Nuns threaten to renounce vows if Vatican removes mother superior
The Vatican is facing a revolt after nearly all the nuns in a tiny French religious order threatened to renounce their vows rather than accept the Holy See's decision to remove their mother superior.
The sisters argue that the Vatican commissioners sent to replace their superior general, who is also the niece of the order's founder, have no understanding of their way of life or spirituality. The church's conclusion is that the Little Sisters of Marie, Mother of the Redeemer are living "under the tight grip" of an "authoritarian" superior and feel a "serious conflict of loyalty" toward her.
The standoff marks an extraordinary battle of wills between the Vatican hierarchy and the group of 39 nuns, most in their 60s and 70s, who run homes for the aged in rural western and southern France. Their threat to leave comes at a time when the Vatican can hardly spare them, with the number of sisters plummeting in Europe and the Americas.
The unlikely revolt had been brewing for years but erupted in 2017, when the Vatican suspended the Little Sisters' government and ordered the removal of the superior, Mother Marie de Saint Michel. The Vatican says it took action after local church investigations in 2010 and 2016 found an excessive authoritarianism in her rule and serious problems of governance. Details of her alleged abuses of authority haven't been revealed. But within two years of her election as superior in 2000, six sisters had left.
"The grave acts posed by Mother Marie de Saint Michel are denounced and the sisters are called to religious and responsible behaviour," the prefect of the Vatican's congregation for religious, Cardinal Joao Braz di Aviz, wrote in July.
By then, Braz had already appointed a commissioner to run the order. But the Little Sisters refused to accept them and kept Saint Michel in place in the mother house.
As the standoff escalated, 34 of the 39 nuns issued an public declaration last month saying they had no other choice but to ask to be relieved of their religious vows.
"We are not making this sacrifice lightly," they wrote. "We wish to remain in total communion with the church but we cannot signify more clearly, or more painfully either, our incapacity in conscience to obey what we are commanded to do."
Their plight has garnered sympathy. A French support group claims an online petition demanding the removal of the commissioners now has 3,900 signatures for an online petition demanding the immediate restoration of the central government of the order and removal of the commissioners.
The sisters downplay problems with their superior and say the real dispute is over their local bishop's decision to split up management of their elder-care homes that had been merged in recent years. They say the bishop used his authority to impose an unjust decision without taking their views into account.
"This is about power," said Marcel Mignot, president of the support association, referring to the bishop's authority over diocesan orders.
The sisters have appealed his decision to the Vatican's high court "so that the truth can be re-established, but Roman justice takes its time", the sisters wrote their supporters earlier this year.
Their community was founded in 1954 in Toulouse by Marie Nault, a woman who, according to legend, stopped her formal education at age 11 to work on the family farm but then developed stigmata - the bleeding wounds that imitate those of Christ on the cross.
Nault took the name Mere Marie de la Croix - Mother Mary of the Cross - and opened four communities in western and southern France which, in 1989, won approval from the bishop.
Born in 1901, Mother Marie died in 1999 and her niece, the ousted superior, took over a year later. She remains at the mother house in Saint-Aignan sur Roc, in western France. She had been due to step down after her term was up and a new superior was elected, but plans for the election are now in limbo, Mignot said.
The standoff comes amid a continuing free-fall in the number of nuns around the world, as elderly sisters die and fewer young ones take their place. Vatican statistics from 2016 show the number of sisters was down 10,885 from the previous year to 659,445 globally. Ten years prior, there were 753,400 nuns around the world, meaning the Catholic Church shed nearly 100,000 sisters in the span of a decade.
European nuns regularly fare the worst, seeing a decline of 8,370 sisters in 2016 on top of the previous year's decline of 8,394.