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By Dr. Aldo Maria Valli
On one side there were more than 300 cloistered nuns, coming from Italy and from abroad and belonging to various orders, while on the other side you have the Brazilian cardinal, João Braz de Aviz, prefect of the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, and the secretary of the same congregation, Spaniard José Rodríguez Carballo.
It is Nov. 21, 2018, and at the Pontifical Lateran University, a meeting takes place, organized by the secretariat for the assistance of cloistered nuns on the occasion of the Pro Orantibus day. It intends to discuss the July 22, 2016 apostolic constitution Vultum Dei Quaerere by Pope Francis on female contemplative life and Cor Orans, the applicable instruction of the apostolic constitution, issued by the congregation on April 1, 2018.
From the onset, the speeches of Braz de Aviz and Carballo raise numerous perplexities, both because of a list of ambiguities and distortions in content and also because of the tone used to address the nuns.
Let us begin with the cardinal. On starting to illustrate Vultum Dei Quaerere, he puts at the forefront the issue of formation: "It is necessary to focus on a formation that is adequate to the needs of the present moment: integral, personalized and well-accompanied, to nourish a creative loyalty to the charism received."
Formation, therefore, is a decisive point. What is the aim behind this? A "creative loyalty" with respect to the charism received. And here we are already faced with a huge ambiguity. What does "creative loyalty" mean? Does it require one to be loyal or not? The cardinal adds: "Then, in the constitution, there are discussed also prayer and many other things, but first formation."
Prayer, therefore, comes afterwards with "many other things" — with respect to formation. But are we speaking about cloistered nuns or about managers?
The heading of the speech by the cardinal is: "Listening to the Lord of Peter in the Church so as to update a millenary contemplative consecrated life." Here, other motives for perplexity come up: if contemplative consecrated life has a millenary tradition, which we have received, this is precisely because, up till now, any updating did not manage to nibble its substance or provoke those damages which have been wrecked in other sectors of the life of the Church.
It is hard, then, not to perceive a touch of haughtiness in the claim of putting oneself as those who can "update" a patrimony of faith and spirituality which, if anything, needs to be safeguarded, treasured, conserved and protected.
Another concept on which the cardinal touches on is "listening," it having become today a very fashionable concept used as a form of ex officio defense of the Pope.
The prefect says:
It is not a question of listening to anyone of us, a cardinal, a bishop, the pope. No. It is listening to the Lord, who speaks today to us. And he speaks to us through Peter. We are not interested on what is Peter's name. But now Peter is Francis and therefore all forms of nostalgia that put us out of our times or transport the mission of Peter out of our times are not good. We need to always remain with Peter. Nostalgia is a no go. We need to remain always with the pope, whom God has given us. We are not interested in the name of the pope. At this point, Peter is Francis and therefore we need to remain with Francis, a pope who is an unthinkable gift, because through clarity, transparency and simplicity, he is giving us guidelines to follow, at a difficult time for the Church, characterized by so many problems.
So given that he is speaking to cloistered nuns, to persons who radically live their choice of life dedicated to God, such appeal to remain with the Pope is somewhat strange. Here truly surfaces a problem: evidently at the congregation, there must have arrived protests and complaints on behalf of cloistered nuns who are worried that Peter today in many aspects is not in continuity with Peter. And, if that were so, on the part of cloistered nuns, this does not have anything to do with nostalgia for the past, as the cardinal said, but of great worry for our present which should be seriously taken into consideration.
Then, out of the blue, the prefect affirms: "There was no quarrel in the conclave, we were all in agreement on Bergoglio, such that we have elected him in a day and a half, even though we had sufficient food and drink for two weeks."
Cloistered nuns dedicate themselves to prayerful contemplation. Why is it necessary, therefore, to put the dialogue with the world in the foreground?
This is a curious clarification, clearly not in line with the topic. Would this mean that some monastery has conveyed to the Holy See perplexities concerning a legitimate election of Bergoglio?
Moving on, the cardinal says:
The Council asks us to become disciples of Jesus, of our founders and to dialogue with the culture of our times which is not that of the past, without hiding that "all this is tiring," but knowing fully well that "the Holy Spirit today is more a sign of instability than of stability: he moves the waters and leaves us choking with water in our throats, unable to clutch to our securities."
