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Ever since the Apostolic Visitation to the Friars of the Immaculate in 2013, Religious Life for communities allowing members to use liturgical rites secured by Summorum Pontificum has never been the same. Priests of the Franciscans of the Immaculate were forbidden to incardinate into dioceses; those who left formation were forbidden to start another Franciscan community. The Franciscans who went to Viterbo were forbidden to do any public apostolate in that diocese, and similar communities suffered canonical suppression, such as the Priestly Fraternity of Familia Christi and the oppression of the Little Sister of Mary, Mother of the Redeemer.
Even when Summorum Pontificum enjoyed the force of law, persecution was still strong. Some bishops found ways to ostracize diocesan priests who had begun Low Masses on weekdays in their parishes, and even to suppress new Religious communities where members offered Low Mass even privately on their “off day.” There are many priests who are “unknown martyrs” to the rest of us, discovering the traditional Catholic faith after their ordination, being strongly convicted by it, implementing changes in their spirituality and in their parishes, and being suspended and sent to receive psychological treatment as a result.
Worse now, Traditiones Custodes explicitly says that bishops are to allow “no new groups,” which comes after Pope Francis required Bishops to receive his permission to erect a community of Diocesan Rite. Bishop Paprocki rushed to aid communities in his diocese, such as the Private Association known as the Canons Regular of St. Thomas Aquinas, dispensing them from the tyrannical prohibitions of Traditiones Custodes. But how long can this last? The community formed by the seminarians who left the Franciscans of the Immaculate were supported by a bishop in the Philippines. Randomly one morning, the same Philippino bishop awoke to read in L’Osservatore Romano that he had resigned.
After the document “Cor Orans,” promulgated to drastically govern the lives of contemplative nuns around the world, and after recent Apostolic Visitations of contemplative communities in the U.S., every traditional Religious community is concerned for its future. The letter published after a meeting of the superiors of many of the major Traditional Latin Mass communities to the bishops of France is evidence of this fact.
The situation in the Church begs a serious question: What about Religious? Do we really need Nuns? Do we really need Monks? Do we really need Lay Brothers? What are the contemplative Carmelite nuns, recently subjected to Canonical Visitations by the Vatican, to do if they are oppressed or suppressed?
In the Book of Genesis, God called Abram from the land of his fathers to a land that He would show him (cf. Gen. 12:1-2). God gave Abram and his wife Sarai new names, Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 17:5;17:15). One reason Religious take new names when they enter Religious Life is inspired by this event, together with God giving new names to others to which He has given a special call (such as Simon becoming Peter). God informs Abraham of his intention to destroy the city of Sodom for its grievous sins. Abraham, however, pleads for the people of Sodom, asking God to spare the city if He were to find even just ten righteous men (Gen. 18:16-33). The story of Abraham helps us better understand the role souls set apart by God have in the Church.
Consecrated Life is vital for the life of the Church, and the intentional limiting of the number of traditional Catholic monasteries and convents should concern us all. Consecrated men and women are set apart by God from the world to offer themselves as a living sacrifice. Renouncing the lawful joys of this world, they instead choose a more ascetical life to conquer their passions and live a truly holy life by which to merit graces for the rest of the world. The first hermits in the desert were lay men and women who sought seclusion and an austere way of life in order to fight against their passions and seek communion with God. These individuals attracted others who were inspired by their faith and courage. Religious life is primarily a lay movement, inspired by the Holy Ghost, to which clergy may belong. It is the fruit of God’s love for an individual, and the individual’s response to God’s love for them.
Using an Apostolic Visitation to suppress traditional communities seems intent to both reduce the number of consecrated souls, and to inhibit an ascetical life that helps form saints. This reality shouldn’t result in a mere “pity party” for the monks and nuns that have to find a new home. The consequences affect the universal Church. These consecrated souls will continue to be persecuted, and the Catholic faithful need to recognize what that might look like, and how to help authentic Religious Life survive.
Since the Church first became “mainstream” in the 4th century, monasticism has always kept the Church with “one foot” in the vitam venturi saeculi (“life of the world to come”) and “one foot” in earthly life. After the red martyrs formed the seed of the Church during persecutions, monasticism formed the “green martyrdom” which is the seed of the Church during times of peace. Without this seed, the Church risks becoming another NGO solely concerned with earthly life and without contact with eternal life, as the popes and bishops seem to desire in our day.
