Pope and religious superiors

Anthony Zimmerman
December 8, 1988
Reproduced with Permission

Fr. Anthony Zimmerman, SVD
Hitoshi Building #602
Ueda 3, 1205, Tempaku-ku
8 December 1988

Your Holiness, Pope John Paul II:

Your Eminences, Cardinal Members of the
Congregation for Religious and secular Institutes:

Praised be Jesus Christ! May He bring you new joy and peace on Christmas.

The enclosed memorandum asks that the religious vow of obedience should henceforth (1) mention the Holy Father as our highest superior (Canon 590); (2) that elections of major superiors be more open to the influence of the Holy Father; (3) that more direct channels be opened for communications of religious with the Holy See.

It has come about that many religious would like to serve the Church more faithfully, but some superiors prevent this by standing between them and the Church.

As Pope St. Gregory VII brought about the great reform against lay investiture, restoring to the pope the exclusive right to appoint bishops, this memorandum suggests that a somewhat similar reform should now make the pope a more effective superior of religious. Thank you for considering these humble suggestions I have the honor to be, Your Holiness, Your Eminences, humbly yours in Christ,

Fr. Anthony Zimmerman, SVD


Memorandum by Fr. Anthony Zimmerman, SVD 07.12.88

Canon 590, which names the Pope as the highest superior of religious, indicates his responsibilities: "I have prayed for you Simon ... you must strengthen your brothers" (Lk 22: 32). This writing suggests new ways to strengthen ties of religious with the pope: 1) Include the pope's name in the vow of obedience. 2) Specify criteria for eligible major superiors. 3) Regularize channels for appeals to the pope by religious.

The vow of obedience will become more precise when it names the pope as the highest superior, as Canon 590 indicates. For example: "I vow obedience according to the constitutions of this Society whose highest superior is the pope."

Canon 601, which declares that superiors "stand in the place of God when they command according to the proper constitutions", must be understood in context with Canon 590; the pope is the highest superior. But has this theology been developed adequately, and are religious sufficiently aware of it? Hardly so. By including the pope among superiors in their vow, religious gain self-esteem from this clarification of identity. If the Pope follows through with initiatives to moderate the "internal governance and discipline" of institutes of pontifical right (cf. Canon 593) he can thereby serve to "strengthen the brethren" to the great joy of religious and the immense benefit of the people whom they serve.

Diocesan Priesthood Recovering, Religious Still in Decline

From figures published in Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition in English, 19 September 1986, we see that the diocesan priesthood is recovering better than the religious. One reason may be that the pope is closer to bishops whom he appoints than to major religious superiors whom he does not appoint. Priestly Ordinations Year Diocesan Religious 1973 4,405 2,764 1978 3,824 2,094 1984 4,609 1,724

If we ask why diocesan ordinations have apparently bottomed out whereas religious are still on a deadly downward spiral, one basic reason suggests itself: The Gregorian Reform has not been applied to religious. The abuse of lay investiture of bishops at the time of Hildebrand resembles somewhat the election system of religious in our time.

When Pope St. Gregory VII issued the decree against lay investiture in February, 1075, he struck at the heart of the malaise in the Church: appointments to sees had everywhere fallen into the hands of lay lords. He decreed that no prelate may henceforth receive a see or an abbey from a lay lord.

During the next ten years St. Gregory met disaster after disaster when trying to implement the decree; he spent the last three months of his life in exile under the protection of the Normans at Salerno, where he died a broken man on May 25, 1085 (see Philip Hughes, a History of the Church II, pp. 209-233). But his reform eventually prevailed, capped by the Council at Worms in 1122. Henceforth it is not the king who has the right to elect and consecrate bishops; only the pope does this. Canon 377 now defines how bishops are selected. We see that the present pope selects carefully; the Church edifice gradually assumes the shape specified by the criteria of the architect who selects the bishops.

The philosopher says that officials, when named by higher powers, are like people riding a bicycle: they smile upward and kick downward; whereas officials elected by constituents are like politicians: they face electors with a smile, and turn backs to higher-ups. Bishops appointed by the pope are grateful to him; religious superiors elected by their own constituents are grateful to them. The oversimplification has some truth in it.

When a bishop passes on, the pope can appoint a successor whom he trusts. But when a religious order begins to spiral downward to decadence, when misguided electors choose misguided superiors, there is no salvation; the Church stands by to note the fait accompli of the demise. Some religious orders are now tumbling off the stage of history. Regular channels by means of which the pope can reform the "internal governance and discipline" (Canon 586) of a religious order are ill-defined.

