Revolution in contemplative life

Par l'abbé Jean-Marie Perrot

Français, italiano

During the recent day event on Consecrated Life, on 2 February, Pope Francis invited the consecrated religious who were attending mass at Saint Peter to “cultivate a renewed vision of consecrated life”, to avoid the “mechanical repetition” of the works or “forms of the past” and to keep away from bitterness which can only but turn to rigidity which is “a perversion, under which there are serious problems.” To do so, like old Simeon in the Gospel of this 2nd of February, we must, under the action of the Holy Spirit, see and welcome Jesus, “clasp Jesus in our arms: this is the sign, this is the way, this is the ‘recipe’ for renewal.”

If the French article on the Vatican news website giving an account of the day event emphasizes the spiritual renewal, like its English counterpart, the article in Italian and its two-fold title set a graver tone: “la rigidità è una perversione, crisi e calo dei numeri invitano a rinnovarsi” [Rigidity is a perversion, crisis and lack of vocation invite to a renewal]; though the two topics were not at all prominent at the event. Is it that the Italian journalist was in a bitter mood or maybe that he has a pessimistic personality? Or, did he on the contrary feel with acuity the main traits of the pope’s speech, his preoccupations, his attacks? Looking at recent decisions and documents, we tend to go with the second option.

From abuse against nuns to abusive religious life

The same day, in the short video message to present the intention of prayer for the month of February, 2022 – for consecrated and religious life – Francis used a choice of words voluntarist and combative: “the world’s challenges [found twice in the text]… defense of the poor, the marginalized, all those who are enslaved by traffickers… I especially ask them to make an impact on this…  courage…” The exhortation remained positive and hopeful, yet, other words, quite different, might have come as a surprise: “ “I invite them to fight when, in some cases, they are treated unfairly, even within the church; when they serve so much that they are reduced to servitude, at times, by men of the church,” the pope said. The statement is striking not only in itself, but also in the parallel it draws with the enslaving of the poor by human traffickers.

The abuse being exposed here concern consecrated persons more than they do consecrated life in itself. There are others, said the Pope a few weeks earlier, that involve both. They are, under a more psychological and insidious form, the doing of superiors of women’s congregations. This is what is behind the sibylline reference made by Pope Francis, during a speech given on 11 February 2021 to the participants of a Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. Reference made to a recent book on the topic, Il veto del silenzio, a collection of eleven testimonies of nuns or former nuns, along with presentation documents, remarks and propositions. In the preface of this book, Sister Nathalie Becquart, a French Xavière Sister, recently appointed Under-Secretary of the General Secretariat for the Synod on Synodality, presents herself as the spokeswoman for the religious congregations of a synodal Church, sole solution to do away with a perverse clericalism and its women counterpart: the Church must “discern how She could experience this dynamic of communion, this ecclesial “We” which respects and integrates the diversity of the singular “I”, this acceptation and valorization of the diversity of charisms, because the Holy Spirit speaks to each of us and that obedience in Church must always be a common listening to the Holy Spirit.”

A profound modification of women’s contemplative life

This invitation to a discernment opening to a dynamic of communion has found, for a few years now, a singular and troubling implementation in the Roman decisions regarding consecrated life, and particularly women’s contemplative life.

In 2016, Francis had published the Apostolic Constitution Vultum Dei quærere, followed in April 2018 by the practical application Instruction Cor orans of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, approved in its specific form by the pope thus ensuring its imperative legal character (previous documents on the same subject are abrogated). The same synodal vocabulary is found, the same dynamic is encouraged, but it is only the cover for very authoritarian measures, bringing about a profound modification to this form of life, Fr. Reginald-Marie Rivoire says[1]. The measure from which stem all the others is the obligation made to a monastery to belong to a federation. Large powers are given to the Federation and its President. They include powers on all levels of formation (from postulants to superiors, even those in charge of formation), on the possibility for a community to be placed under its guardianship with even the eventual forced absorption or merging[2], on the dispersion of real estate and relocation of nuns: “The nuns risk seeing their fundamental right to follow their own form of spirituality disregarded. As to the monasteries, they risk losing de facto, if not always de jure, their autonomy, and thus vanish into an anonymous ensemble of macro-communities, organizers of formation courses, meetings to share and exchange, debate, regular life reviews, and aggiornamento get-togethers. These “events of communion” will require from the sisters to come and go regularly, which will make them feel as in a continuous situation of psychological and moral instability. This will ineluctably result in the dumbing down of the regular observance and the loss of the spirit of prayer and penance.” (Rivoire, p.76)

Besides “the failing of bureaucratic centralism”, hardly inevitable (id.), it is contemplative and cloistered life which is being forcibly misguided, by this a priori impossibility (except with a dispense from the Holy See) of spiritual autonomy, and because of a grave mitigation of the rule of the cloister from which it its now relatively easy to be exempt.

