How Can You Tell a Real Catholic Monastery From a Fake?

Q:  There is a “monastery” of two men [in my diocese].  They SAY they are Roman Catholics and that they abide by Catholic dogma.  I’m pretty sure most people would assume they are legitimate Catholics.  [One of them] has stated in the past he is a fully (sic) ordained Roman Catholic Priest.  He does not do so now–I have questioned him explicitly on this point.  He has been saying Mass and giving (sic) sacraments…. He was very evasive when I questioned him about his actual status within the clergy. I could not determine from what he said if he was retired or defrocked, laicized, whatever.  The only thing he will say is, “I’m the abbot superior of a monastery.”  I find his “gofundme” site disturbing. Why does a one-man monastery need $100,000?

The bishop has not deigned to return my messages…. Apparently there is no way the laity can do a background check on any clergy.  I have to assume the bishop doesn’t give a rat’s a**.

…Is this really okay with the Catholic Church?  Does the Catholic Church really condone this?  It is affecting our family–my granddaughter refuses to go to church, citing “Religion is crap, it’s only a cover for dirty, greedy bastards who steal from women and children and **** boys.”  I continue to go to Church, but I am becoming very discouraged at what I believe to be heretics who are condoned by canon law.  I’m only a lay person, where are the people Christ said would lead me?

My original question: is this heresy?  Unless I am told otherwise, I will continue to believe a con game is going on with the assurance of forthcoming miracles and that heretical practices like necromancy are practiced and encouraged.  –Jim

A:  If readers are confused about what Jim is talking about here, there’s a good reason for that.  His original emails—plural—were much longer and even more disjointed; but in a nutshell, there appears to be a recently established entity in his diocese which identifies itself as a Benedictine monastery.  One of the clergy there claims to be able to communicate with a dead person (or something like that).  He is attempting to raise a huge sum of money without saying what it’s for, or even explaining how the monastery fits into the structure of the Catholic Church.  Jim claims that the diocesan bishop has refused to tell him what this monastery is all about.  What’s going on here, and who’s responsible?  Let’s take a look.

The geographical territory of every diocese is divided up into parishes, which have officially delineated boundaries, as was discussed in “Can Our Pastor Kick Us Out of the Parish?”  It frequently happens that other Catholic institutions—such as Catholic universities, hospitals, or shrines—are located within the territory of a particular parish (see “Is Every Catholic Church a Parish?” and “Why Would a Wedding in Our College Chapel be Invalid?” for examples of this).  The same holds true of monasteries of Catholic monks or nuns.

Whenever a legitimate monastery of Catholic monks is established somewhere in the world, it is located by definition within the boundaries of a parish, which in turn is located within a diocese.  (There are a handful of centuries-old exceptions to this fact in France, which today are permitted by Rome to continue to function in a different way.  But all newer monasteries must abide by current canon law.)  This means, therefore, that if the Benedictines have lawfully erected a monastery in Jim’s diocese, the diocesan bishop and the local parish clergy undoubtedly know about it!  Canon 609 states that religious houses are established with the prior written consent of the diocesan bishop—meaning that it’s canonically impossible for members of any religious institute somehow to sneak into a diocese and set up a monastery, convent, or other religious house without the diocesan bishop’s consent.

Once a religious house has been established in a diocese, its interaction with the Catholic faithful of the diocese can vary, depending on the reason for the house’s existence.  Convents of cloistered nuns, for example, are erected so that the nuns can live a contemplative life apart from the world—and so their contacts with the lay faithful outside the convent are of course minimal.  In contrast, members of a religious institute who enter a diocese in order to set up a school or a hospital are naturally going to have quite a lot of interaction with the faithful living in the diocese.

