Friday, August 25, 2023

Texas Carmelites defy bishop’s order to close their doors to the faithful

Audio conversation between Fort Worth Bishop, nun played in court |

In an increasingly bitter dispute between a Texas bishop and a local Carmelite monastery, the nuns are defying an order by Fort Worth Bishop Michael Olson that prohibits Catholic laity from visiting and praying at the monastery.

The nuns of the Most Holy Trinity Monastery in Arlington, Texas, issued a defiant three-page statement Wednesday in which they said that Olson does not have the authority to close off their monastery and that their chapel remains open to the public.

The nuns further claimed that Olson and the diocese continue to deny them the sacraments, including Mass and confessions.

The monastery statement, written by attorney Matthew Bobo, said that though “Bishop Olson continues his vindictive personal war against the Arlington Carmelite nuns,” they “do not and will not recognize this bishop’s unwarranted and unauthorized abuse and wielding of the complete power he suddenly is trying to exercise over the monastery.” 

Bishop closes monastery doors to the public; nuns open them anyway

Though Olson has declared the monastery closed to the public, Bobo said that the nuns “decided to open their gates and allow the lay faithful to come and pray at the monastery’s chapel.” 

“The monastery and all of its property belongs to the Discalced Carmelite nuns,” Bobo said. “No one has the right to tell a private property owner who can and cannot come onto their private property … The bishop has tried to isolate the Arlington Carmelite nuns, cutting them off from their longtime supporters and in so doing preventing the lay faithful from attending their church of choice.” 

“Through his spiteful acts he can of course prevent priests from performing Mass and hearing confessions but he cannot prevent private citizens from going on private property,” Bobo said, adding that “the Arlington Carmelite nuns invite their lay faithful to come and pray at the monastery’s chapel.”

What is going on?

After investigating an alleged illicit affair involving the monastery’s prioress, Rev. Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach, and a North Carolina priest named Father Philip Johnson, Olson dismissed Gerlach from religious life in April.

Olson was given full authority over the matter by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

In response, the nuns continue to claim that Gerlach has not committed any wrongdoing warranting her dismissal and that she has been unfairly targeted by Olson.

Though the nuns filed a civil theft, defamation, and abuse of power lawsuit against Olson, their case was dismissed by a district judge on June 30.

In an Aug. 18 statement on their website, the nuns said that Olson has subjected them to “unprecedented interference, intimidation, aggression, private and public humiliation, and spiritual manipulation.”

According to Olson, the nuns’ defiance constitutes “schismatic actions,” that is separation from proper authority in the Catholic Church.

On this basis, Olson said on Saturday that the Arlington monastery “remains closed to public access until such time as the Arlington Carmel publicly disavows itself of these scandalous and schismatic actions.” 

Olson also said that the nuns’ decision to defy his authority and forbid him from entering monastery grounds may have incurred “latae sententiae” excommunication on themselves. 

Excommunication is the separation of an individual from communion with God and his Church and ultimately removes the possibility of the promise of heaven until one repents. It is the gravest matter possible for a Catholic.

Bobo’s Wednesday statement said that the nuns “are not, and have no intention of, separating from the Catholic Church despite the incongruous statement made by the bishop.” 

“They remain dedicated to the Catholic Church and the Holy See and pray that the Vatican will put an end to this malicious persecution by the bishop,” Bobo said. 

Nuns drop lawsuit to appeal prioress’ dismissal 

According to Bobo’s statement, the nuns have decided not to continue pursuing their civil lawsuit against Olson so that Gerlach can appeal her dismissal from religious life to ecclesial authorities. 

“The Arlington nuns chose not to appeal the jurisdictional ruling by the civil court because the Vatican made clear that the canonical process would not proceed until the civil litigation had concluded,” Bobo said. “Based on that, the Arlington Carmelite nuns made the decision to end the civil litigation. It was not because they considered the judge’s ruling to be fair.”

During the ecclesial investigation that resulted in the prioress’ dismissal, Olson denied her the opportunity to choose her own canon lawyer, choosing one himself to represent her. 

Bobo told CNA at the time that the canon lawyer appointed by the diocese to represent Gerlach was “compromised” and a “lackey” of the bishop.

In his Wednesday statement, Bobo said that “the nuns place their hopes and prayers on a just and fair review of the canonical case by the Vatican to ensure that acts taken by Bishop Olson will be reversed and they will be completely exonerated, allowing them to return to their prayerful contemplative life without further unlawful interference by Bishop Olson.”