Worst – indeed – the last of the final dispositions of Cor orans, brings the whole of women’s contemplative life under the regime of arbitrary authoritarianism. It states that the Congregation will ensure to ask for approval in a specific form to the Pope for all particular measures, that is to say with no possible recourse![3] The Congregation, through this abuse of the spirit of canonical law, gives itself an absolute discretionary power.

Mistrust and Roman centralism

These attacks on women contemplative life are not isolated. An other document carries the same logic: it is the Motu proprio Authenticum charismatis, published 1 November 2020, amending canon 579, which from now on stipulates that a diocesan bishop can erect an institute of consecrated life only with the written approval of the Apostolic See.

The document opens with a statement full of centralism and mistrust: “A sure sign of the authenticity of a charism is its ecclesial character, its ability to be integrated harmoniously into the life of God’s holy and faithful people for the good of all. (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, 130) The faithful have the right to be warned by the Pastors about the authenticity of charisms and the reliability of those who present themselves as founders.” Could we remind the author of this document what the charismatic nature of consecrated life implies first in relation to the hierarchy, and as recalled by the Vatican II Council as it states: “The state of life which is constituted by the profession of the evangelical counsels, though it is not the hierarchical structure of the Church, nevertheless, undeniably belongs to its life and holiness (Lumen gentium, 44), because according to the quoted text, this state of life unites more closely to the mystery of the Church and invites to work more ardently towards its good. Contrary to this traditional approach, in his speech of 11 December 2021, already mentioned above, the Pope took on the introductory words of the motu proprio and immediately added that it was necessary to be wary of the founders, who have a tendency sometimes to self reference themselves, to feel as the sole guardians or interprets of the charism, as if they were above the Church.”

Though it does not necessarily involve women founders, this is a similar mistrust that is hidden behind this loss of autonomy of women monasteries and the system of supervision instituted by Cor orans and Authenticum charismatis. In any case, this is what Fr. Cucci, sj, writes in the book Il veto del silenzio, in a text inserted between the preface of Sister Becquart and a collection of testimonies: “The similar mode to clericalism in women communities seems to be the tendency to stay in power the longest time possible, as we have observed, by imposing a one way mentality within the institute based on its own criteria, by calling it the will of God and by marginalizing and blaming those who think differently.”[4]

Mistrust becomes the norm. Certainly, the dramatic situations of abuse call for firm action: but is it truly what this is about and only this? A myriad of declarations – we have picked up a few – around these very tangible measures allows us to doubt it. It is also simply the fidelity to the past in the observance of a rule which is targeted: because considered obsolete, it becomes suspect. Father Rivoire points out actually that the French version contains an error which cannot be just a mistake: indeed, the original Italian text of Cor orans indicates that the federations will overcome the isolation of monasteries and will promote “the regular observance and contemplative life” (n.7), if we translate word for word. The French version from the Service des Moniales (Contemplative Nuns in France Services) reads: “so that the monasteries sharing the same charism do not remain isolated but may keep faithfully and, in mutual fraternal assistance, live the indispensable value of communion”! Rivoire asks: “Is it because of his/her enthusiasm that the translator showed such zeal (…) In any case, (…) if he was not faithful to the letter of the document, certainly he discerned its spirit rather well” (ibid., p.62, note 28).

In the end it is a radical break, “radical” taken in its etymological sense: because it is forced to enroll into a Roman and bureaucratic hierarchical structure, consecrated life finds itself cut from its roots or from its charismatic source. A certain analogy could be established here with the traditional liturgy: the baptismal right to the sequela Christi is reduced to a permission, a concession; and the form of life (spirituality and authority) finds itself being overseen and supervised. The Holy Spirit only had better behave Himself!

Fr. Jean-Marie Perrot

[1] Presentations and commentaries: On The Remnant website, two articles by Hilary White : first, second.
[2] Particularly when the number of profess is less than five; the affiliation or guardianship is the first step of a process towards the disappearance, quasi inevitable once it is started.
[3] “The decisions that, after appropriate consultation and prior discussion in the Congress of the Dicastery, will be taken by this Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life towards a monastery of nuns relating to the call for an apostolic visit, to the commissioning, to the suspension of autonomy and to the suppression of a monastery will be presented on a monthly basis to the Roman Pontiff for approval in a specific form.”
[4] La modalità analoga al clericalismo nelle communità femminili sembra essere la tendenza a rimanere per piu tempo possibile al potere, come si notava, imponendo una mentalità unica e uniformante all’interno dell’istituto secondo il proprio criterio, facendolo passare comme volontà di Dio e marginalizzando e colpevolizzando chi pensa diversamente.