With all this in mind, let’s take a look at the specific situation that Jim describes.  In his diocese is a monastery, with only two members, where the faithful can attend Mass and receive the sacraments.  Jim says that they have been preaching strange things about communicating with deceased persons.  From his description, it certainly does sound theologically sketchy; but without actually hearing the homilies in full, it is hard to ascertain what exactly the preaching is all about.  Far more tangible is Jim’s claim that the monastery has established an online fundraising campaign with a goal of $100,000 US.  As we saw in “Canon Law and Bishops of Bling,” the Church has laws mandating the approval in advance of financial transactions involving huge sums of money—with rules which can vary widely from country to country, since what may be an enormous sum of money in one nation can often amount to very little in another.  With regard to religious institutes (including monasteries), they each have their own proper laws regarding large financial transactions; and without knowing what the law governing this particular monastery says, it’s hard to draw any conclusions.  It certainly does seem odd, however, that the monks would fail to explain exactly what the money is to be used for.

Jim also says that the monks say they are Roman Catholics, and one of them told Jim he is a Catholic priest; but for some reason the story seems to have subsequently changed.  As Jim put it, “He was very evasive when I questioned him about his actual status within the clergy. I could not determine from what he said if he was retired or defrocked, laicized, whatever.”  So Jim can already see that whatever is going on with this monastery, something is not right.

But in this day and age, in order to get more information, we have only to turn to the internet!  The monastery in question does in fact have its own website, and its founder describes the group as an “association (theoretically) of clergy/lay persons of the Roman Catholic Church – with no official recognition or standing with the Church (nor are we even a non-profit organization of any kind).”  We can see right away that whatever this group is, it isn’t formally established as Catholic—because the founder says so right up-front.

Additionally, at the very top of the same web-page, the author identifies the group as a “’benedictine alternative’ religious experience.”  Since this is hardly the way a legitimate Benedictine monastery (with a capital B) describes itself, we see even more evidence that this is not a Catholic monastery of Benedictine monks.  On yet another page, a member of this group describes it as “a fledgling religious community not yet officially recognized by the Catholic Church.”

And while we’re on the internet, it’s easy to find the website of the international Benedictine order, to determine whether this monastery really is one of theirs.  Here’s a map showing Benedictine monasteries around the world—and the one Jim is concerned about is not listed (although his diocese contains a entirely different, authentic Benedictine monastery which does show up on this map).

It’s perfectly obvious that whatever this group is, it is not a Catholic Benedictine monastery lawfully erected within this diocese!  To their credit, the members of this monastery clearly do not pretend to be anything other than what they are: a group with absolutely no official recognition from any authority in the Catholic Church.  So how could one of its members be an ordained Catholic priest?

Well, it appears (more on this in a moment) that a priest of Jim’s diocese, who of course was validly ordained as a Catholic priest and used to minister as a member of the diocesan clergy, has somehow gone off the reservation.  We don’t know the precise details, but it could be that he simply walked away from his diocese without permission—perhaps incurring sanctions from the bishop in the process—and set up his own self-proclaimed “Benedictine monastery” with no authorization from anyone.  Thus he is acting without the approval of his diocesan bishop; but he is nevertheless still able to celebrate a valid Mass.

We have seen in previous articles that there is nothing contradictory about this.  As was discussed in “Can a Bishop Forbid a Priest to Say Mass?” and “Are SSPX Sacraments Valid? Part I,” once a man has been ordained a priest, he always retains the sacramental power to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass—even if for some reason he is not supposed to do so.  If, for example, a priest has been laicized (see “What Does it Mean to ‘Defrock’ a Priest?” for more on this), or is under a sanction like suspension (discussed in more detail in “Father Pavone’s ‘Suspension’: Priests for Life, Part II”), he cannot say Mass licitly, because he has been forbidden to do so by his hierarchical superior(s).  But any and every Catholic priest can always celebrate a Mass that is truly valid.  (See “Are They Really Catholic? Part II” for more on the distinction between validity and liceity.)

So we’ve got a pseudo-Catholic monastery here, staffed by a validly ordained priest who is celebrating Mass for the faithful without permission.  Under the circumstances, what should the people of Jim’s diocese be doing?  You don’t need to know anything about canon law to answer this question: stay away from them!

Since Jim indicates that he is aware that these “Benedictine monks” are not legitimate, it is altogether unclear why he apparently continues to have contact with them.  It is even less clear why he would be so quick to rail against the Catholic Church because of this renegade non-Catholic group, and blame the Church for his granddaughter’s failure to attend Mass any longer.  And speaking of his granddaughter, what does sexual abuse by Catholic clergy have to do with any of this?  Jim’s overall attack on the Church is difficult to explain.

