolic See in internal government and discipline.” But this refers back to can. 586.

Canon 586, par. 1: For individual institutes there is acknowledged a rightful autonomy of life, especially of governance, by which they enjoy their own discipline in the Church and have the power to preserve their own patrimony intact as mentioned in can. 578.” This refers back to can. 578.

Canon 578: “The intention of the founders and their determination concerning the nature, purpose, spirit and character of the institute which have been ratified by competent ecclesiastical authority as well as its wholesome traditions, all of which constitute the patrimony of the institute itself, are to be observed faithfully by all.”

Another example: Canon 576 reads: “It belongs to the competent authority of the Church to interpret the evangelical counsels, to regulate their practice by laws, to constitute therefrom stable forms of living by canonical approbation, and, for its part, to take care that the institutes grow and flourish according to the spirit of the founders and wholesome traditions.”

But Canon 598, par. 1 reads: “Each institute, keeping in mind its own character and purpose is to define in its constitutions the manner in which the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience are to be observed for its way of living.” (emphasis added to all.)

Other relevant canons: 573, par 1 (following Christ under the action of the Holy Spirit); 631 (chapters according the norm of the constitutions); 648, par. 3 (novitiate no longer than two years); 662 (highest rule of life for religious: “the following of Christ as proposed in the gospel and expressed in the constitutions of their institute”); 667, pars. 2 & 3 (strict discipline of cloister & papal cloister).

• Related at CWR: “The other women in the Church” (Nov.15, 2021) by David G. Bonagura, Jr.


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About Father Joseph Fessio, S.J. 10 Articles
Father Joseph Fessio, S.J., is the founder and editor of Ignatius Press.

19 Comments

  1. Fr Fessio I suggest you read the “quite simple analysis” of your confrere, theologian Fr Gaston Fessard sj (1948), an influence on Pope Francis. Pope Francis through his delegate is exercising absolute power of authorisation by the Papacy family of Carmelite helpers of the family

    • Could you please explain what is meant by the “Papacy family of Carmelite helpers of the family.” Thanks.

      Also, what work of Fr. Fessard contains his “quite simple analysis”?

    • They must adhere to the Carmelite rule, or another obedient non-schismatic Catholic order’s rule under the Holy see, or identify themselves as non-adhered Christians, apart from the Apostolic Catholic Church and move away from misleading Catholics from believing they are true sheep and not Wolf in Sheep’s clothing Catholics. If you use the name Carmelite you must be obedient to the Carmelite Order (if you use “Label” it should be the right thing to do). The Carmelite Order is Faithful to the Catholic Church / Holy See. I think if people want a traditional schism, they should call their church other than Catholic. Maybe, something like “More Papist than the Pope Church of Latin Goths”.

  2. Dear Fr. Fessio, Thank you very much for bringing this matter to the attention of faithful Catholics. Until now, it has been discussed primarily on little known websites such as LifeSiteNEws and Non Veni Pacem. I am very grateful to you for making it known to the general Catholic public.
    Your article apparently refers to the recent Apostolic Visitation of the Carmels of Philadelphia, Fairfield and Valparaiso. (There were 3 Carmels involved, not just 2.) Since the matter of the Nuns’ departure from the Philadelphia Carmel was first made know at the end of March of this year, I have been intimately involved in the investigation as a Councilor of the St. Joseph’s Association, to which the Philadelphia Carmel belongs. The primary question has been “Why did the Nuns leave?” They gave no official explanation, and a close study of available documents show that the only apparent reason was that they were not comfortable living in the city. (See https://flemingtoncarmel.org/posts/you-shall-know-the-truth). This situation of confusion lasted from April until mid-June when Mother Stella Marie of the Fairfield Carmel sent out an email explaining that the Nuns had left because they had been “interfered with” and “obstructed” in “living their way of life.” This explanation was posted on the Philadelphia Carmel’s website until recently. I can provide you with a copy if you like. Since Mother Stella Marie seems to accuse the Archdiocese and the St. Joseph’s Association for causing the “obstructing” and “interference”, and since there is no indication of any interference from the Archdiocese, I wrote a public letter to her asking her to show in what way the Association had interfered or obstructed the life of the nuns. As association has no authority to interfere in any way in the internal life of a member monastery. (In your article you confuse associations/federations with congregations. Please see my article on this subject at https://wherepeteris.com/the-mice-that-roar-an-open-letter-to-archbishop-vigano/) If the president of our Association had indeed interfered, then she was guilty of seriously going beyond her authority and the matter should be investigated. Mother Stella Marie never replied in any way to my letter.
    Fr. Fessio, the Church has been accused for failing to investigate serious allegations of abuse. In the case of the Philadelphia Carmel, Mother Stella Marie has accused either the Archdiocese or the St. Joseph’s Association of abuse so serious that the nuns had no recourse except to leave their monastery in a totally uncanonical manner. Are you objecting to investigating this matter? Are you suggesting that this allegation of abuse be covered up? I can’t believe this of you and I am sure that you will take the necessary steps to remedy the misrepresentation of the matter given in this article.
    I assure you of my prayers and of that of my Community. God bless you.
    Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. Councilor of the St. Joseph’s Association

