Editor’s note: This is the seventh article in “Combat For Contemplative Life,” a series about the responses — inside and outside the cloister — to Pope Francis’s reforms of the contemplative life for women in various communities. Part one, by Mike Lewis, “A Praying Heart: How Pope Francis intends to save the cloistered life,” provides an overview of the reforms, with responses and reactions from sisters around the world. In Part 2, “The Parting of the Ways – Reactions and Responses to Cor Orans,” Discalced Carmelite Sr. Gabriela Hicks, describes how resistance to the reforms led to the sudden departure of twelve nuns from the Philadelphia Carmel. In Part 3, “Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples imagine vain things?” Sr. Gabriela describes the ensuing internet from radical traditionalists—including an open letter by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. In Part 4, “The Mice that Roar,” Sr. Gabriela responds to Archbishop Viganò with a letter of her own. In Part 5, “Welcome to the Light!” Sr. Gabriela discusses the danger of spiritual abuse in religious and contemplative communities.
Recently, the Catholic World Report published an interview with Catherine Bauer, the caretaker at the Fairfield Carmel. Miss Bauer is also the sister of Mother Therese, the Sub-Prioress at Fairfield. In the interview, Miss Bauer was asked about the recent apostolic visitation, which took place at the Carmel this past September. In answering this question, Miss Bauer also answered a question which people in Philadelphia and elsewhere have been asking since the beginning of April: Why did the Carmelite Nuns suddenly leave their monastery and return to Valparaiso? There had been a couple of vague explanations, first from Valparaiso and then from Fairfield, but this was the first direct answer from someone associated with the community regarding specific reasons for their departure. Miss Bauer said, “In 2021, the nuns wanted to return to Valparaiso, as they believed the implementation of Cor Orans was interfering with their way of life.”
For the Councilors of the St. Joseph’s Association, to which the Philadelphia Carmel belongs, this explanation was no surprise. Before leaving with the other nuns for Valparaiso, the Prioress of the Philadelphia Carmel, Mother Teresa of St. Augustine, and the Sub-Prioress, Mother Elizabeth, had told the Sister who was not leaving, that one of the reasons they were going “was to get out of the St. Joseph Association … There are requirements in Cor Orans that the nuns do not like and which the Association is trying to fulfill.”[i] (For a fuller presentation of the nuns’ departure, see “You Shall Know the Truth.”)
One of these requirements was that the President of the Association take part as Co-Visitator in the regular canonical visitation which occurs in all religious institutes.[ii] This new form of canonical visitation had already taken place in several of the Association’s monasteries, and the nuns had found it a very positive experience. The Philadelphia Carmel was due to have its canonical visitation in 2021, and, in fact, as soon as the Archbishop learned of their plan to leave, he informed the nuns that the canonical visitation would take place as soon as possible.[iii] However, the nuns left Philadelphia before any date for the visitation was announced.
In the interview, Catherine Bauer further made known the reason why the nuns object to the demands of Cor Orans. As she explained it, the norms of Cor Orans are incompatible with the regular life which they are living as Teresian Carmelites: “They cannot follow the rule of St. Teresa of Avila and Cor Orans.”[iv] This statement needs to be clarified, lest there be any misunderstanding. Miss Bauer was in no way saying that Cor Orans cancelled Teresa of Avila as a Doctor of the Church, and certainly none of her writings have been added to some non-existent Index of Forbidden Books. Also, the phrase “the rule of St. Teresa of Avila” is unfortunate. Teresa never wrote a Rule because Carmelites follow the Rule of St. Albert, written around 1208.
What Miss Bauer is referring to is the set of Constitutions for the Carmelite Nuns promulgated in 1990 and followed by some 140 monasteries around the world, a third of them in Spain. There also exists a second set of Constitutions known as the 1991 Constitutions which are followed by approximately 460 Carmels world-wide. In a Letter dated October 1, 1991, St. John Paul II approved both sets of Constitutions, establishing that “Both texts, equally approved by the Church are intended to be a faithful interpretation of the Teresian charism.”[v] How did the Carmelite Nuns end up with two sets of Constitutions, and what is the difference between them?
One of the later documents of Vatican II to be promulgated was Perfectae Caritatis, The Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life, proclaimed by St. Paul VI on October 28, 1965. In paragraph 2, it gives the basic guide for renewing religious life: “The adaptation and renewal of the religious life includes both the constant return to the sources of all Christian life and to the original spirit of the institutes and their adaptation to the changed conditions of our time.”[vi] This “return to the sources” was the primary incentive in the renewal of religious life, and, of course, it was interpreted in different ways by different people. It was this difference in interpretation that led to two sets of Constitutions for the Carmelite Nuns.
How was it possible for the Church to accept two different sets of constitutions as “equally approved” and valid expressions of the charism of the same religious order? The two forms of interpretation of the “return to the sources” which the Carmelites adopted can be compared to two different ways of translating a text from a foreign language. As an example, let us take the well-known saying Corruptio optimi pessima.[vii] It is possible to translate it literally: “The corruption of what is best is the worst form of corruption.” It is also possible to take the meaning and put it into totally different words: “Perhaps this is best translated according to its meaning, rather than according to its words, by Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94: ‘Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.’”[viii] Both ways of translating get the meaning across to the reader, but each with a different resonance.
Anyone who has done serious translating will know that both styles of translation have their value. In translating a technical manual, one should keep as close to the literal meaning of the original text as possible while fitting the technical terms of one language to those of the other. In translating poetry, a literal translation would destroy the beauty of the poem. Different forms of writing demand different forms of translating.
