30 June 2013

Cloister Outreach/CONF: Questions re Paying for Formation

[[Dear Sister Laurel, are there reasons a person might be asked to pay $100-200/month for "formation fees" in a newly forming religious community. I am interested in what is called a "Betty Order" which is linked to Cloister Outreach and the Carmelite Order [emphasis added], but they (Cloister Outreach or CONF --- not sure which) mention that a monthly fee will be required. I understand that if I do this I will be doing formation in my own home so I am not sure what this can be about. I know you have written critically about the project before so I thought I would ask you before I get involved.]]

You are the second or third person to ask me about this project recently, mainly because I have been part of contacting the Diocese of Charlotte in Cloister Outreach's regard and have urged caution in the past (cf Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Cloister Outreach, CAVEAT EMPTOR! for original post); I have looked closely at the website in question as a result. They do indeed state that $100 per month (and in another place, $100-200 "per aspirant" --- not even postulants yet!) will be required for formation costs. But this is the tip of a very strange and dubious iceberg I think --- even as a fledgling work in progress. Before I deal with your specific question regarding money, then, let me suggest areas which seem a bit flaky with regard to the project you are considering.

They also say three years of temporary vows will be made after a one year novitiate. But are they speaking of public vows and if so, who will receive these vows in the name of the Church? (Private vows require no novitiate, etc and can be made at any time by anyone.) They also write: [[The Teresa's Carmel yahoo group will serve as a training ground for common threads for the two groups. All formation which can be done online will happen in the group. When that is completed, and the aspirants feel themselves ready, Carmels will be contacted for the sake of the one year canonical novitiate, known as the "Founder's Novitiate."]] One wonders who is doing the "formation" referred to in the Yahoo groups and what that person's qualifications are. The question of how a novitiate year can be called "canonical" when in fact nothing about the project is canonical should be posed. A year is "canonical" not merely because such a period of time is mentioned in canon law. (To read the requirements for a "canonical" novitiate year, please cf CIC, cc 647-649, but please read the entire section, Title II, Chapter III, Articles 1 and 2. --- cc 646-653)

Also please note that although it is implied to be certain that Carmels will step in at such a point, as of this entry no Carmels, much less the Carmelite Order are already committed or have necessarily even been contacted with a request to do so: [[Canonical formators will be retained when the life has been lived for a matter of years.]]; yet the issue of money is already raised and fees established: [[A formation fee of $100-200 per month per aspirant will be required.]] Beyond this, the site states,[[ Also at this time will be the search for a diocese in which to reside when the novitiate ends.]] Really? AFTER one has committed 1) a number of years and then 2) another, more formal, year or two of one's life and money, THEN there will be a search for a home diocese?? I suspect this really simply indicates there is no support for this project yet in ANY diocese by ANY ordinary. (Please see, Cloisters: Delayed Carmel for the entire article.)  I personally think someone has a cart or two before a very confused horse in all of this!

Red Flags Raised for Me With regard to Money:

The difficulty of older persons who believe (both rightly and wrongly) that they have religious vocations is real and neuralgic; sometimes such persons might be more vulnerable to situations which are not really kosher --- especially when it seems that canonical shortcuts are offered (a shorter novitiate, etc). The situation you specifically refer to raises a number of red flags for me because, even were there no other questions (and there are many!), it is generally the case that no established (i.e., legitimate) congregation or house (monastery) asks any candidate for money to pay for formation. It is a responsibility the congregation owes the new member and a cost they gladly absorb themselves. It is also an obligation related to the congregation's own life, health, and discernment, as well as how the community lives a vow of poverty (communally for the sake of the whole), so again, the congregation absorbs these costs.

During the period of candidature or postulancy some, perhaps many congregations today require the candidate to pick up continuing expenses before they are actually received into the community --- for instance the candidate will pay for the upkeep of an automobile she continues to own, etc, but expenses like spiritual direction are picked up by the congregation because SD is ordinarily required by the congregation as a piece of the life itself and certainly as a piece of formation. Formation expenses today will also usually include graduate courses in theology so we are speaking of a significant expense which is borne by the community for someone in initial formation.The same is true of counseling or therapy for instance if this is undertaken because the congregation required it. But here we are speaking of canonical communities which have accepted the candidate and are legitimately preparing her for entrance into a novitiate in a year's time or so. The candidate's rights and obligations (and the rights and obligations of the congregation) are spelled out clearly in their constitutions and/or formation handbook.