    • Pardon my lay perception, Sister, but it seems a lot of unnecessary laundry is being aired here. Also, what compelling need is there for Fr. Fessio or any other reader to visit the second site you cite? That site’s reputation is of non-kosher goods either under-cooked or burnt to a crisp, bearing trademarks of loquacity and outrage.

      • Are you advising a cover-up? Are you saying that it doesn’t matter if traditional Carmelites were “interfered with” and “obstructed” from living their “way of life”? Are you saying this should all be just swept under the rug?

      • The “second site” has a good reputation and it is growing. It stands firmly with the Vicar of Christ and this could be the only reason you hate it. Your hatred of our Pope is stated regularly here.

    • it seems having left the narrow Way, please return….if knowing one Saint Therese, Christ-like silence reigns entrusting all to the Beloved in imitation of Jesus….for He who Judges all things will be the Judge….He knows….from your link it seems there is a public prowling, roaring, seeking to devour, or ‘call out’, the Beloved’s priests, Archbishop Vigano, Father Fessio, et al….is there a bondage or fortress of the enemy from a father wound??? This is not the Way of doing things commanded by the Triune Lover of our souls. In the Love, Heart and Mind of the Beloved with Mary and Joseph, blessings, Padre

  3. Dear Fr. Fessio, You can read Mother Stella Marie’s Update here: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5ed81890998e9c2c86a69dba/t/6197b5e0c89d2433214d0008/1637332448441/Update+from+Elysburg+-+June+19th%2C+2021+-+Adjusted.pdf

    and my reply here: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5ed81890998e9c2c86a69dba/t/6197b84cc072754865591c01/1637333068150/From+Sr.+Gabriela+to+Mother+Stella+Marie+1+-+July+15th%2C+2021.pdf

    God bless you. Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D.

    • “The soul that Truly loves, she neither weighs what she must suffer nor measures….”, the Incarnate Eternal Wisdom to His Saints and Servants…

      St. Therese of Lisieux (2014). “Letters of St. Therese of Lisieux, Volume I: General Correspondence 1877-1890”, ICS Publications:

      “Why should we defend ourselves when we are misunderstood and misjudged? Let us leave that aside. Let us not say anything. It is so sweet to let others judge us in any way they like. O blessed silence, which gives so much peace to the soul!”

  4. I bet Father Fessio would agree that if any religious order ought to be authoritatively shaken up and reformed it is the Jesuits.

  5. As with all socialistic ideologies, presently evident within our Church executive hierarchy the principle of the common good assumes complete suzerainty over the individual good.
    Fr Fessio’s query, “What theological authority does the Congregation have?” may be understood in the history of, The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and for Societies of Apostolic Life [Curia Dicastery] prefect Cardinal João Bráz de Aviz Brazil. Established 1586 as Sacred Congregation for Consultations of Regulars. Suppressed 1601 to establish the Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars. Restored 1908. The Congregation’s history then reveals similar to the CDF a perceived need of the Church that is subject to change. It supports the allusion of capriciousness drawn from Fr Fessio’s question of authority.
    Fessio’s strong canonical defense of contemplative communities, a long standing tradition within the Church is unfortunately during this pontificate pushed aside; if there’s question of authority it must be assumed it’s directly from Pope Francis. For years [since 2013] similar locally initiated contemplative communities have been systematically suppressed by imposition of virtually impossible requirements by the Congregation. Fr Fessio’s question has been asked by others [if I recall correctly there was a previous CWR article].
    What does it portend if not a purposeful papal initiated program to reform Catholicism? Changes toward a secular friendly Christianity with outcome at best a more relevant, effective transmission [evangelization] of the Christian message, at worst accommodation to the world it’s meant to evangelize. That one can claim Catholic Christianity and do as the Romans do.
    Certainly the President Biden religious political imbroglio [putatively the meeting with Pope Francis] and the tepid response by the USCCB meant to address Eucharistic Coherence indicates this. The impression given is that one can wear two previously thought contrary hats. A socialistic religious embrace of the world rather than witness to it.