Now, given that the Council requests religious persons to go back to the roots of the charism of their founders, having to listen to a talk about the Holy Spirit being motive of doubt and instability, when on the contrary the Paraclete is the spirit of truth and defender of believers, cannot but cause deep uneasiness. The Holy Spirit does not leave us "choking with water in our throats," he does not prefer doubt and uncertainty. He is, on the contrary, a spirit who comforts and consoles in truth.
With Vultum Dei Quaerere, the cardinal then affirms, the Pope has deemed necessary to offer to the Church a new apostolic constitution on the life of monasteries "in the light of the Council and with great attention to changed socio-cultural conditions," because "we cannot only look at the past" and "the Council asks us to dialogue with the culture of the moment, which is not that of the past."
Here we come before other surprising expressions. Till proven to the contrary, cloistered nuns dedicate themselves to prayerful contemplation. Why is it necessary, therefore, to put the dialogue with the world in the foreground? If anything, it would be necessary to specify that for contemplative life to enter into a relationship with the world, it has to do away with human means, which belong to other vocations (such as gatherings, dialogues, meetings, study sessions, etc.). Its ultimate scope requires of it to privilege a direct and continuous relationship with the supernatural.
He continues: "The update of contemplative life in the light of Vatican II, at this time of rapid progress in human history, is a necessity. Silence, listening, inwardness, stability are the values to look for. Contemplative life is a challenge for today's mentality."
Surely, contemplative life has always been a challenge, but the values of silence, listening, inwardness and stability would all be lost if we were to keep on following such updating and prioritizing dialogue with the world. What end have the expressions of union with God, prayer and offering of self come up to, which expressions the Church once used to indicate the mission entrusted to cloistered nuns? It seems as if the cardinal was afraid of them. In fact, using an expression more seemingly New Age rather than Catholic, he does not speak of prayer but of a generic "inwardness."
Another affirmation by the cardinal that raises perplexity is the following: "Contemplative nuns are not isolated, they are not an NGO, but are part of the Church. They are not islands, but part of a living body."
Surely, contemplative nuns are not islands, in fact, they live in a community where they conduct fraternal life. It is the monastery which is an island, and so it has to be of its own very nature.
Then another surprising point comes up:
The Pope speaks of the encounter of Moses with God at the burning bush and draws from there a very important reality: being attracted by the face of God and by the sacred ground, that is the other. Underlined is the importance of man and woman who walk with me in contemplative life. The relationship with the other is an experience of the mystery of God. We should remove our sandals near the sacred ground of the other, male or female. We should not let relationships fall into mediocrity. A too individualistic spirituality does not help to enter such spirituality. In a society dominated by morbid curiosity, the Church needs another type of relationship: the sacredness of the other.
Now, it is fine that one points out to the sacredness of the other and highlights an expression used by Francis in Evangelium Gaudium. But putting at the forefront the interpersonal relationship seems to be a total overturning of perspective. In the case of contemplative life, everything draws its meaning from the relationship with God. Its view of the space and time of God, one should indeed take off one's sandals. In the choice of life made by contemplatives, everything — including the relationship with the other (small "o") — draws meaning from the relationship with the Other (capital "O"). And it is from here that such example comes forth to all in the Church. While often the Church is reduced to being a social agency, all in it need to return to relating to the sacredness of God.
The cardinal continues: "Let us remember what Thomas à Kempis says, in Book I of The Imitation of Christ: When we enter into vocational crisis and want to depart it is better not to leave, because the Lord then comes back and does not find the person there any longer."
This reference, between the lines, goes to nuns who, in the face of abuses by the Vatican, choose to leave, as in the clamorous situation of the Little Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Redeemer, at Laval in France. Thirty-four sisters out of 39 chose to renounce to their vows after having been commissioned for being too "traditionalist" and attached to prayer. It is better not to leave, the cardinal implores. Does this mean that other cloistered nuns have manifested similar intentions?
And then, listen to this:
We have to enter into this apostolic constitution without reservations created by our traditions or doubts from ideas about the Pope or his desire to destruct anything. If such way of thinking were to enter it would do great harm. I trust Peter. I trust such necessity that contemplative life has to care about the new mentality that is in the new culture. Today's culture does not want any longer persons who dominate over others. Names such as superior and inferior are doing us harm. Why superior and inferior? Superior to whom and inferior to whom? Should not all of us be brothers and sisters?
Therefore, in summary: Tradition is only something that creates dangerous "reservations," contemplative life needs to tune itself to "the new mentality" and "the new culture," and superiors do not have to be so any longer. Does this also mean that no one has any longer authority to teach? All are equal? How could one here not perceive the echo of an ideology seemingly originating from the late 60s which by any expected standard has arrived here far too late?
