Ven.Anne of Saint Bartholomew
who resisted outside control by
the Cardinal Berulle over the
Discalced Carmelite nuns in 17th
Pierre de Bèrulle is a figure in Church history who, for the most part, I have always admired. He was ardent for the reform of the Church of France in the early seventeenth century. You see, for a variety of reasons more political than religious, France had not yet accepted the Decrees of the Council of Trent (that only happened in 1615—some 53 years after the Council concluded) and there were a lot of leading French Catholics who saw the great need for reform. Many of these devout Catholics (actually they were known as the parti dévot) gathered in the home of the wealthy French widow, Madame Barbe Acarie to discuss plans for reform. (Francis de Sales, Bennet Canfield, Jean Jacques Olier, and others were all regulars at the Salon Acarie.) Bérulle understood that the key to reform of the Church was reform of the clergy and religious. Olier established the Society of Saint Sulpice to prepare candidates for the secular priesthood. John Eudes established the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament as well as the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Refuge. Bérulle himself established the French Oratory. He also invited the two closest companions of Saint Teresa of Avila, Anna of Jesus and Anna of Saint Bartholomew, to come to France and established the Discalced Carmelite nuns. It was a worthy cause, but as soon as French nuns were professed, Bérulle sent the Spanish Madres packing. Like Teresa, they did not want the nuns to be subject to external authority and Bérulle wanted them to be under his thumb, er “guidance.” The Spanish daughters of Teresa went up to the Netherlands where they established the Carmels from which are descended the majority of American monasteries of Carmelite nuns. The French nuns buckled under and there has long been an argument among Discalced Carmelites whether the French Carmels preserved the heritage of Teresa or not, whether they are authentically “Teresian” or are they “Bérullian.”
Here in America the disputes over the independence of the religious Sisters has also been a battle. Bishop John Carroll persuaded the widowed convert, Elizabeth Ann Seton to establish the American Sisters of Charity modeled on the French Institute founded by Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac, but Carroll, a very busy man, gave Mother Seton a pretty free hand in her enterprise. In 1817, just a few years before her death, Mother Seton sent three Sisters from Emmitsburg up to New York City. When John Hughes became Bishop of New York, one of his first acts was to demand that the New York Charities be withdrawn from the jurisdiction of the Emmitsburg Sisters and placed under his jurisdiction. He named his sister, Mother Angela Hughes, as the second Mother General of the New York Sisters. Again, John Hughes is another figure whom I have always admired, but he had a tremendous psychological need for control that went far beyond the Sisters of Charity in his diocese. His entire style as bishop was “one man rule”—sound familiar?
Hughes was not exceptional in this matter. Many religious congregations—both those founded in the United States (The Charities, the various Newman Communities of Franciscans, the IHMs) as well as those coming from other countries (the Sisters of Mercy) met with demands from American bishops that they sever their ties outside the diocese and place themselves under the jurisdiction of the local bishop. For the sake of the work that needed to be done for the immigrants, for the poor, for women, or orphans, the nuns acceded to these demands for control. Other congregations such as the School Sisters of Notre Dame successfully resisted. The Benedictines were always particularly successful in resisting Episcopal control—but their monastic roots gave them strong precedence on which to stand. Today’s nuns are well and wise to insist on their autonomy and self-governance. But a lot of the men just don’t get it—the world has changed. Collaborative models work in our contemporary world, hierarchical models are as archaic as the Mastodon. Of course, the danger that both bishops and Rome fear is that if the nuns can take responsibility for their own decision making, will others in the Church see possibilities for collaborative rather than hierarchal models of authority? Why is always about power and never about the Gospel?