In applying Perfectae caritatis to their existing Constitutions, one group of the Carmelites adopted the literal style of adaptation, while the other group adopted another style, updating the Constitutions more “according to their meaning, rather than according to their words,” to borrow Fr. Hoffman’s phrase.
The first group, which drafted the 1990 Constitutions, probably had the easier job. They returned to the sources of the Discalced Carmelite charism by taking the last set of Constitutions, which were approved shortly before Teresa’s death. These were the Constitutions of Alcala, approved on March 13, 1581. To update these Constitutions, they added what was required by the norms of canon law then in force after Vatican II, and made a few adjustments to the original text, omitting passages which they considered obsolete. They kept very close to the literal meaning of the Alcala Constitutions. In fact, the literal text of the Alcala Constitutions was considered by some Carmelites to be essential to the Teresian charism. As one Prioress wrote: “Nothing in Alcala can be changed, nothing! Every point is of the charism from the toque to the bell that is rung when outsiders enter the cloister.”[ix]
This insistence on the value of details opens an understanding of what it means to live a charism and gives us a rare glimpse into religious life. When each detail is considered essential to the life, those who live surrounded by these details find themselves living in a sacred space. Religious are called to “show to the Church and the world a clear sign of the Kingdom.”[x] This emphasis on the importance of details enables the religious to sense in a deeply interior way that she is called already to walk in the Kingdom of God. She brings to the present a view of the Kingdom already close at hand.
The other interpretation, which was the vision behind the drafting of the 1991 Constitutions, focuses on incarnating the Kingdom in a world-wide context. Cultures differ, and the same action can mean one thing in one culture and mean something very different in another. Again, we are dealing with the matter of translation: the translation of words from language to language, and the translation of lifestyles from one culture to another. We see here one of the main points of difference between the two Constitutions, in fact, between two mindsets or visions of the Teresian charism: one vision focuses on the details, and, as we will see, the other vision focuses on the broad view. Both have their strong points and their weaknesses.
Here we will consider the vision expressed in the 1990 Constitutions.
I grew up before Vatican II, and I remember what it was like to be a Catholic then. For most of us, being a Catholic was basically a straightforward challenge. It was a challenge because being a Christian and bearing your cross is always a challenge. As one Dominican novice master back then told his novices, “If the three vows don’t pinch, you’re cutting corners.” If keeping the Ten Commandments and the precepts of the Church didn’t pinch, we laity were cutting corners.
But it was a straightforward challenge because you knew what you were supposed to do, even if you didn’t live up to it. The details were laid out in black and white, and it was up to you to cooperate with the graces you believed that God gave you in the sacraments and in prayer.
This was tremendously consoling! You didn’t have to wonder if you were doing God’s will or not. The rules were there, and if you followed them, you knew you were on the right path. There was no need for discernment or guessing. If you did have some questions, you just had to ask a priest in confession, and he would make it clear. The path may have had some thorns along the ground—it wasn’t always easy to get the rosary said every day—but you knew where the path was, and you knew you were safe as long as you walked on it.
This vision of the path to heaven was also found in some religious institutes where the vow of obedience was taken very seriously. For those who truly wanted to do God’s will, it was very, very consoling to be told explicitly what God’s will was for you here and now. You didn’t have to guess what He asked of you. It was up to your superior to tell you. There is a tremendous interior peace in leaving these questions in someone else’s hands.
Such an understanding of religious obedience can still be found today, as we see in a Postulant’s Booklet from one Carmelite Monastery. Most of the booklet is made up of prayers, but on the last page there are the directions for the “benedicite” (i.e. asking permission), several times a day for ordinary actions. These actions are: going to the bathroom, brushing one’s teeth, taking a drink of water, and breathing. At the top of the page is written: “General Novitiate Maxim: Novice needs benedicite for everything.” Since this comes from a bilingual Carmel, on the two previous pages we find the phrases for asking permission to do other ordinary actions: to wash specific articles of clothing, to turn the light on or off, to visit the Blessed Sacrament, etc. Each action is sanctified by explicit permission. This is an extreme form of literal obedience, but it can give a tremendous sense of spiritual security to the novice. There is no place for doubt in her mind that she is doing God’s will.
Yet is obedience of this kind really “both the constant return to the sources of all Christian life and to the original spirit of the institutes” called for by Perfectae caritatis? Is this what it means to be “led by the Spirit of God”?[xi] Is such obedience truly traditional?
[i] Letter to Sr. Gabrielle Mary Braccio, RSM, the Delegate for Consecrated Life in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, March 23-24, 2021
[ii] Cor orans #111
[iii] Letter March 26th, 2021 from Archbishop Perez to Mother Teresa of St. Augustine, OCD, Prioress of the Philadelphia Carmel.
[v] St. John Paul II, “Letter to the Discalced Carmelite Nuns on the Occasion of the Approbation of Their Constitutions,” Oct. 1, 1991
[vi] Perfectae Caritatis #2
[vii] I am indebted to Fr. Dominic M. Hoffman, O.P. for this example. See The Life Within: The Prayer of Union, Sheed and Ward, New York, 1966, p.11
[ix] From an email September 9, 2020
[x] Collect for the votive Mass for Vocations to the Religious Life
[xi] Rom. 8, 14
Image: Pathway at the end of the outdoor Stations of the Cross at Flemington Carmel, provided by the author.