Tragedy of Religious Decadence

The School Sisters of St. Francis taught me reading, writing and arithmetic at our parish grammar and high school, in Westphalia, Iowa, Midwest USA. From them we also learned catechism, bible history, and Catholic culture, with the pastor fully in charge. From our village parish 100 girls went to convents, including 6 of my aunts and my sister. I was the 28th priest ordained from the parish I believe, and my brother the 29th. When my sister took first vows, she was one of a class of 80; now classes are down to 0. Today our parish school is closed, the sisters' convent is razed, a team of pastors serves our parish from another town. Changing ideas of religious superiors wrecked much of our wonderful parish school system in my part of the USA. Had the pope held a firm hand on the rudder of the sisters, results might have been less tragic.

During my lifetime the once flourishing parochial school system was gutted because religious orders stopped teaching there, and are dying out. A generation of children has grown to adulthood quite illiterate about the catechism. Contraception has poisoned Catholic family life, Mass attendance is down, vocations are rare. Can the pope not protect the religious orders better, and so serve the people more fully?

The Vow of Obedience Is Made to Peter

We know that Christ established His Church upon Peter, the Rock, not upon major superiors of religious orders. The guarantee of authentic teaching, of protecting the depositum, of defining the Way, is with Peter. And yet, to a great extent, it is major religious superiors who appoint pastors, school superintendents, catechism teachers, hospital administrators, social workers, theology professors, rectors and professors at seminaries where priests are trained and whence future bishops emerge. This area is almost like an island whose superiors want to make it a cloister. The pope is welcomed to the parlor for visits via the grill, but he is diverted deftly from interfering with operations inside. Yet much of the Church's day to day operation is administered from inside the grill of this nondescript island.

If Peter is excluded from authority in religious orders, they become mere social clubs, without spiritual authority - vows of obedience having lost validity. It would be wrong to take a vow of obedience to a human person, to a "superior," if his power is not from Peter. A human being is not at liberty to dispose of his spiritual freedom by vowing it to a fellow human being, if the latter has no spiritual authority from God and Christ to accept such a vow. Such power comes only through the Church, through Peter.

The Jonestown Sect and Tragedy

Reports of megalomania surfaced about pastor Jim Jones, but no one paid much attention. He helped the poor, took their social security checks, and formed them as members of the People's Temple - a sect. Tired of running from the police, he led his followers into the jungle of Guyana. Then trouble struck. The date was Nov. 18, 1978. A tape recorder kept the record of orders and screams. He demanded that they "die with dignity," that they drink the fruit punch laced with cyanide poison without complaining. The children must drink first, then the parents. Drink it they did - in "obedience".

In the final count, 918 dead bodies, including that of Pastor Jones, resulted from this demand of a bizarre "obedience". Cardinal Terence Cooke had this to say: " ... We must reflect seriously on the moral and human dimensions of what has happened .... It is certainly a fearsome disorder when one person attempts to dominate another's life to the extent where there is a total loss of balance and suicide results; or when the influence is so strong that an individual's free will or free activity of conscience is seriously diminished for a wrong and evil purpose" (Our Sunday Visitor 13 November 1988).

Religious superiors - like Pastor Jones - do not stand in the place of God for their members - Canon 601 notwithstanding - if the superiors are not anchored to the pope. The pope, therefore, cannot escape the responsibility of overseeing the operation of the vow of obedience which religious make. The final - and therefore pivotal - responsibility is his.

Practically, however, religious superiors now tend to orchestrate their societies as though there were closed groups, with the pope looking in from outside. Although constitutions may expressly state that a religious is allowed to appeal from a lower superior to a higher, still superiors bristle if confreres appeal to the pope. "That is disobedience" maintains one line of superiors. The Congregation for Religious - should it back this manner of thinking? Many religious do not relate their vow of obedience directly to the pope; nor do many of the major superiors seem to do so. Current thinking puts religious into space ships circling the Church in private orbits, controlled from inside. To ask the pope for a hand is rejected as being in bad taste at best, as real disobedience at worst.

