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Texas Carmelites reject oversight of Vatican-appointed federation

Carmelite nuns at a Texas monastery say they will not accept the Vatican’s designation of a U.S. Carmelite federation to oversee them, amid an ongoing dispute with their local bishop.

An April 20 statement from the Arlington Carmel described the entrustment of their monastery to the Carmelite Association of Christ the King as “a hostile takeover that we cannot in conscience accept.”

“To accept this would risk the integrity of our monastery as a community, threatening the vocations of individual nuns, our liturgical and spiritual life and the material assets of the monastery,” the statement said.

“Accordingly, neither the President of the Association of Christ the King, nor any delegate of hers, is welcome to enter our monastery at this time.”

The statement comes two days after Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth announced that the Vatican’s Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life had approved a request from the Association of Christ the King (USA) to be given direct governance and oversight of the convent.

Effective immediately, he said, the president of the association is the lawful superior of the Arlington Carmel.

The Association of Christ the King is a federation of Carmelite monasteries to which the Arlington convent belongs.

In a letter to the monastery last week, officials at the Vatican’s Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life noted that the leadership term for the Carmelites’ prioress expired in January 2024.

The local bishop is responsible for presiding over new elections, according to the Carmelites’ constitutions. But given the community’s dispute with the bishop, and rejection of some of his authority, the sisters are currently without lawful governance, the dicastery said in explaining its decision to entrust the convent to the Carmelite federation.

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The nuns of the Carmelite Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity have been locked in a dispute with Bishop Olson for the past year.

Last spring, Olson initiated a canonical investigation into the community’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, and later released audio recordings seeming to confirm this. He said Gerlach was lucid and spoke clearly at the time, and was not recovering from surgery at the time.

The dispute has been bitter and at times bizarre, including a million-dollar lawsuit filed by the nuns against Olson, a move by the bishop to restrict the sisters’ access to the sacraments - which was rescinded days later - and images released by the Diocese of Fort Worth purporting to show tables inside the convent strewn with large amounts of drug paraphernalia. 

Last June, the Vatican appointed Olson “pontifical commissary” for the sisters and retroactively sanated any and all canonical procedural issues raised by Olson’s previous actions involving the monastery.

Olson subsequently issued a decree dismissing Gerlach.

However, the nuns have apparently continued to recognize Gerlach as their superior.

Last August, the nuns released a statement rejecting Olson’s authority. They said that they did not owe him obedience or cooperation after enduring months of “unprecedented interference, intimidation, aggression, private and public humiliation and spiritual manipulation.”

When Olson suggested that their statement may have incurred a latae sententiae excommunication, the sisters then released a new statement which claimed to recognize Olson’s authority as diocesan bishop, while also rejecting 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,” said an August 2023 statement from the nuns’ lawyer.

“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.”

In their new statement, the Carmelites said they are grateful that Olson is no longer their pontifical commissary, but said they are still waiting for responses to their multiple appeals to Rome, which include claims that the bishop 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.

While the Vatican’s letter had instructed the sisters to withdraw and rescind their declaration partially rejecting Olson’s authority, the nuns in their statement reiterated that they “have had to withdraw our cooperation in respect of the unjust exercise of any authority over us by the current Bishop of Fort Worth” and said that the bishop and his delegates are unwelcome at the monastery.

In their most recent statement, the sisters suggested that they are currently using the pre-Vatican II liturgical rites, in apparent disobedience to Olson’s liturgical oversight of the community.

The nuns said they are deriving strength from “our further and deeper immersion in the riches of the usus antiquior (the traditional Latin Mass and Divine Office, etc). This is something which we, as a community, have desired for many, many years now and which we had begun to explore some time ago, but that in the end the Bishop opposed.”

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