LOS ANGELES (ChurchMilitant.com) - Fifty years after breaking apart over defiance of their bishop, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) is nearing its end.
For the past few years, the Tinseltown press has kept industry watchers abreast of the ongoing fight over the sisters' former convent in the exclusive L.A. district of Los Feliz.
On one side are two of the five sisters who remain with the order, who have tried to sell the estate to Southern California businesswoman Dana Hollister. On the other, the archdiocese of Los Angeles, which is fighting to sell the property to pop singer Katy Perry.
In her original 2015 bid, Perry offered the archdiocese $14.5 million for the convent, which had been shuttered four years earlier. But the two sisters who remained living on site didn't take to Perry (whom the sisters accused of selling her soul to the devil) and instead tried to sell the estate to Hollister, who eventually offered $30 million.
In March, a judge ruled the archdiocese held rights to the estate and Perry was awarded legal control.
Last week, the Hollywood Reporter announced the latest twist: The sisters are appealing to the Apostolic Signatura (the Vatican supreme court), "challenging whether the archdiocese has authority over the property and the order itself."
The case has made good fodder for headlines and gossip columns. But for committed Catholics, the backstory is far more important, as it points to a deeper issue. The real story is the collapse of the sister's once-blossoming order under the banner of post-Vatican II "renewal."
As E. Michael Jones documents in his 1999 study, "Carl Rogers and the IHM nuns," even before the end of the Second Vatican Council, it seemed something was amiss inside the "innovative" order. The first documented signs of trouble came in the early 1960s.
At that time, Sr. Mary Aloyse, IHM superior, invited Dutch psychologist-priest Adrian van Kaam to lead the sisters in retreat exercises, during which "all community rules were suspended."
This set in motion a dalliance with psychology through which the sisters were diabolically influenced. Before the end of the decade, they claimed an awakening to "how dictatorial superiors were and in turn how dependent, submissive and helpless nuns were when it came to working with the outside world."
By spring 1965, Cdl. James Francis McIntyre, the orthodox archbishop of the L.A. archdiocese, had grown concerned at the increasing number of Immaculate Heart sisters asking to be released from their vows. He could not have imagined how bad things would soon become.
On September 2, 1966, Bl. Pope Paul VI issued a motu proprio urging all religious orders "to examine and renew their way of life and towards that end to engage in wide-ranging experimentation, provided that the purpose, nature and character of the institute are safeguarded'" (emphasis added).
The IHM Sisters were among the first to respond. The superiors moved quickly. Within six weeks, the motu proprio had been distributed to every member and commissions had been formed to review every aspect of IHM religious life.
"Wide-ranging experimentation" — without safeguards — began almost immediately.
In the fall of 1966, just months after graduating from high school, Jeanne Cordova began her life as a novice at IHM.
On January 1, 1967 — little more than three months into her novitiate — Cordova was called into the mother superior's office, where she was informed she and the other novices were being sent out into the "real world."
There, she "would lie awake at night, watching the pulsing red light on top of Los Angeles city hall and wonder what had happened to her and the convent she had chosen." In Cordova's case, Jones notes, the "real world" translated to "a building surrounded by chain-link fence and barbed wire in downtown Los Angeles near Skid Row."
"In the name of openness, religious asceticism vanished from convent life. Cordova [and others] stopped going to Mass at 6:30 a.m. in the morning because nuns weren't 'required' to go to Mass anymore."
With discipline dwindling and prayer becoming passé, spiritually the sisters were gravely weakened.
Then, they were introduced to humanistic psychology.
In the late 1950s, famed American psychologist Carl Rogers pioneered a revolutionary practice known as "nondirective therapy," a seemingly subtle but enormously powerful psychological program.
In a 1994 interview, Rogers protege Dr. William Coulson described what nondirective therapy entailed. Rogers developed the idea that to spur psychological breakthrough in patients, "we should refer them to the source of authority within them — in other words, refer them to their consciences."
But, he noted, "Rogers wouldn't be so directive as to say, 'Use your own convictions about ethical law.' Rather, he would say, 'I guess I get the feeling that what you are saying is ... .'"
Though deceptively simple, Coulson recalled, "it worked." Rogers "could disappear for people, and leave them in the presence of their consciences."
Coulson, at the time a nominal Catholic, thought initially "that was pretty holy: that God was available to every person who had a decent upbringing, that he could self-consult, as it were, and hear God speaking to him."
By 1971, though, Coulson had turned against psychotherapy, as "its destructive effects on the religious orders — and on the Church and society in general — became apparent to him." But by then, it was too late to save the IHM, or a host of other orders poisoned by the practice.
In 1965, eager to test nondirective therapy on a wider population, Rogers disseminated a paper titled "The Process of the Basic Encounter Group" to religious orders in Los Angeles. Having already cultivated an interest in psychology through its work with Adrian van Kaam, IHM found Rogers' ideas compelling.
The sisters experimented with their first encounter group during the summer of 1966, inviting a New York psychiatrist to lead them through an encounter workshop, "a session of truth-telling and ice-breaking group exercises that broke down social inhibition, fostered an illusory sense of intimacy and opened the way for the engineering of consent through small group peer pressure."
The sisters liked the encounter group experience so much that in April 1967, they began working with Rogers and Coulson directly, allowing the psychologists to test their theories on the order and its network of L.A. schools.
With a troop of 60 facilitators, Coulson recalled, "Rogers and I inundated that system with humanistic psychology. They agreed to let us come into their schools and work with their faculty, and with their students and influence the development of Catholic family life."
"It was a disaster," he lamented.
