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Who has authority over Arlington monastery? Religion, politics expert weighs in

The Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity's front gates.
Cristian ArguetaSoto
/
Fort Worth Report
Fort Worth Bishop Michael F. Olson ordered the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity to remain closed after Arlington Carmel released a statement rejecting Olson’s authority as bishop. The monastery’s front gates appear open on Sept. 5.

While a canonical investigation between the Arlington Carmelite nuns and Fort Worth Bishop Michael F. Olson is pending in Rome, tensions remain.

Disputes over who holds authority over the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity have risen through a variety of statements from both the Arlington Carmel and the bishop. Matthew Wilson is a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. He is also the director for the school’s center for faith and learning. Wilson breaks down the roles of both the Bishop and Carmelite nuns to help make sense of the latest disputes.

The Rev. Mother Teresa Gerlach and the chapter of the monastery rejected Olson’s authority as bishop and going on to “forbid him or any of his officials or representatives” from entering the property, according to its Aug. 18 statement.

Now, Gerlach and members of the monastery may be facing excommunication, the ultimate ecclesiastical penalty in which the offender is expelled from the church. Gerlach “may have incurred upon herself excommunication latae sententiae,” a canonical punishment for offenses such as heresy in his statement the following day,” Olson said.

Other nuns, depending on their complicity with Gerlach, may also face the same repercussions, Olson said. Gerlach could appeal to Rome, but there will be challenges, Wilson said.

“Winning an appeal to Rome, against the ecclesiastical judgment of a bishop within his own diocese is a tough thing. It's not impossible, but it's definitely an uphill battle,” Wilson said.

The monastery still recognizes Gerlach as the monastery’s prioress, a type of nun who is head of a religious house or order. Though the monastery said it plans to remain independent from the bishop, it said it continues to remain faithful to the Catholic Church. However, Wilson said that it’s not at the discretion of individual Catholics or monasteries to choose which Episcopal jurisdiction to exist in.

“They are in the Diocese of Fort Worth, and Bishop Olson is Bishop of the Diocese of Fort Worth,” Wilson said. “A prioress would defer to the bishop in the running of the diocese and the bishop would defer to the prioress in running or the monastery.”

Olson dismissed Gerlach from the Order of Discalced Carmelites, alleging that she broke her chastity vow with a priest outside the diocese, according to a June 1 statement from the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth. Typically, another person from the religious order would be asked to take on the duties on an interim basis, Wilson said.

“Now, that becomes more difficult if the suspicion is that the entire monastery is complicit in some sort of systematic wrongdoing,” Wilson said.

The Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of the Apostolic Life is a group within the Vatican that oversees matters relating to religious orders. In May, the Dicastery appointed Olson as the pontifical commissary of the monastery. In this role, Olson has “full governing responsibility for the Monastery.”

“That's kind of a specific grant of supervisory responsibility made by the Vatican, which is why this appeal to Rome is going to be particularly challenging for the monastery to win,” Wilson said.

Olson said in his Aug. 19 statement that the Arlington Carmel remains closed to public access “until such time as the Arlington Carmel publicly disavows itself of these scandalous and schismatic actions of Mother Teresa Agnes.” The following week, the monastery released a declaration reiterating their rejection of Olson’s authority and refusal to accept his role as pontifical commissary.

Matthew Bobo, the civil attorney representing the Carmelite nuns, toldWFAA that Olson is not welcome on the property and that he and the Arlington Carmelites would take steps to have him removed.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former ambassador for the Holy See, released a statement Aug. 18 in support of the nuns and asked for people to support them “with prayer and material help.”

As the investigation between the Arlington monastery and the Fort Worth Diocese makes its way to the Vatican, Wilson said he’s hoping for some more clarity from both the nuns and the diocese.

“It seems to me that clearly, he feels that he believes that there is some sort of serious wrongdoing there at the monastery,” Wilson said, “unless they can provide some other compelling reason for why he would undertake this kind of messy public fight.”

Marissa Greene is a Report for America corps member, covering faith for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at marissa.greene@fortworthreport.org or on Twitter at @marissaygreene

This article first appeared on Fort Worth Report and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Marissa Greene is a Report for America corps member and covers faith in Tarrant County for the Fort Worth Report.