Canon Law and a Convent of Rebellious Sisters

Q:  Several decades ago a convent of a new order of sisters was founded in our diocese.  They help us parish priests by teaching the children and also by catechizing the adults.

But in recent years they have gone out of control.  By challenging the Church’s teachings and the authority of the clergy, the sisters have encouraged rebellion in our diocese.  There have been a lot of battles fought between the bishop and the sisters, and finally the bishop told us privately that he intended to close the convent down.

Before he could do that, however, he retired and now we have a new bishop.  He’s being very cautious about the whole situation… the bishop told us priests that he has no authority to shut down the sisters, only the Vatican can do this.  We are skeptical because the institute was founded not by Rome, but by the diocesan bishop.  So why can’t the bishop close the institute himself?   Some priests suspect that he is looking for an excuse to avoid facing the situation himself…  –Father M.

A: The number of convents and different institutes of women religious around the world is so vast, and their particular histories and roles in the Church are so varied (cf. c. 577), that it can be extremely difficult to make blanket-statements about the role that canon law plays in governing them.  As per canon 587, individual institutes are governed by their own specific constitutions, while the Code of Canon Law provides only a broad, generic framework that is applicable to all.  Nonetheless, it seems fairly clear from Father M.’s description of the situation that the diocesan bishop is not evading his responsibility at all—because he truly doesn’t have the authority to make the decision to “shut down the sisters.”  Before explaining why, it’s necessary to define a few terms and make some legal distinctions about different types of religious institutes in the Church today.

For starters, as was discussed in “Can a Bishop Expel a Sister from his Diocese?” any type of religious institute can be erected by Rome, in which case it’s said to be of pontifical right; or a diocesan bishop may erect it, and it’s therefore of diocesan right (c. 589; cf. also c. 732).  Ordinarily, when a group of men or women wish to start some sort of religious house, they’re starting out small, so they generally begin by obtaining authorization from the bishop of the diocese where they wish to have their first house: a convent, or a monastery, or some other sort of building housing the members.  Over time, if the institute attracts larger numbers of members and its superiors wish to expand, they might—although they don’t have to!—seek to change its status, obtaining recognition from the Vatican and thus becoming an institute of pontifical right.  (A rather unusual exception to this more-or-less general rule was the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, which began immediately as a society of pontifical right with houses in multiple countries.)

A pontifical-right institute is subect to the authority of the Vatican (c. 593), while one of diocesan right remains under the care of the diocesan bishop (c. 594).  From the sound of things, regardless of its canonical status today, it’s pretty clear that the institute of sisters in Father M.’s diocese was founded as of diocesan right.

Once a religious institute has been canonically erected, it might expand into other dioceses, establishing houses of its members there, if it obtains the prior written consent of the bishop of each place (c. 609.1).  Regardless of whether it’s of pontifical or diocesan right, it cannot enter another diocese and erect a house there unless that diocesan bishop first gives them the green light.  That’s because, as we saw in “Can a Bishop Shut Down a Shrine?” and “Parish Closings,” the diocesan bishop is always responsible for the spiritual well-being of the faithful of his diocese, and so any type of Catholic ministry that takes place there—hospitals, schools, homeless shelters, monasteries, etc.—may operate in his territory only with his knowledge and approval (c. 394).

So what happens if, for whatever reason, a bishop doesn’t want a particular group of sisters in his diocese any longer?  Can’t he just order them to leave?   The correct answer is, “it depends.”  If the sisters have houses in various dioceses, and if they have become an institute of pontifical right, the bishop could insist that they leave his diocese without actually shutting down the entire institute itself.  In that case, he would confer with the sisters’ superior (in accord with canon 616.1), and presumably she would agree (at his urging) to close the house in his diocese.  Rome doesn’t have to get involved at all in a scenario like this one.

But if the sisters have only one house—located in Father M.’s diocese—and/or if the institute is still of diocesan right, then shutting that house down will also end the institute’s existence altogether.  This is a much more serious matter, and it can only be done by Rome (cc. 584; 616.2).

Why, if an institute was founded by the bishop of the place where it’s located, can’t the bishop just shut it down himself?  Even in the best of circumstances, there are important pragmatic reasons for this.  To begin with, reasonable care will have to be taken that the women themselves have somewhere to go.  True, it’s not the Vatican’s or the bishop’s responsibility to find them a new livelihood and provide them with a new home, but at the same time, abandoning women who have nothing—because they took a vow of poverty when they joined the institute—isn’t a just action by church authorities either.

Secondly, the institute presumably owns some property, in the form of at least one residence and its contents.  There’s normally some sort of bank account(s) as well.  Depending on the situation, the institute’s possessions may be worth quite a lot of money!  Disposing of them appropriately, and deciding who gets the sale price, may be very delicate business.  On the other hand, if the institute is in debt, care has to be taken that creditors are paid insofar as that is possible.  Canon 584, mentioned above, specifically states that a decision regarding the disposal of the material goods of the institute can be made only by Rome—not by the diocesan bishop.  Among other things, mandating the Vatican’s involvement in such a matter ensures that nobody can claim the bishop shut the religious institute down, simply in order to seize its property for himself.

In practice, this can be a complicated matter already, but the case described by Father M. is even more so.  Ordinarily, the Church foresees that when a religious institute is completely closed down for good, this is because the Holy See decides that, in the words of Vatican II’s  Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life, they do not “possess reasonable hope for further development” (Perfectae Caritatis 21).  As Pope Paul VI later put it in his motu proprio document Ecclesiae Sanctae, a decision to suppress an institute is normally taken due to “the small number of Religious in proportion to the age of the institute or the monastery, the lack of candidates over a period of several years, the advanced age of the majority of its members” (ES  II, 41).

But it sounds like Father M.’s bishop wants to suppress the sisters, not because their numbers are dwindling and their future prospects for a turnaround are bleak, but rather because the activities of the members are contrary to the original intended spirit of the institute and the good of the local Church.  In other words, suppression of this institute would constitute a penal measure, intended to prevent the women from continuing their current activities.  As such, it is reasonable to imagine that the religious themselves would disagree, and wish to appeal to Rome to be allowed to continue their institute’s existence.  Rome’s involvement would thus be inevitable in any case.

Now it should be noted that in the meantime, while the bishop is trying to decide how best to handle this situation, or while his request to close the institute down is pending in Rome, the bishop still has quite a lot of authority over what the sisters are doing.  As the head of the Church in his diocese, the bishop absolutely has the authority to forbid these sisters from teaching the children and adults of the diocese.  In fact, if he has established that the sisters have indeed “encouraged rebellion in [the] diocese,” it is the bishop’s duty to put a stop to this!  Judging from Father M.’s description of the sisters’ daily duties, it sounds like this may leave them with no work to do, and presumably no income either–but this will be a problem for the sisters themselves, not the bishop, to sort out.  His job is to ensure that whoever is catechizing the faithful is not “challenging the Church’s teachings and the authority of the clergy,” and if the only way to do this is to bar the sisters from teaching in his diocese, the bishop can do that.

While of course it’s impossible to understand the full story behind this sad situation from Father’s brief question, it appears quite clear that the bishop is acting correctly.  Such a grave step as suppressing the institute altogether should not be taken without much forethought and care, and only after all other means of resolving the issue have been tried.  We see here that with these technical canonical provisions, the Church is attempting to balance the rights and obligations of the diocese, its bishop, and the religious themselves, with the needs and the wellbeing of the Church.

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