A visiting Carmelite nun speaks visits
with her sisters through the grille
Early in the reign of John Paul II there were signs of tension between the Holy See and the Jesuit Order because of the emphasis on “Liberation Theology” that was flourishing under then Superior General Pedro Arrupe. When Arrupe suffered a stroke in 1981, the Holy See intervened in the Society’s internal administration and contrary to the provisions for such a crisis made in the Order’s constitutions appointed two Jesuits, Giuseppe Pittau and Paolo Dezza to shepherd the Order until a general congregation could be held to elect a new superior-general. Their appointment was a clear sign that the Vatican wanted to bring the Society of Jesus more into line with Pope John Pauls’ reluctance to champion the cause of the oppressed in Latin America and to confirm the traditional relationship between the Papacy and Society where the Society was there to do the Pope’s bidding. Dezza would go on to become a Cardinal for his efforts to reassert more direct papal control over the Jesuits but when the General Congregation was finally held in September 1983 the Jesuits signaled their displeasure in how they had hijacked by the Vatican and elected Peter Hans Kolvenbach as Superior General. Kolvenbach, a Dutchman, was not the Vatican’s choice for the position and allowed the Society to keep on the Social Justice track mapped out by Arrupe. Consequently relations between the Vatican and the Jesuits has been more strained than amiable since. I wouldn’t want to push this too far as the Holy See continues to entrust major parts of its mission such as the Gregorian University and the Pontifical Biblical Institute (both in Rome) to the direction of the Jesuits. Indeed the Church could not function without the gifts the Society brings to it and it is without a doubt the most important Religious Order of Society in the Church today. Nevertheless it is true to say that today the Society walks a tightrope of intellectual and moral integrity balanced by a wary reluctance to agitate the Holy See to the point of another intervention.
Even before the tension with the Jesuits was resolved (if indeed it has been resolved) the Holy See next took on the Carmelite nuns. Let me clarify the distinction between nuns and Religious Sisters. Nuns are contemplative religious, almost always to some extent enclosed (cloistered) and without active ministry beyond their cloister. Note: almost always to some extent enclosed. The rules of enclosure differ from Order to Order according to their Constitutions. Carmelites were among the most strictly enclosed—along with the other mendicant orders—the Poor Clares, Dominican Nuns, Augustinian Nuns, Servite Nuns and perhaps some other nuns affiliated with the mendicant orders that I am overlooking.
In the years after Vatican II the Discalced Carmelite Nuns—like other orders of monks, friars, nuns, canons, clerics, etc.—began redesigning their Constitutions (book of customs and daily rules) according to the norms laid down by the Council and by various Papal decrees. Room was given for some moderation in the enclosure as well as questions of religious habit, fast and abstinence, and other disciplines. The Carmelites began to coalesce around two positions in a tension that goes back to the heirs of Saint Teresa when Nicolas Doria, the Superior General of the Discalced Reform, stressed strictness of observance and Jerome Gracián, the principle disciple of Saint Teresa in her reform, stressed contemplative prayer. Doria argued for observance; Gracián for emphasizing contemplation. Don’t get me wrong—Doria believed in contemplative prayer but he was more concerned about observance; and Gracián wanted observance but he saw it as a means to deeper prayer and not as an end in itself, much less as the heart of Carmel.
In the early and mid-eighties several Spanish Carmels who belonged to the rigorist group—the group stressing observance, began to get nervous that the contemplative-oriented nuns would prevail and the expected new constitutions the Superior General was preparing would be too “open.” A Spanish Carmelite nun, Mother Maravillas de Jésus (died 1974, canonized 2003) had founded a string of monasteries that were known for their austerity. The rigorists lobbied the Holy See to impose these very strict constitutions of the Maravillas monasteries on all the nuns of the Order, undoing most of the adaptations for the nuns that the Order had made after the Second Vatican Council. The protests of the Superior General of the Order and his Council were overlooked and Rome tried to enforce its will on the various monasteries. In the end, a second set of Constitutions had to be devised for the nuns who were unwilling to accept the rigorists’ rules and customs. This caused a serious split among the Discalced Carmelites, the wounds of which are not yet healed.
Why did the Holy See pick on the Society of Jesus and the Discalced Carmelite Nuns? I remember when I was studying secondary education—years and years and years ago—one professor said: you go into the class, grab the biggest kid by the collar and smack him and you will have no problems with discipline the rest of the year. This was not a good idea then and it is not a good idea now, but it is how some people exercise authority. The Jesuits are the largest (and wealthiest and most powerful) religious community of men in the Church. The Discalced Carmelite Nuns are the largest community of enclosed or cloistered women in the Church. The Dominican Nuns or the Poor Clares or even the Carmelite Nuns of the Ancient Observance (the Order from which the Discalced had been separated at the time of Saint Teresa) have not had any of the problems that the Discalced Carmelite women have had. Discipline is maintained by fear.
Now we have this tactic of bullying the biggest kid to force everyone else into line being used again. Go after the LCWR and everyone else will fall into place. Well, actually, this time I don't thik everyone else will fall into place but I do think that this was the faulty thinking behind thye Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in handling the Leadership Conference of Women Religious this way. The Religious Men had better wake up and smell the coffee--they are next. The Bishops are very wary of the relative indepndence that the Religious Orders and Societies have and are determined to bring them under control. Men, unfortunately, have nowhere near the brave hearts of women and will fall like wheat before the wind when the bullies in red dresses come after them and their autonomy.