Much concern in recent decades has been given to the liceity, lawfulness, or acting in agreement with the Code of Canon Law. Everyone wants to be assured that the community with whom they attend Mass or the Divine Office is truly Catholic, approved by the Catholic Church, especially in the case of almsgiving. It’s certainly not unjust for someone to want to be assured that a Religious community to whom they make a large gift is authentically Catholic. But how do we know? Unfortunately, there aren’t too many “monitums” (warnings) released by bishops against priests that promote the use of contraceptives, or downplay the gravity of any act against the sixth commandment. There aren’t many “monitums” released by bishops against priests who celebrate the Novus Ordo liturgy in the exact same manner as a Baptist service. There aren’t many “monitums” released by bishops against priests who present a deficient moral theology. It would seem that the “monitums” released by bishops today are to suspend or warn against priests who teach the traditional Catholic faith. We live in a day when President Joe Biden, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and Fr. James Martin SJ are in full communion with the Catholic Church, but Fr Vaughn Treco is excommunicated for merely suggesting in a homily on the Feast of Christ the King that the Second Vatican Council might have caused some unintended misunderstandings (in fact, his entire parish was subsequently suppressed). Thus the faithful need to see the full context of what is happening when they attempt to judge who is “Catholic” and who is not.
Canon Law, the general law of the Church, can make this situation a bit more complicated. The vast majority of people, when asked, wouldn’t be able to articulate the process by which a person would found a Religious community. Consequently, many new communities find it difficult to clarify their legitimacy to the public.
There are three important sections in Canon Law that are important to know about in regards to Religious communities: 1) Associations of the Christian Faithful, 2) Religious Institutes, and 3) Societies of Apostolic Life. However, the main section pertinent to a new community being founded is Associations of the Christian Faithful. There are three kinds of Associations of the Faithful: 1) de facto, 2) Private, and 3) Public. Private and Public Associations of the Faithful both have their statutes approved by the competent ecclesiastical authority. While de facto associations don’t have their statutes approved, they are still canonically permitted to exist.
Two Canons that pertain to individuals seeking to establish a new Religious community are Canons 215 and 310:
Can. 215 The Christian faithful are at liberty freely to found and direct associations for purposes of charity or piety or for the promotion of the Christian vocation in the world and to hold meetings for the common pursuit of these purposes.
Can. 310 A private association which has not been established as a juridic person cannot, as such, be a subject of obligations and rights. Nevertheless, the members of the Christian faithful associated together in it can jointly contract obligations and can acquire and possess rights and goods as co-owners and co-possessors; they are able to exercise these rights and obligations through an agent or a proxy.
The New Commentary of the Code of Canon Law is an excellent resource to seek further clarification on these canons. It is commissioned by the Canon Law Society of America.
Regarding the Canons mentioned above, it states:
Canon 215 offers examples of the purposes intended by these meetings or associations: charity, piety, or the promotion of the Christian vocation in the world” (The Canon Law Society of America, 270). “These broadly apostolic purposes, therefore, demonstrate the right to meet and to form associations is both a natural right arising from the social nature of the person as well as a right derived from baptism, which situates the person with the community of faith and obliges the person to be involved in the Church’s mission (The Canon Law Society of America, 270).
The New Commentary of the Code of Canon Law further clarifies that:
…every association of the faithful is not necessarily erected, praised, or commended and that de facto associations can exist… (420) [and] a de facto association is neither irregular nor illegal (403).
These canons and citations are crucial because, often, new communities are asked whether or not they have a bishop’s “approval.” The New Commentary removes all doubt that a bishop’s approval is not necessary for a group of individuals to begin to live together to live a more ascetical life and pursue the Christian vocation in a more intense way. Unfortunately, bishops today are more eager to appear to remain “united” to a bishops conference than to support and affirm a community of men or women who are willing to completely renounce the world and live their lives according to the traditional Catholic religion.
Non-ordained Religious Brothers and Sisters being persecuted for the traditional Catholic religion and liturgy ought to have no fear in appearing “schismatic,” since Canon Law allows for the existence of de facto associations. Laity ought not to fear to support these groups embracing great depths of uncertainty in order to remain faithful to the faith.
This reality within the current code forms the resistance plan for all religious, as Kwasniewski recently highlighted from the Russian underground. All lay people have the right to form associations of common prayer and ascetic life without any permission from a bishop. These associations can continue indefinitely until more bishops have orthodox faith and enough courage to support them and commend them. Yet as Hilary White has also pointed out, it is critical that we keep these organizations lay owned and maintained to preserve them against evil clergy who hate the religious life which seeks the “life of the world to come” according to the Gospel.
Painting: “The Torment of St. Anthony” by Michelangelo
Br. Martin Navarro, Ob.S.A. is a founding member of the Oblates of St. Augustine, a monastic “de facto” association of traditional Catholic men who live together sharing the same intentional purpose of growing in one mind and heart in God. You can learn more about them at www.oblatesofstaugustine.com.