How else can we explain that dissent has become so strongly entrenched among some religious, and that controlling it has become outrageously difficult? Religious professors of theological branches, also at Pontifical universities, dissent wildly about Humanae Vitae, for example, like loose cannons rolling about in the Church. Major religious superiors do not anchor their loose cannons. The Church and civil society are affected profoundly by all this. That contraception and other ills have blitzed our world is due in no small measure to dissent against the pope by religious.

Taming The Anti-Humanae Vitae Monster

Bishops who yawn about Humanae Vitae get older, retire, and the pope appoints a successor. If our present pope is in office long enough, Pro-Humanae Vitae bishops should become a prevailing majority. But there is no similar machinery by which the pope sets into place a prevailing majority of Pro-Humanae Vitae religious superiors. When liberals elect their think-like, the result is predictable. Elections can be an orgy of incestuous reproductions; or call them computer viruses, apt to infect vast chains of command. And if anti-HV religious teachers train our future bishops, and edit our theological texts and journals, the pope may find that the pool of pro-HV priests from which he can choose bishops is shrinking.

If anti-HV religious superiors remain in place, they can continue to manipulate much powerful machinery which winks at contraception. We all know examples from real life. Capable and faithful religious are relieved of office, sent to the boondocks, whereas liberals are appointed to replace them. Persistent pro-HV priests are transferred out of the country. Magazine editors are appointed who feed the contraception monster. Speakers are called who urbanely but effectively destroy trust in HV. Fr. Bernard Haering, C.Ss.R. the notorious opponent of HV, was lionized at seminars and teaching centers of religious. With a few exceptions like the Missionaries of Charity, religious bodies have not rallied to the pope's call to engage in an apostolate for natural family planning; they seem to be lukewarm, even hostile, toward HV.

The fact, then, that the pope does not assume a positive posture in directing the "internal governance and discipline" (Canon 593) of Religious Orders, has far-reaching repercussions in the entire Church, and in the throbbing civic life of Village Earth. What might be done by Peter to make a more cooperative team of religious orders?

Suggested Approaches

Just as the pope lists criteria for episcopabiles, he can list criteria for suitable major religious superiors. He can ask the electors themselves to rate eligibles on specific points. For example, when voters cast a secret ballot, for preferred candidate 1, 2, and 3, they may give each of them a rating on points of special concern to the pope. The rating may be, e.g. High, Medium, Low, or No Application (H M L N).

Points of special concern might include


Ballots for electing provincial superiors could be sent to the generalate via the Apostolic Nuncio, who could append his opinion, perhaps even a ternus. Ballots for electing superior generals could be sent to the pope, and the prefect of the Congregation for Religious could announce the results. If the cards are inserted into a computer the results can be tallied in seconds.

Now point 3, briefly: appeals made to the pope by religious should become a routine method of controlling abuses. All religious should be made aware that a proper appeal made to the pope is not necessarily disobedience. An appeal, or a complaint, might be directed to the pope via the local vicar for religious or the Apostolic Nuncio. This openness to the pope would generate vigilance within the orders by superiors and subjects, and may serve to generate corrective measures from within the orders, which are monitored and strengthened by the pope. The vicar for religious or Apostolic Nuncio may handle most of the appeals on the spot.

These practices would, it appears, secure a pattern among religious to elect major superiors whose rating is good by papal standards; it would encourage religious to look to the pope as their standard bearer. The pope would protect the founder's charisma and the community's history. He and religious orders would become a stronger team again. Religious orders can then last as long as the papacy and the Church, and exercise the charisma of the founder until the and of time. Dixi. Thank you.

(Signed) A. Zimmerman

This memorandum is humbly presented to the Holy Father, and to a number of their Eminences, the Cardinals of the Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes.

May the Consecrated Virgin Mary, Mother of the Lord, make use of her privileged access to her Son, and ask His favors for the religious of the Church.

Addition, June 5, 2000: Election of Superior Generals

The present system by which general chapters either re-confirm the existing superior general, or elect his successor, can be modified as follows. The pope, though the Congregation for Religious, sends to the chapter a list of points which would disqualify candidates from election, and points which the pope deems to be of special importance in the current situation for the office of superior general. The general chapter should then, with this information in mind, present to the pope a request to re-confirm the incumbent in office, or present a terna of candidates for his successor. Only after the pope appoints one of the terna would the candidate resume or assume office. If the pope does not reconfirm the incumbent, or if he does not select one of the terna presented, the general chapter would present alternative ternas, until the pope designates one as superior general.