  6. Saint Therese of the Child Jesus and Holy Face:

    O Jesus! on this day, you have fulfilled all my desires. From now on, near the Eucharist, I shall be able To sacrifice myself in silence, to wait for Heaven in peace. Keeping myself open to the rays of the Divine Host, In this furnace of love, I shall be consumed, And like a seraphim, Lord, I shall love You.

    I HAD accustomed myself never to complain when anything of mine was taken away; and when unjustly blamed I chose rather to remain silent than to defend myself.

    HIST. D’UNE AME, CH. I

    I WAS ten years old the day that my Father told Céline he was going to let her have lessons in painting; I was by, and envied her. Then Papa said to me: “And you, my little queen, would it give you pleasure too to learn drawing?” I was just going to respond with a very gladsome yes, when Marie made the remark that I had not the same taste for it as Céline. At once she gained the day; and I, thinking that here was a good opportunity of offering a grand sacrifice to Jesus, said not a word. So eager was my desire to learn drawing that now I still wonder how I had the fortitude to remain silent.

    HIST. D’UNE AME, CH. VIII

    Saint Therese of Lisieux

    • Thank you, Pater. The sanctity of St. Therese has no equal to the shrieks, squeals and howling contentions of some moderns. May God have mercy.

    • St. Therese suffered in silence. Yet she protested vigorously when she believed that Celine was being treated unfairly. She was wise and discerning. To sacrifice oneself is one thing. To sacrifice someone else who is being abused is very, very different.

  7. One is left confused as to how to understand the dissembled reasoning and purpose of this article under the guise of the question, “What theological authority does the Congregation have to impose these changes?” If this were really the question one could ask it about every dicastery of the Holy See…the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, Liturgy and Worship, Bishops, Evangelization, etc.

    So, it’s the wrong question.

    In American parlance he is asking, “Who gives them the right to impose these changes?”
    Coming from a Jesuit whose charism includes obedience to the Vicar of Christ leaves one engaging in proverbial head scratching.

    To respond to the question with the correct reference to Canon Law:

    Can. 360 The Supreme Pontiff usually conducts the affairs of the universal Church through the Roman Curia which performs its function in his name and by his authority for the good and service of the churches. The Roman Curia consists of the Secretariat of State or the Papal Secretariat, the Council for the Public Affairs of the Church, congregations, tribunals, and other institutes; the constitution and competence of all these are defined in special law.”

    So there is your answer.

    And to make a very important distinction. Vultum Dei Quaerere is an Apostolic Constitution which is legislation from the Holy Father. Cor Orans is the Instruction that implements it.

    By virtue of the vow of obedience nuns are obliged to obey the norms given for canonical contemplative life. Obedience that uses our God-given faculties of intellect and will.

    It’s really that simple. If a community does not wish to accept what the Church is asking of them, then it seems they have a choice to make.

    • Thank you, Sr. Mary Catharine, for providing a clear understanding of the situation, both from your knowledge of canon law and from your experience of religious life. The Dominican Order is well represented by your witness.

  8. It’s unfortunate to see such a lot of lay people with very distorted ideas about religious life – never having lived it!

    Thank you to Sr Gabriella for telling the truth in love, and with charity and fairness. And thank you to Sr Mary Catherine for doing likewise. You both have significant stakes in this game – unlike the armchair experts who think that a bit of cherry-picking from the lives of the saints will silence someone who’s actually living religious life.

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Notes and question about the new directives on contemplative convents – Via Nova Media
  2. Notes and question about the new directives on contemplative convents – Catholic World Report – The Old Roman
  3. Episode 304: Religious Life: Operation Survival. Guest: Brother Martin Navarro, Ob.S.A. | RECONQUEST, with Brother André Marie

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