If these directions were to be put in practice, we would have a contortion not only of cloistered religious life, but more widely of religious life as such. Without obedience, religious life would not exist anymore. And, at any rate, how lowly does the cardinal view the relationship existing between who teaches and who is at the receiving end! He speaks of persons that dominate over others, but cloistered nuns do assure us that in monasteries this does not happen. In obedience, a religious is realized in Christ, because the certainty of every action, even the smallest, brings one to the union with God.
And now let us come to the speech by Abp. Carballo, dedicated to Cor Orans.
The archbishop starts off with a captatio benevolentiae ("appeal for kindness") comprising also a scolding: "It is truly very nice to be together! In any case, we know that the walls of the monastery have many doors, therefore one that opens to a meeting such as this is most beautiful! Say this to those who have chosen not to attend, say it!"
In fact, the great majority of cloistered nuns (in the world there are more than 3,500 monasteries) did not attend the meeting in Rome. And if this were their decision, there must be a reason for it.
Carballo continues: "Cor Orans is an applicative instruction. It is not a repetition of Vultum Dei Quaerere: there one finds the principles, here the applications. Let us welcome the voice of the Church with openness and availability even if it does not fully coincide with our desires!"
Desires? At issue here are not "desires," but vows, conscience, an oath made solemnly to God, a totality of life absorbed in consecration, in the following of one's founders, of millenary traditions.
Accompany them always with fraternal love by treating them as adult ladies, respecting their competences, without undue interferences. These are words of the Pope to the delegates and vicars of consecrated life. Adult ladies! I love these words. You are adult ladies! Take hold of your life as adult ladies, not as adulteresses: with a yes to what is convenient and a no to what is not convenient!
I find this tone definitely unacceptable. The play on the words "adult ladies" and "adulteresses" is indeed offensive. Was Carballo thinking that he was speaking to unconscious girls? This is not an issue of convenience, but of loyalty to one's charism and to an oath made to God. In this, there is also noticeable a slight male chauvinist vein: Would His Excellency speak likewise if he were in front of an audience of male monks?
This use of the word "adulteresses" also reveals that at this time the Church is not respiring chastity. Only up till a few years ago, no archbishop would ever have thought of speaking in such vulgar manner in the presence of consecrated women. But now vulgarity has entered the Church.
And Carballo proceeds:
Do not let yourself be manipulated! You are the ones who have to manage your lives, as adult ladies! Not one, but three grates are necessary to divide you from those persons who want to manipulate you, even if they may be bishops, cardinals, friars or other persons. You have to discern, because there are persons who are doing a lot of harm to you. Because they are projecting their own ideas on you.
These are seriously grave affirmations. If Carballo is truly convinced that anyone is manipulating cloistered nuns he should be saying their names and contextualizing such circumstances. Why should he worry cloistered nuns in this way, given that they already have so many problems?
In this, there is also noticeable a slight male chauvinist vein: Would His Excellency speak likewise if he were in front of an audience of male monks?
The archbishop says then that the dicastery has elaborated its documents "after having heard very seriously" the responses received to a questionnaire sent to the monasteries: "I can tell you that, in general, you are the authors of these two documents. Scrupulous respect has been afforded to the majoritarian opinion and I believe that this is the first time that you are those who have written!" In reality, we have got to know that only a minority of convents has responded.
The tone of the archbishop becomes once more very little respectful, I would say quizzical, when he speaks about autonomy which is rightly at the core of monasteries: "Sui iurismonasteries enjoy juridical autonomy, therefore the federations, we need to say this for the umpteenth time, will not take away the autonomy which you desire so much to keep. Keep it! If you think that in this the Lord is giving you any dogmas which you need to defend, well."
It would seem from this that autonomy is some fixation of cloistered nuns, while truly it is the core of the problem, and the archbishop does not enjoy any right to make fun of such rightful preoccupation: "Nobody will take away your autonomy, absolutely. Autonomy is not a right, it is not a privilege that one acquires once and for good. It is something that one may acquire, but which one may also lose."
Then, in criticizing some abbesses that remain in office for 30 years, Carballo says:
Let us finish with so many stories, dear sisters. It seems that some sister was born to govern throughout all her life and the others obey. No, the service of authority is a service that you welcome to serve, and then you let go. And it will not be a catastrophe. Saint Francis renounced. The provost of the Jesuits also renounces. And also the Pope! Let us keep this in mind!
