The future of contemplative orders in the Catholic Church is under siege, not by the oft-bemoaned vocations crisis, but by Archbishop Josè Rodrìguez Carballo, the secretary for the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. In 2018, Carballo released Cor Orans, a series of regulations on women’s monastic orders.Why is the Vatican Assailing Contemplative Life?
The future of contemplative orders in the Catholic Church is under siege, not by the oft-bemoaned vocations crisis, but by Archbishop Josè Rodrìguez Carballo, the secretary for the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. In 2018, Carballo released Cor Orans, a series of regulations on women’s monastic orders. Cor Orans is the practical implementation of Pope Francis’ 2016 Vultum Dei Quaerere. While women’s orders globally were required to conform within one calendar year, Cor Orans has proved so toxic to authentic monastic life that many monasteries have applied for exemptions, only to be met with silence, delays, and retaliation.
While much can be said about Cor Orans, it is essentially a planned obsolescence program for contemplative monasticism, designed by a bishop who has, time and again, announced that such a vocation has overstayed its use.
Carballo holds no love for contemplative monasticism. He has said that the collapse of religious vocations over the past fifty years is proof that this form of religious life is antiquated. Even when an order has flourishing vocations, he dismisses it as a fluke. In a 2015 speech, he claimed that contemplative life was outmoded and “say[s] hardly anything to people today.” To an assembly of Carmelites, he denied that Teresa would want them to remain faithful to her rule: “what does Teresa want now? We don’t want to walk as we did 500 years ago.”
One of the harshest changes is an update to formation. Under Carballo’s rules for every women’s monastic community, formation is required to last nine to twelve years, at minimum. By comparison, before Cor Orans, nine years was the maximum allowed. For many orders, formation is the equivalent of a Navy Seal’s boot camp experience. There are additional rules and regulations, all of which must be followed to the letter.
It is heartless and unsustainable to require such a formation for nine years. Formation is strict in a way that professed life is not; once a nun knows how to be a nun, there is more flexibility and freedom built into her life in the monastery. The best marine would not survive a nine-year bootcamp. Why must nuns? One mother superior told me that her vocational boom will dry up if she forces her novices to endure for nine years. As it is, both her novices and her fully-professed sisters are happy—and nobody wants to leave.
There are feeble attempts to justify this change: “commitment is for life, much like a marriage, and people need time to make sure!” Most married couples would probably agree that a nine-year engagement (or worse, a nine-year diocesan-run marriage prep course that meets every single day) is overkill. Even the best relationships would suffer from exhaustion and burnout to be left in such a temporary state for so long. At a time when Rome is bending over backwards to be more pastoral for laity seeking to marry or remarry, why is it placing such an onerous burden on religious life?
Additionally, the Novice Mistress is—under Cor Orans—required to constantly attend continuing education classes outside of her monastery. It is essentially equivalent to requiring a mother to attend never-ending bureaucratic indoctrination programs to be allowed to parent her own children. If novice mistresses fail to conform to the policies set forth in these programs, the entire monastery’s future can be threatened by the federation—the worst requirement of Cor Orans.
Under Cor Orans, every monastery is required to join a federation, and if they do not, they are forcibly enrolled. Federations violate the autonomy of monasteries dictated in the rules of their saintly foundresses, such as the discalced Carmelites. St. Teresa of Avila, for instance, was adamant that monasteries maintain strict autonomy from each other and from other monastic governing structures, especially federations—a tradition reaffirmed by Pope John Paul II in 1990. Cor Orans takes away this long-recognized monastic autonomy. Carballo describes it as a “privilege” that, under his regulations, the federation’s president can decide to take away from a monastery—basically at her own discretion and with wide room for cause.
Under Carballo’s one-size-fits-all regulations for every order and charism, federations have unchecked power over individual monasteries and their nuns. Assets and members must be shared, which means a federation can require a monastery to surrender money and sisters at any time, for any reason. Additionally, the federation can visit and inspect the monasteries at any time—and for any length of time.
Communities are required to follow any rule changes mandated by the federation, which can alter any aspect of the monastery—federations are even allowed to remove novices from a community, educate them in their own off-site program for years, and return them only as fully-professed nuns. For a monastic community, this is the equivalent of Child Services being able to drop into your family home without a warrant, stay as long as they want, change any of your household rules or customs, and remove your children and credit card at will.
