Saturday, August 19, 2023

Carmelites 'no longer recognize' Fort Worth bishop's 'authority'

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The nuns at a Carmelite monastery in Arlington, Texas, announced Friday that they “no longer recognize the authority of” Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth, an act that could see Olson declare the nuns in schism.

“[W]e hereby state that, in conscience, we no longer recognize the authority of, and can have no further relations with, the current Bishop of Fort Worth or his officials, and forbid him or any of his officials or representatives to enter our monastery property or to have any contact or relations with the monastery or any of its nuns or novices,” an Aug. 18 statement on the sisters’ website stated.

Sources close to the monastery confirmed the authenticity of the statement to The Pillar Friday afternoon.

The statement cited months of “unprecedented interference, intimidation, aggression, private and public humiliation and spiritual manipulation as the direct result of the attitudes and ambitions of the current Bishop of Fort Worth.”

“No one who abuses us as has the current Bishop of Fort Worth, has any right to our cooperation or obedience,” they said.

“For our own spiritual and psychological safety, and in justice, we must remain independent of this Bishop until such time as he repents of the abuse to which he has subjected us, apologizes in person to our community for it and accepts to make due public reparation. Should that day never arrive, we hope and pray that in due course his successor will be a God-given instrument of that reparation and healing which, in justice, is now due.”

The sisters stressed their fidelity to Catholic doctrine and emphasized that “the Pope and the Bishop of Fort Worth, whomever they are today or whomever they may be in the future, shall always be prayed for in this monastery, most especially in the Canon of the Mass.”

The nuns insisted that their statement does not break ecclesial communion, arguing that their actions are necessary to end intolerable abusive behavior at the hands of Bishop Olson.

In canon law, however, a refusal to recognize the authority of an appointed diocesan bishop is understood to be an act of schism, which carries with it the penalty of excommunication.

To take effect, the penalty must be declared by the diocesan bishop. 

In response to questions from The Pillar, the Diocese of Fort Worth said Friday night that: “Bishop Olson and the Diocese of Fort Worth have not been notified of this dangerously rebellious decision by the dismissed prioress and the other nuns to reject formally the authority of the Holy See to name Bishop Olson as Pontifical Commissary and acting superior of the Arlington Carmel with the associated rights and duties of oversight.” 

“Bishop Olson asks the faithful of the Diocese of Fort Worth and all people of good will to pray for the Carmelites that they will stop their open disobedience.”

In addition to their own statement, the Texas Carmelites on Friday published a statement they said was written by Archbishop Carlo Vigano, the former apostolic nuncio to the United States. 

“The repeated abuses of power by those who hold ecclesiastical Authority over religious Communities – especially communities of contemplative women – are part of a subversive plan carried out by corrupt and heretical Prelates whose purpose is to deprive the Church of the Graces which such Consecrated souls cause to descend upon Her,” the statement said.

The Vigano statement connected the conflict in Texas to Vigano’s longstanding criticism of Pope Francis.

“I invite everyone to support the courageous resistance of the Carmelite Nuns of Arlington with prayer and material help, not only for the sake of supporting them but also in order to send a clear signal to those in the Church who believe that they hold absolute power, even to the point of contradicting with impunity the Authority of Christ, the Head of the Mystical Body.”

“Resisting is a duty that Catholics of all times have never shirked: when the majority of the Episcopate embraced the Arian heresy, or when the German bishops sided with Luther, or when the English bishops sided with Henry VIII so as not to lose their benefices. This is not the first time that the Hierarchy has betrayed its mandate out of self-interest; however, it is the first time that this betrayal has been encouraged and wanted by the one who has seated himself on the Throne of Peter,” it said.

“The Sisters of the Arlington Carmel have an example of heroic resistance against corrupt power in the martyrdom of the Carmelites of Compiègne, who knew how to face the guillotine in order not to submit to the constitutional Oath of a revolutionary government. It will not be Prelates without either dignity or faith who bend the bold resistance of souls in love with Christ.”

The conflict between Bishop Olson and the nuns of the Carmelite Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity has been ongoing for several months, since Olson in May initiated a canonical investigation into their abbess, Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach, for allegedly admitting to violating her vow of chastity with an unnamed priest.

Lawyers for the convent and for Gerlach, both civil and canonical, have said that her supposed admission of an affair was made following a serious medical procedure, under the influence of painkillers, and when she was in and out of lucidity.

Olson, however, said the prioress had repeated her admission to him during an in-person conversation, in the presence of several other individuals. He said Gerlach was lucid and spoke clearly at the time, and was not recovering from surgery at the time.

The bishop claimed that the nun named the priest — who was identified in June by his diocese as Fr. Philip Johnson of the Diocese of Raleigh — during that conversation, and that the priest’s diocese of residence, his immediate superior, and his bishop had all been informed of the situation.

The nuns, in response, filed a million-dollar civil suit against the bishop, as well as a criminal complaint alleging that Olson had stolen their property by seizing their phones and computers during a search of the convent. They have suggested that the bishop’s actions are financially motivated, and that he is seeking their donor list.

The bishop told the sisters he was restricting their access to Mass and confession until they withdrew the lawsuit. He restored their access to the sacraments on June 1, when he also issued a decree dismissing the superior.

His decree came one day after the Vatican appointed Olson “pontifical commissary” for the sisters and retroactively sanated any and all canonical procedural issues raised by Olson’s previous actions involving the monastery.

In June, the diocese also said that it was in communication with the local police department regarding serious concerns over “the use of marijuana and edibles at the monastery,” along with what it called “other issues that the diocese will address at another time and in a proper forum.”

The diocese released photos which it says are from the inside of the monastery. The images appear to show an office with several tables strewn with drug paraphernalia, dispensary bottles, branded marijuana products, bongs, and a crucifix. 

The nuns had made various appeals to Rome, including the objection that Olson had employed powers reserved for a criminal canonical investigation despite the mother superior’s alleged actions — while sinful — not constituting a specific crime in canon law.

In their Aug. 18 statement, the nuns said they have also made some liturgical changes at their monastery.

“In order to better render glory to God and “more profoundly to enter into the contemplation of His Sacred Mysteries,” the nuns said they have decided “to celebrate the Sacred Liturgy, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Divine Office, the sacraments, sacramentals and other rites according to the older forms of the Roman rite according to the traditional Discalced Carmelite usages.”

For his part, Olson said he will look to Rome for guidance.

“Bishop Olson and the Diocese of Fort Worth stand with Pope Francis and will remain faithful to the canonical process that is currently underway,” his Friday statement said.