"Let us finish with so many stories"? Once more, this tone is unacceptable. Besides, the archbishop seems to forget that an abbess or prioress is elected and eventually reconfirmed with a two-thirds majority. She is not a usurper who takes hold of an office. Truly, in monasteries, cloistered nuns generally reconfirm the same superior, because they do not love change for its own sake and they desire stability.
But at the congregation, where reasoning follows ideology, all this is no good: for them what counts most is change.
After having highlighted also the importance of formation, Carballo addresses the issue of isolation and once again reprimands cloistered nuns in an offensive tone:
It is absolutely necessary that you avoid isolation from other monasteries of the institute or of the diocese. A while ago, a monastery wrote to us, asking for dispensation from being in a federation because, they said, "We are the poorest, we are the most observing, we are the most this and the most that and the most." This is spiritual pride which in front of God I shall not tell you what it shall provoke! Take care of preserving yourself from the malady of self-reference. This is a sickness!
Apart from the fact that is hardly credible that some cloistered nuns would have written in such a manner, there remains the fact that many monasteries write to the congregation to ask for dispensation from the obligation to be part of a federation — this is the truth. Which dispensation, however, for ideological reasons, is being declined in order to impose one's vision. And so, mention of the word "self-reference," another term that is highly fashionable in the Church of today, is made and used to delegitimize any awkward person or community.
And listen to this: "Do not separate yourselves totally from the world! The link to the world is important! The Pope says so. Otherwise for whom do you pray? For a world that does not exist?"
Yet again the perspective is overturned. Does Carballo realize that he is speaking to cloistered nuns, to religious females who have consecrated their entire lives to prayer and separation from the world?
And is it possible that a ranting against the media would be left out? Here it is:
Be careful not to have a portable grate (expression of the Holy Father). Do not keep in touch with gossiping media. I am convinced that if you are not cautious about these two elements, you would be putting your contemplative life at risk. Let go of the blogs and tweets! Now everything is like that. Gossiping media is an expression of the Holy Father. Therefore, yes be linked, but also careful not to fall victims of these media. I am convinced that enclosure, as we stand today, passes more through such means than through the grates. And I believe that in this, excuse me, exaggerations do happen in monasteries, and you should form yourselves. Which does not mean prohibition, no, you are adults! Communitarian discernment exists for this reason. Physical enclosure and enclosure of the heart need to move on together!
Why all this fear from mass media? And why does the archbishop at a certain point also wave caution with respect to blogs saying that monasteries shall be distorted and put at risk through the new Vatican documents? Is he afraid that truth may be revealed?
The substantial contempt for cloistered nuns, but also for the very history of monasticism, surfaces anew when Carballo passes to make an ex officio defense for federations among monasteries. This has been imposed by the Holy See even against the will of the same monasteries, for the sake of "coordination" which rather seems more like a kind of normalization: "You do not realize! Isolation will make you become manipulable! The more isolated you are, the more you will have manipulators around you."
So a millenary tradition, built on autonomy and isolation, which has allowed monasticism to arrive to us bringing with it a treasure of spirituality (one should re-read the lecture by Benedict XVI at Collège des Bernardins, Paris, in 2008), is branded as being a source of "manipulation." This is truly a wonderful analysis!
We have today ecclesiastics that allow themselves to address cloistered nuns with sarcasm, as if they were speaking to uncouth or dissolute school girls, arriving at calling them 'adulteresses.'
Then, as regards the great number of monasteries that are requesting the dispensation from being federated, here is once more a note of chauvinism: "You have requested that the president [of the federation] would have more authority, and now you are afraid! Because you know that a woman would insert her finger in the wound much more than a man!"
But truth almost escapes Carballo's mouth: "The president has to verify the administrative situation of the monasteries." The true reason for which there is so much insistence on federations is, in fact, this: being able to put hands on the goods and property of monasteries.
The quotes reported above would seem incredible. While Pius XII spoke about Christian virgins being the "most elect part of the flock of Christ," about "evangelical life," about "treasures of religious perfection hidden in monasteries," about "flowers and fruit of holiness," we have today ecclesiastics that allow themselves to address cloistered nuns with sarcasm, as if they were speaking to uncouth or dissolute school girls, arriving at calling them "adulteresses."
Our dear cloistered nuns, notwithstanding all of this, live in the perspective of quaerere Deum and you truly do not deserve to be knocked around in such a manner.