In April 1967, Coulson met the whole community of more than 600 sisters.
"They had been called, as all religious orders were, to re-evaluate their mode of living and to bring it more in line with the charisms of their founder," he observed. "So they were ready for us. They were ready for an intensive look at themselves with the help of humanistic psychologists."
The result? Vows of chastity and obedience were cast aside, consumed by a tsunami of sexual indulgence and revolt against authority. The nondirective experience taught the sisters to "be more open with one another."
"[If] they didn't like one another they were inclined to say so," Coulson recalled, "and if they were attracted to one another they were inclined to say that, too."
"I talked about some of the short-term effects and said that when people do what they deeply want to do, it isn't immoral," he conceded.
But "we hadn't waited long enough ... we hadn't gotten the reports of seductions in psychotherapy which became virtually routine in California," he reflected. "We had trained ... people who thought that being themselves meant unleashing libido."
"The proof of authenticity on the humanistic psychology model is to go against what you were trained to be," Coulson explained, "to call all of that phoniness and to say what is deepest within you. What's deepest within you, however, are certain unrequited longings, including sexual longings. We provoked an epidemic of sexual misconduct among clergy and therapists."
As religious practice withered inside the Los Feliz convent, the sisters "turned to each other for support. Particular friendships flourished, and, in the atmosphere of the times, some of these friendships inevitably turned sexual."
One IHM sister, seduced into a lesbian encounter by another, was wracked with guilt. She sought out a priest to confess her sins.
"Unfortunately," Coulson said, "we had talked to him first."
"I talked to a priest," the sister later recalled, "who refused to pass judgment on my actions. He said it was up to me to decide if they were right or wrong. He opened a door, and I walked through the door realizing I was on my own."
"What does it mean to you?" not "What does it mean to me?" Or to God. The priest got confused about his role as a confessor. He thought it was personal, and he consulted himself and said, "I can't pass judgment on you." But that's not what confession is. It is not about the priest as a person, making a decision for the client; rather, it's what God says. In fact, God has already judged on this matter. You are quite right to feel guilty about it. "Go thou and sin no more." Instead, he said she should decide.
"We didn't have a doctrine of evil," Coulson acknowledged. "When we implied to people that they could trust their impulses, they also understood us to mean that they could trust their evil impulses, that they weren't really evil. But they were really evil."
The end result of the nondirective trial: the implosion of IHM.
"We corrupted a whole raft of religious orders on the West Coast in the 1960s by getting the nuns and priests to talk about their distress," Coulson summarized.
"It took about a year and a half" to destroy the Immaculate Heart order, he lamented. "We overcame their traditions, we overcame their faith."
So complete was the catastrophe that the order disintegrated before the project could be completed.
"Our grant had been for three years," Coulson related, "but we called off the study after two because we were alarmed about the results. We thought we could make the IHMs better than they were, and we destroyed them."
"Humanistic psychotherapy, the kind that has virtually taken over the Church in America ... holds that the most important source of authority is within you, that you must listen to yourself," he explained.
By 1968, Cdl. McIntyre had had enough of IHM experimentation. He decreed the sisters were bound under oath of obedience to adhere to Vatican II guidelines for religious and ordered them to roll back some of their "reforms."
Instead of heeding their bishop, the sisters listened to their "inner source of authority" and revolted. In what became an extraordinary national scandal, some 300 sisters quit the order almost at once and set up a new body under their own command. (Predictably, it did not flourish.)
"There were some 615 nuns when we began," Coulson recalled. "Within a year after our first interventions, 300 of them were petitioning Rome to get out of their vows. They did not want to be under anyone's authority, except the authority of their imperial inner selves." What's more, Coulson said:
We did similar programs for the Jesuits, for the Franciscans, for the Sisters of Providence, of Charity and the Mercy Sisters. We did dozens of Catholic religious organizations because, as you recall, in the excitement following Vatican II, everybody wanted to update, everybody wanted to renew; and we offered a way for people to renew, without having to bother to study. We said, we'll help you look within. After all, is not God in your heart? Is it not sufficient to be yourself and wouldn't that make you a good Catholic? And if it doesn't, then perhaps you shouldn't have been a Catholic in the first place. Well, after a while there weren't many Catholics left.
Among the hundreds of IHM casualties was Jeanne Cordova.
Weakened by prayerlessness and bewildered by the chaos her calling had become, the young novice eventually succumbed to lesbian seduction.
"Both embittered and sexualized by her experience in the convent," Jones writes, Cordova abandoned Catholicism and became a militant gay activist.
Looking back on the disintegration of her life, the collapse of her faith, Cordova later recalled:
They promised me monastic robes, glorious Latin liturgy, the protection of the three sacred vows, the peace of saints in a quiet cell, the sisterhood of a holy family. But I entered the religious life the year John XXIII was taking it apart: 1966. The fathers of the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church were sitting at the Vatican Council destroying in the name of change, my dreams. Delete Latin ritual. Dump the habit. Damn holy obedience. Send nuns and priests out into the real world. If I had wanted the real world, I'd have stayed in it.
"All I had ever wanted to be was a nun," she said. Jeanne Cordova died on January 10, 2016.
Her former order will soon follow. Today, five IHM sisters remain, with two arguing — at the Vatican itself — that their archdiocese has no authority over them or their shuttered convent.
Katy Perry, it is widely assumed, will soon occupy the complex, a bizarre but fitting end to a renegade experiment within an experiment.
The Los Feliz hilltop where holy women once worked and prayed will be home to an apostate Evangelical pop star made famous by a song about a lesbian kiss.