Perhaps most nefariously, federations serve as an official death panel for monastic communities. Cor Orans arbitrarily defines a viable community as one that has six or more fully-professed members. This means that you can have a vibrant monastery with five professed nuns and ten novices, some of whom may have been there for almost a decade—due to the new minimum years of formation—and yet this is technically a nonviable monastery. The federation can close these “nonviable” communities at will, reassigning nuns wherever they choose.
No longer are little communities allowed to prayerfully and faithfully endure to the end. No longer can God surprise a flagging order with new growth. Carballo is not content to allow communities their natural death or hold on to any hope for life. In many cases, monasteries that have new vocations are being stymied. For instance, as the National Catholic Register reported, the Dominican Monastery of the Most Holy Annunciation in Marradi in Tuscany was ordered closed when its sixth nun died, even though the monastery is self-supported financially. Sisters from other countries applied to be transferred to the monastery, which is over four centuries old. Ecclesiastical authorities blocked these entrants—Cor Orans explicitly forbids these transfers—and ordered the monastery closed. The nuns responded by barricading themselves inside and refusing to leave. They are still there.
The possibilities for financial corruption are rampant in the federation system. The assets of closed monasteries are split between the federation, the diocese, and the Holy See (according to regulations 72 and 73). Since Cor Orans added this power, federations now have the ability to fund their own bureaucratic expenses, which gives them a vested interest in closing monasteries. The property is held by the federation with this caveat: that the Holy See can step in at any moment and claim the closed monastery for itself (regulation 72).
Since 2018, Carballo has closed hundreds of monasteries around the world. Within the first week of implementing Cor Orans, 30 monasteries were closed in Italy alone. Many of these orders had historic properties worth millions of dollars. Cardinal Braz de Aviz, the prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, is excited over the opportunities this affords: “I wish the streamlining of our structures, the reuse of the big houses [i.e., the selling of monastic properties] in favor of works that satisfy the current requirements of evangelization and charity, the adaptation of the works to these new requirements.” Judas said it more succinctly: This perfume was worth a year’s wages! It should have been sold, and the money given to the poor…
Cor Orans has been used as a club to beat traditional monasteries, not simply euthanize dying ones. Canon lawyer Nancy Bauer, urging monasteries to get with the program, noted that size is not the only thing federations consider when judging the viability of a community, “as factors such as the age of the members, a lack of candidates for several years, an inability to pass on the charism and the lack of capacity for governance and formation will all be considered.” This means that the novice mistress who bucks the federation’s preferred formation programs can render her flourishing monastery of far more than six nuns “nonviable.”
Bauer, addressing the annual RCRI conference, laughingly suggested that traditional monastics fear that Cor Orans is “a plot by Pope Francis to force the more conservative monasteries to become more liberal.” However, even she agreed that the federation structure forces conservative monasteries under the control of progressive ones.
Conservative monasteries—especially in the United States—have already attempted to form their own federations, but their constitutions have been denied by Rome and they are now being required to join liberal federations. Monasteries—some with “viable” numbers and even vocational booms—that are resisting these forced changes are being harassed with Apostolic Visitations and threats of suppression. Many of these monasteries are afraid to come forward and tell their stories for fear of retribution from Rome.
It seems clear that Cor Orans is both a moneymaker for the Vatican’s splashier pet projects as well as a way to curate nuns so that they present a uniform image. Monasteries whose presence, however humble, challenges the official narrative of modern, progressive Catholicism will be persecuted and suppressed.
If the corruption seems bottomless at this point, there might be even more to the story. In 2014, the new minister general of the Order of Friars Minor announced that, since 2003, gross financial mismanagement and embezzlement had left the order teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Swiss prosecutors seized Franciscan accounts due to their connection to illegal activity—including drug and arms trafficking. Part of this scandal involved the Hotel “Il Cantico” in Rome: a huge empty building in the heart of the city that the Franciscans converted into a luxury hotel, ostensibly to financially support their work with the poor. Money connected to its purchase and renovation went missing.
The investigation is ongoing, no doubt hampered by the fact that the minister general of the Friars Minor from 2003 to 2013, Josè Rodrìguez Carballo, now has diplomatic immunity as a high-ranking member of the Curia. Archbishop Carballo was the first appointee of his close friend, the newly-elected Pope Francis, who elevated him to the bishopric and to the Curia within a month of his own election and less than a year before the Friars Minor financial scandal broke. One can only wonder if the next luxury hotel used to “satisfy the current requirements of evangelization and charity” will be a renovated monastery, newly vacated by nuns whose monastic right to live and die in their community was denied.
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