The Carmelite nuns of Arlington, Texas, doubled down on their rejection of Bishop Michael Olson’s authority over them as Vatican-appointed pontifical commissary, and said they are willing to accept canonical penalties for their stand against the bishop.
A statement posted over the weekend on the monastery’s website specifically refers to Mother Teresa Agnes as superior, in defiance of the Fort Worth bishop’s instruction that she must stop acting as superior of the Carmelite monastery.
The statement, dated Aug. 26, said that “the Prioress, Mother Teresa Agnes, and the Chapter of the Carmel of the Most Holy Trinity of Arlington reiterate that they do not recognize the authority of Bishop Olson over their Monastery, and they refuse to accept any interference by him as Pontifical Commissary, an office conferred on him with contempt for canonical norms and procedures.”
The statement did not explain how Olson’s appointment may have violated canonical norms.
“Every action he has taken with regard to us has proven to be devious and deceptive, marked by falsehood and an intent to persecute us, and gravely defamatory of the Mother Prioress,” it said.
“The bishop’s motives in moving against us - and the true goals that animate his public and private warfare against us - are completely extraneous and irreconcilable with the purposes that a true Pastor ought to pursue in the exercise of his sacred Authority,” the nuns wrote.
The statement concluded by saying that all of the monastery’s sisters are willing to “face with serenity and firmness any unjust canonical sanctions that the present Ordinary may inflict on them, in the awareness that his authority cannot demand obedience towards him when he himself is first in disobedience to the authority of God.”
The nuns’ statement marks the latest chapter in the months-long saga of conflict between the monastery and Bishop Olson.
In May, Olson initiated a canonical investigation into the monastery’s superior, Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach, for allegedly admitting to violating her vow of chastity with an initially unnamed priest.
Lawyers for the convent and for Gerlach, both civil and canonical, have said that her supposed admission of an affair was made following a serious medical procedure, under the influence of painkillers, and when she was in and out of lucidity.
Olson, however, said the prioress had repeated her admission to him during an in-person conversation, in the presence of several other individuals. He said Gerlach was lucid and spoke clearly, and was not recovering from surgery at the time.
The bishop claimed that the nun named the priest — who was identified in June by his diocese as Fr. Philip Johnson of the Diocese of Raleigh — during that conversation, and that the priest’s diocese of residence, his immediate superior, and his bishop had all been informed of the situation.
The nuns, in response, filed a million-dollar civil suit against the bishop, as well as a criminal complaint alleging that Olson had stolen their property by seizing their phones and computers during a search of the convent. They have suggested that the bishop’s actions are financially motivated, and that he is seeking their donor list.
The bishop told the sisters he was restricting their access to Mass and confession until they withdrew the lawsuit. He reportedly restored their access to the sacraments on June 1, when he also issued a decree dismissing Gerlach — though the nuns say it is abusive that Olson has not permitted local Catholics to enter the nuns’ chapel.
His decree came one day after the Vatican appointed Olson “pontifical commissary” for the sisters, granting him “full governing powers” at the monastery and retroactively sanating any and all canonical procedural issues raised by Olson’s previous actions involving the monastery.
In June, the diocese also said that it was in communication with the local police department regarding serious concerns over “the use of marijuana and edibles at the monastery,” along with what it called “other issues that the diocese will address at another time and in a proper forum.”
The diocese released photos which it says are from the inside of the monastery. The images appear to show an office with several tables strewn with drug paraphernalia, dispensary bottles, branded marijuana products, bongs, and a crucifix.
But the nuns have apparently continued to recognize Gerlach as their superior, and they have made various appeals to Rome, including the objection that Olson had employed powers reserved for a criminal canonical investigation despite the mother superior’s alleged actions — while sinful — not constituting a specific crime in canon law.
The conflict escalated Aug. 18, when the nuns released an unexpected statement rejecting Olson’s authority, alleging months of “unprecedented interference, intimidation, aggression, private and public humiliation and spiritual manipulation as the direct result of the attitudes and ambitions of the current Bishop of Fort Worth.”
“No one who abuses us as has the current Bishop of Fort Worth, has any right to our cooperation or obedience,” the statement said.
“For our own spiritual and psychological safety, and in justice, we must remain independent of this Bishop until such time as he repents of the abuse to which he has subjected us, apologizes in person to our community for it and accepts to make due public reparation,” the nuns wrote.
They also released a statement of support apparently written by former U.S. apostolic nuncio Archbishop Carlo Vigano. The statement warned of “a subversive plan carried out by corrupt and heretical Prelates whose purpose is to deprive the Church of the Graces which such Consecrated souls cause to descend upon Her.” It asked Catholics to support the sisters in their “resistance.”
Olson responded in a statement the next day, in which he said that Gerlach and other nuns of the monastery “may have incurred” the ecclesiastical penalty of excommunication.
Olson said that he believed the nun’s statement was an act of schism — a public rejection of his “authority as diocesan bishop and [as] pontifical commissary” of the nuns’ monastery. But while canon law would have permitted him to declare by decree that Gerlach was formally excommunicated, the bishop wrote instead only that her excommunication was a possibility.
He made a similar statement about the other nuns of the monastery, writing that they, “depending on their complicity in Mother Teresa Agnes’ publicly, scandalous and schismatic actions could possibly have incurred the same latae sententiae excommunication.”
A diocesan official speaking on background told The Pillar that Olson had also given the nuns instructions — among them, that they withdraw their Friday statement, and that Mother Teresa Gerlach, the Carmel’s superior, stop acting as superior, given Olson’s efforts to remove her.
The sisters then released a statement on Aug. 23 saying that they recognize Olson’s authority as diocesan bishop, but reject his Vatican-conferred authority to intervene over the Carmelite community.
“The Arlington Carmelite nuns are not, and have no intention of, separating from the Catholic Church despite the incongruous statement made by the bishop. They remain dedicated to the Catholic Church and the Holy See and pray that the Vatican will put an end to this malicious persecution by the bishop. The Arlington Carmelite Nuns recognize the bishop as the local ordinary and respect his role therein, a role they have recognized for every single Diocesan Bishop since 1958, including Bishop Olson for the past 14 years,” the nuns’ lawyer wrote in the Aug. 23 statement.
“These powers are definitively laid out in canon law and are very limited powers with regards to the Monastery. The Arlington Carmelite Nuns do not and will not recognize this bishop’s unwarranted and unauthorized abuse and wielding of the complete power he suddenly is trying to exercise over the Monastery,” the nuns’ lawyer added.
Their most recent statement reiterates their position, while explicitly continuing to recognize Mother Teresa Agnes as prioress.
With tensions remaining high, it is unclear what will happen next in the dispute.
But a Fort Worth diocesan official speaking on background told The Pillar last week that Rome’s next step is likely to be an apostolic visitation, conducted by someone from outside the diocese — and that part of the goal in that visitation will be to assess whether the nuns inside the Carmel understand the significance of the dispute between their superior and their bishop.