People have reacted to the document “Vultum Dei Quaerere,” issued this weekend – without warning the day before World Youth Day captures all the pope-related news – saying it was motivated by the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate. It does seem clear that Francis and his regime have a particular dislike – or perhaps fear of – the female branch of the wildly successful, tradition-leaning religious order they have been busy crucifying for three years. But my friend suggested that Francis’ distrust of flourishing conservative (not Traditionalist) religious orders actually dates to the early 2000s and his clash with both the Institute of the Incarnate Word, an Argentinian religious order of priests, sisters and contemplative nuns, and Cardinal Sodano. He hinted that the latest document could be a form of payback.
This Novus Ordo “conservative” order is not well known in the US, but one sees their sisters all the time in Italy. And indeed, there are quite a lot of them. Founded in 1988, the female branch of the Institute is called the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará (SSVM). The active branch of the sisters is even more numerous that the FSI sisters, with over 1000 sisters in 35 mission territories. There is also a contemplative branch with both cloistered nuns and contemplative monks.
Very shortly after his election the news came forward that Cardinal Bergoglio had “clashed” with the Instituto del Verbo Encarnado (IVE) but few details are immediately available. One blogger reported briefly on March 21st 2013, a week after the Conclave, that “Bergoglio was primate during the first investigation of the order.”
“Under his leadership, the Argentinian bishops stopped the ordinations, shut down the seminary, and put restrictions on the founder Fr. Buela and other IVE priests.”
It all sounds so very familiar, doesn’t it? We certainly can see Bergoglio’s MO here.
Strangely, in the 2007 “investigation” ended abruptly when Cardinal Sodano stepped in. The most powerful – and most sinister – of the “old school” cardinals in Rome, and the main protector of the Legionaries of Christ, Sodano set them up in Italy. “Then, according to reports from Argentina, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, now dean of the College of Cardinals, helped Buela and the IVE out of their problems with the Argentinian bishops. The IVE moved its headquarters to the diocese of Velletri-Segni, which is in Italy 37 miles south of Rome.”
The abrupt cessation of hostilities and Sodano’s extraordinary action in swooping in and rescuing the IVE is an indication of how poor the relationship really was between Rome and Buenos Aires at that time, the early years of Pope Benedict’s pontificate.
The long report in the Argentinian press is illustrative. It says that every bishop in Argentina but one, Héctor Aguer, the head of the of the Archdiocese of La Plata, opposed the IVE. Aguer is known as the spokesman of the “conservative” wing of the Argentine Catholic Church, opposing sex education in schools, speaking out strongly against the legalization of abortion in 2006.
In the first sentence of its report, the Argentinian newspaper Pagina 12, describes the IVE as “ultraconservative,” and promoters of “Catholic fundamentalism,” but also describes a flourishing religious order with the “busiest seminary in the country,” home to more than a hundred seminarians with thirty entering every year. This can be compared to a report shortly after Bergoglio was elected pope on the state of his seminaries by the far-left National Catholic Reporter.
John Allen reported, “Last year the archdiocese ordained just 12 new priests, as opposed to 40-50 per year when Bergoglio took over.” (Allen also reports a conversation in which Archbishop Aguer is described as “the leader of the hawks” opposing Bergoglio on doctrinal and political issues like legalisation of same-sex relationships.)
The decidedly lefty Pagina 12 continues about the clash between the Argentinian bishops and IVE, calling their missionary style “combative” and accusing them of trying to “restore true Catholicism which had its peak in medieval Christendom.” Pagina 12 noted that the order had “always strongly confronted” the Argentinian episcopate, for whom such militancy was obviously an embarrassment, not to mention the order’s numerical success.
But clearly the main problem is the order’s emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy and reluctance to implement “the reforms of Vatican II.”
The piece quotes no one from the order, but Veronica Gimenez Béliveau, a researcher on religion who had “even lived in their monasteries,” helped to clarify.
“They live very austere, in an almost evangelical poverty,” she said, adding that they are sympathetic with Spain’s Franco regime. Gimenez Beliveau said that the internal culture of the order is characterized by “the symbolic construction of the community as persecuted and militant.”
“The idea of persecution [is] associated with the conservation of the true tradition and supernatural values in a context of secularization and humanization of culture.”