There is, however, one element of this story which we haven’t addressed yet.  Jim says that he tried to contact the bishop about this, and received no reply.  At first glance, the failure to answer Jim’s letter would seem irresponsible on the bishop’s part.  After all, as we have seen so many times before in this space, the diocesan bishop is charged with the spiritual wellbeing of the faithful who live in his territory (cf. cc. 383.1, 387)—and the fact that the faux “Benedictines” living in the this monastery are not lawfully ministering as Catholic clergy in the diocese is definitely worth warning them about!

Jim declares that “apparently there is no way the laity can do a background check on any clergy.  I have to assume the bishop doesn’t give a rat’s a**.”  But before we point any accusing fingers at the diocesan bishop here, it should be noted that after sending an email-query to a diocesan official myself, I received a clear, professional response in only an hour or two.  The official confirmed that yes, this group is not operating in the diocese with any authorization, and the priest in question is not currently in good standing with the diocese.  In short, he verified what we had already deduced above.

So why is it that Jim never received any response to his question?  He did not provide the exact text of his letter to the bishop… but if it was anything like his multiple emails to this site, the bishop’s failure to answer it is entirely understandable.

Over the years, numerous laypersons have complained to me that their letters to their bishop were ignored—but when they provide copies the letters they sent, it can be seen that they rambled on for pages and pages, without ever coming to the point and explaining what exactly the problem is.  A diocesan bishop is not psychic, and can’t be expected to make sense out of a long, disorganized stream of consciousness leading to nowhere; and if, like Jim’s emails, the letter is also peppered with foul-mouthed attacks on the Catholic Church itself, it’s only reasonable that an overworked bishop might just toss it in the trash and move on.

Many Catholics have legitimate complaints requiring the bishop’s attention, but don’t have the necessary writing skills to put them down clearly on paper.  And there’s certainly nothing inherently wrong with that, since the Catholic Church is for everyone, not just the highly literate!  But if a Catholic can’t lay out his thoughts in a logical and grammatically correct way that the bishop will be able to understand, then he/she should ask someone for help in composing a letter intended for him—even if it means getting assistance from a child or grandchild, or a next-door neighbor.

In this particular case, though, there’s another alternative.  As we saw at the start, as a rule every Catholic monastery is located within the territory of a parish.  There’s little doubt that if Jim had talked to the pastor of the parish containing this “Benedictine monastery” within its boundaries, he could have told Jim that this group is not operating with the permission of the bishop as a legitimate part of the diocese.  In fact, odds are high that if other parishioners have been similarly confused by the presence of the monastery in the parish, the pastor has already warned them all to avoid it.  But Jim does not indicate that he has ever spoken with the pastor of his parish about this.

It could also be that the diocesan bishop has made a public statement to the faithful of the diocese along the same lines.  If he hasn’t, there could be good reasons why he has refrained from doing this.  Maybe the bishop is trying privately to convince the priest-founder to return to the diocese, in which case there could be some delicate negotiating going on behind the scenes that makes the whole situation more fluid than it looks.  Alternately, the bishop may possibly have concluded that by publicly condemning the tiny monastery, he would give it more publicity than it currently gets!  This is actually a very common reason why the Church sometimes declines to comment about renegade groups: it often happens that if they are ignored altogether, they die out on their own.

To return now to Jim’s original question, it is altogether unclear why he would think that any questionable practices at this non-Catholic monastery are being “encouraged” by the Catholic Church, or that “heretics are condoned by canon law.”  Since his granddaughter’s allegations that the Catholic clergy all “steal from women and children and **** boys” have absolutely no relation to anything Jim alleges is going on at the monastery, it’s hard to see why Jim is connecting the two.

Jim asks, “where are the people Christ said would lead me?” but the answer is obvious.  They’re not at this monastery, which openly acknowledges that it is not part of the Catholic Church.  They’re at his parish, which was lawfully erected in his diocese.

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