If (and I admit I have trouble even envisioning this being the case) you are describing a legitimate situation and an established (canonical) congregation which in truly assisting with the formation of a new group has subsequently asked the members of the fledgling group to reimburse them for expenses incurred in giving specific and substantive assistance, then you (as potential candidate) should see and participate in establishing this agreement which, it seems to me, should be legal, approved by a canonist, and perhaps notarized by an ecclesiastical notary. I strongly suggest you participate directly in any such decisions and agreements because you are the one directly affected; after all there is no legitimate community to which you belong and no legitimate superiors to enter into such an agreement with the canonical group on your behalf or on the behalf of any other supposed candidate. Neither Cloister Outreach nor CONF (a CO affiliate), nor anyone associated with them has any such right or authority. Besides, the money is yours; presumably you would not be paying it to CO or CONF "for formation" but to the Carmel mentioned --- not least because CO/CONF has no competency in this area and no financial stake. 

Any such agreement should also be clear about the limits involved. For instance, such an arrangement can be neither open ended nor casual. Clear agreements on (for instance) what will be provided to you and for how long, how regularly it will be provided and at what cost, are some of the things which probably should be nailed down. (And note that this doesn't even begin to address the whole question of discernment or what happens when an "aspirant" or "candidate" is found to be unsuited to formation; these and similar questions need to be spelled out and agreed to.) In any case, if there is a canonical Carmelite group really involved in this you should be speaking to them yourself to get the facts necessary and (with the help of competent legal assistance) to enter into binding agreements.

While I think the situation you are outlining is a very strange one, the bottom line here is that if it truly exists it would need to have a number of legal pieces in place to be deemed prudent, much less legitimate. How a canonical congregation would do formation for you as you continued living in your own home is completely unimaginable to me. One is not formed in religious life by reading the books on a bibliography, for instance, nor by donning some religious costume around the house. That way lies pretense and disappointment. On the other hand one hardly entrusts something as significant as one's vocation and life to folks who are merely "winging it" and have no solid experience or credentials behind them.

The St Something-or-other Horseshoe throwers, a "recognized" de facto association of the faithful:

If you are considering "buying into" (pun intended) this new "community" or "carmel" please understand that even if Cloister Outreach, for instance, is "known" to the Diocese of Charlotte this does not mean they are approved in any sense. For instance, the "founder" claims to be sending the Bishop reports, but is doing this not at the request of the Bishop, but, according to her own comments, on her own initiative. Remember that legitimate groups are required to do so canonically as part of a real relationship of ecclesiastical vigilance and accountability so posting that one sends a report to one's Bishop each year certainly sounds like one does it at his request or as part of a mutual legitimate agreement or canonical requirement. Such an announcement however may merely provide the appearance to those reading the website that the diocese is following the progress of CO or CONF in order eventually to approve them.  Thus a group or umbrella group may well be a kind of smoke and mirrors reality which merely gives the appearance of legitimacy.

Remember too that ANY group of 2 or more persons may create a de facto "asso-ciation of the faithful" which is private in nature. (It is de facto rather than de jure because it exists in fact but not in law.) They could be the St Something-or-other Horseshoe Throwers and legitimately call themselves a de facto private association of the faithful. Again, this need not imply ecclesiastical recognition, much less approval or support of any sort. But let's say that they take a horseshoe with a copy of their statutes attached along with a request that the Bishop peruse these, and that they throw the whole shebang through the Bishop's window at the chancery.