It seems reasonable to suggest that this order, with its reported refusal to allow people to receive Holy Communion without first going to Confession, is more the source of Francis’ characteristic dislike of Novus Ordo “conservative” religious.
It has been widely reported that he seemed more or less indifferent to the SSPX that has a seminary in Argentina. With the modest numbers of genuinely Traditionalist vocations going to the SSPX and the huge influx going into the much more embarrassing IVE – particularly as a group that remained within the Novusordoist fold but refused to get with the South American Marxist programme – it is easy to see the origin of Francis’ fanatical persecution of the FFIs, an order that closely fits the same bill.
What’s interesting is that the bishops’ accusations against the IVE were of a decidedly different sort than those against the Legionaries, who also enjoyed Sodano’s protection. It was not the litany of sexual and criminal horrors leveled against Maciel, but just “disobedience”. It is perhaps an indication about the state of things in the Argentinian Church that every bishop except Aguer signed a letter to then-pope John Paul II (who, by then because of his infirmities was, for all practical purposes, the Secretary of State, Cardinal Sodano) asking that the IVE seminaries and houses of formation be shut down.
The bishops did manage to close the IVE seminary briefly in 2000 after three separate investigations by Rome. But then, Cardinal Sodano instead halted the closures, rescinded the decrees against them and brought the entire order, lock, stock and barrel, to Italy where they continue to flourish.
Did Sodano embarrass Bergoglio or his friends? Is that the source of his dislike of successful “conservative” religious orders in general? It will remain an area of speculation, but perhaps one worth keeping a close eye on.
Sodano certainly orchestrated a decisive slap in the face for the Argentinian bishops when, in 2001, the Vatican sent the Bishop of Velletri, Andrea Maria Erba, to Argentina to ordain 49 priests of the IVE in Aguer’s cathedral in La Plata, the largest group ordination in Argentina’s history.
Now that’s gotta sting, and it sent an unequivocal message to the bishops – whose primate Bergoglio was – about whose side the Vatican was on. Shortly after the mass ordination, Bergoglio came to visit the bishops’ offices to try to smooth the ruffled feathers.
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But that was then, and this is Bergoglio’s time. Was the attack on the FFIs a counter-sign to the people in the Vatican who would remember that incident, and know what it meant? Sodano remains a powerful figure even now. His official title is Dean of the College of Cardinals, but more than that the 88-year-old cardinal remains the head of the last remaining pre-Bergoglian faction in the Vatican that ever held any real power. He has been at the centre of a web of influence and power-brokering since the close of the Second Vatican Council and remains both in his person and his protégées one of the most significant figures in Rome.
The fact that Sodano has been out of the news for some time – about three years in fact – does not mean he or his followers are out of consideration. He gave the address at the Vatican’s commemoration of the 65th anniversary of Pope Benedict’s ordination about a month ago, and was reportedly the only person in the room not surprised by Benedict’s announcement of his resignation.
Did Vultum Dei Quaerere come down on the contemplative nuns to send a message about who’s in charge, and what kind of power Francis holds over vulnerable organisations like contemplative nuns? If so, this is a clear display of the ruthlessness that Bergoglio was reportedly known for in Argentina. Holding little old ladies hostage, threatening to toss them into the street in their shifts if certain persons don’t toe the line, certainly does jibe with the reports of the man’s character that have filtered quietly out from his previous posting.
Vatican Insider reported in September 2013 that Francis had staged a rapprochement with the IVE, but at the same time issued a clear warning. The La Stampa-affiliated magazine said that the “institute’s relationship with the Vatican has not been an easy one,” but this misstates the case. The difficulties had never been with the Vatican, but with Argentina’s bishops, led at the time by Bergoglio.
Vatican Insider said the fact that the IVE had been “at the centre of controversies and poses a problem,” for Francis, adding that the institute needed “normalization” with Rome. But again, this is in error. The IVE is a religious congregation of diocesan right, approved by the bishop of Velletri-Segni, in full, undisputed union with Rome with nary a single hint of canonical difficulties. Perhaps Vatican Insider failed to sufficiently Google the canonical differences between a diocesan institute and one made global by the Holy See.
The unsigned article goes on to quote Francis speaking to the Latin American Bishops conference CELAM, issuing a remote warning to IVE that will sound only too familiar to Traditionalists.
“In his message, the Pope spoke about the ideological temptation of Christians he described as ‘Pelagianism,’ which apparently manifests itself in the idea of ‘restorationism.’
“‘In dealing with the Church’s problems, a purely disciplinary solution is sought, through the restoration of outdated manners and forms which, even on the cultural level, are no longer meaningful,’ he added.
“Bergoglio warned bishops: ‘In Latin America it is usually to be found in small groups, in some new religious congregations, in (exaggerated) tendencies to doctrinal or disciplinary ‘safety’.”
The article quotes a telling “off-the-cuff” comment, “In the first year of Benedict XVI’s pontificate  I had to personally intervene in a case involving the founder of a movement who was linked to this apocalyptic viewpoint.”
The man is nothing if not consistent.
Shortly after his election to the papacy, Pagina 12 interviewed one of his colleagues on his style of governance, among other things. Fr. Eduardo de la Serna, director of the agency Curas en Opción por los Pobres, said, “Jorge Bergoglio knows how to handle well the strings of power.”
De la Serna, continued, that as pope, Bergoglio was not going to be a “conservative” on issues like abortion or homosexuality. Tellingly, de la Serna, long before it had become the key issue of Francis’ pontificate, specifically mentioned Communion for the divorced and “remarried”.
“Instead, we can expect of him gestures of closeness. To imagine an example: it would not surprise me that on Holy Thursday [he would] wash the feet of a group of transvestites. I do not say he’s going to do it but he would be capable of something like that, to make it clear that [such people are] in no way the excommunicates, but not applaud their actions. So I do not think [there will be] major changes to promote doctrinal level, but [there] may [be] significant gestures on the pastoral level.”
It seems that if you were a priest of the dioceses of Argentina, none of the Bergoglian pontificate would have been a surprise.
The Bergoglio protégée demonstrated his note-perfect recitation of Francis’ favourite set-pieces: “The Official doctrine of the Church says that those who live together without being married by the Church cannot receive Communion; but for many theologians, that is unfounded. Good. I would not be surprised if Bergoglio were to appoint a group of theologians to study these arguments. At a pastoral level, it would be a gesture of closeness to those people who today can not receive Communion. But to create the commission itself would not involve a change in the doctrine of the Church about it.”
Such a clear view of what was coming with regards to the Synods on the Family gives Fr. De la Serna’s comments on Bergoglio’s relationship with the Institute of the Incarnate Word more weight: “Bergoglio knows how to handle the power. And it would be naive to think that, as pope, he will not take into his hands decisions concerning the Argentina Church.
“In fact, he expressed a critical attitude towards very right groups such as the Incarnate Word Institute. But at the time he was slowed by the Vatican curia, who should not be able to stop it now.”
Historically, the relationship between nuns and the bishops in general and often the Vatican, have not been easygoing. The histories of most religious orders, particularly those of women, have often been ones of struggles for control over new and often threatening ideas and directions.
When the bishop of Geneva – at the time the stronghold of Calvinism – applied to the Holy See for approval of the constitutions of a new religious order, Rome didn’t say no, exactly. Bishop Francis de Sales had been collaborating with the widowed Baroness Jane de Chantal to start a new community of nuns who would go out of their convents to minister to poor, sick and elderly people in their neighbourhood. But at the time, things were tricky, what with the Protestant Revolt raging violently across Europe and the Church piecing herself back together after a sack by Swedish mercenaries and then the Council of Trent. Until that time, no nuns ever left their cloisters, never mind participated, as part of the constitutions of their order, in organized apostolic, charitable works. Rome eventually approved revised constitutions for the Order of the Visitation but only after their saintly founders had agreed to adopt a more traditional cloistered style of life.
It is normal, more or less, for devout people to want to found new religious communities to do things that need to be done both in the spiritual and the corporal realm. It is also normal for Rome to put the brakes on such endeavours, and this tension has often been seen by theologians as part of the way God tests and refines the holiness and intentions of founders and foundresses.
But this is the first time the Church has had a pope who simply appears to want to squash authentic and ancient expressions of contemplative religious life, apparently simply because it tends to be hard to control. In our times, of course, we all know that new communities are being formed specifically as a response to the catastrophe caused around the world by policies like those beloved of Francis and his friends. It has become common for such groups to have large lay followings and to almost represent the entire movement away from the post-Conciliar paradigm.
It is hardly surprising then that he would consider them … well… let’s say, a priority.