If, upon return from the ER to get his head stitched up, the Bishop looks at the statutes and immediately crumples them and tosses them back out the window with an exclamation of irritation and pain while his secretary sends the association a bill for damages --- thus implicitly acknowledging receipt of the statutes --- the St Something-or-Other Horseshoe Throwers  (hereafter the members of St SHOT) will technically move to the level of "recognized" because they have actually submitted their statutes for review.  (Approval of the statutes is not necessary or even implied by the term "recognized".) I hope you read that statement several times because if someone claims a project is "recognized" by the diocese it may simply mean someone has seen the groups supposed statutes. Nothing more!

It need hardly indicate a genuine relationship with the diocese or its ordinary does it? Let's say the members of St SHOT submit a report on their association once a year thereafter on the anniversary of their dramatic introduction via horseshoe and the Bishop's window and also that they dutifully report on their snazzy website that, "We submit a report of our activities annually according to canon law so the Bishop is duly apprised." It actually sounds pretty official doesn't it? And yet it is not; it is delusional at best and disingenuous at worst. When a project writes, "The Father General of the OCD has been alerted to the existence of this project," it may simply mean he has had the equivalent of a horseshoe thrown through his own window as well. (When they write that a 1990 Carmel has agreed to assist with an ad experimentum habit it may simply mean they have agreed to answer occasional historical questions on the habit. And so forth.)

CO and CONF: Asking some hard questions:

At some point the "founder" of CO and CONF needs to be asked and needs to provide genuine answers to a number of important questions. A summary of the ones raised already in this article include:  Who is in charge of the formation process? How long will this formation process take? Once formation is completed, where will you or anyone else be publicly professed, by whom and in whose hands? If you are going to be granted permission to wear a habit (one must be given this right; it is not self-assumed), when and where will that occur? Will you REALLY be able to call yourself a Carmelite? What Carmelite authority says so? What will your relationship to the Carmelite Order be and who (with real authority to speak on behalf of the Order) has confirmed this? In the versions of "formation" I have seen on the CO website what seems to happen is that new "stages" of "formation."

The recognized canonical stages of candidacy (also called postulancy), novitiate, temporary vows or juniorate, morph on the CO website (in no particular order) into aspirants, candidates, postulants, novas, novices and other additional "stages" with the prospect of public profession no where in sight. It seems that only the horizon advances (or, from another perspective, the horizon continually recedes along with any actual prospect of becoming a religious in any real sense).  In each "stage" a few new books are added to the "formation" bibliography and the person changes the color of their headcovering, blouse, etc but nothing else seems to be happening except individuals are reported to be deciding whether to become "diocesan hermits," actually enter a Carmelite monastery, decide which diocese they should live in, or, start their own congregation! etc. There is simply nothing stable or edifying about any of this.

Summary and Back to your Original Question:

You ask what this request for money could be about. The notion that someone would be asked to pay for their mainly-online "formation" by an unknown and wholly unestablished group which is associated with CO or CONF and purported to have some vague and unverified linkage to the Carmelite Order sounds to me like delusion has been wedded to a financial scam. In fact, at other points when the "foundress" of CO/CONF has been asked direct questions about the legitimacy of her projects and a few folks felt she should not be pressed to answer, this same handful of fairly supportive persons felt that 1) no one with a real vocation (or half a brain) would get involved in such a project but that if someone did, then 2) so long as no one was asking for money no one was really being hurt; their conclusion was that the "foundress" should be allowed to continue doing what she was doing in that case as it was really harmless and no "real" vocations were being endangered.

That was back around December or January of 2013 on Phatmass. The questions which were put to the "foundress" there were never answered and now money is being "required." Meanwhile I continue to get inquiries from folks who have serious questions about the legitimacy of all of this or who wonder who in the Carmelite Order they can contact about "founder's novitiates", etc. If you are not going to immediately run in the opposite direction, again, PLEASE ask some pointed and direct questions of the CO/CONF "foundress", talk to some folks from your chancery (Canon lawyers, vocations directors or vicars, etc) for their take, request that they assist in some inquiries for you, and see what is actually the case. Then if you decide the project is worth risking your time, money, and emotional well being with, you will be making an informed choice.

Postscript: As of April 2015 Cloisters Outreach "Suspended" this Betty Carmel project because real Carmels were accepting older vocations.  Whatever the reason for suspending this project I admit to being really grateful it occurred!