Sparks Flying in LA vs Sisters of IHM

The more I read about the dispute over who can sell and who can buy the convent in the hills of LA, the weirder it all seems. It’s quite hard enough to get your head around the Archbishop of LA in civil court up against two elderly, but clearly capable, nuns; but when we read that he arranged a private meeting between the nuns and his preferred bidder, Katy Perry, at which she sang “Oh happy day” to the sisters, the image gets a bit Pythonesque.

It bends the mind to imagine two granite faced, septuagenarian, brides of Christ narrowing their eyes as a young woman with purple hair showers them with gospel favourites and sparks or whipped cream, depending on the corset of the day, while His Grace claps along awkwardly from the corner, rictus grin nervously fixed. 

Sordid or profane? Or just normal for LA?

While it’s not clear how the civil case is going to go, it seems more and more that the sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary have every reason to be as unimpressed with the Archdiocese’s canonical footing as they clearly
were with Ms Perry’s Wikipedia page.

Before getting too far into things, it needs to be stated that we don’t know what the Archidiocese’s canonical rationale is, they haven’t said it publicly so we are left to guess. Also, I have not seen the statutes of the IHM sisters, so it’s impossible to know what extra authority might be ceded to the Archbishop in them. That having been said, a couple of general canonical principles can be observed in the light of the sister’s wonderfully articulate assertion that the Archdiocese is “rather obsessed with their misconception of their [own] sovereign, ecclesiastical and canonical importance.” 

As an order of Diocesan (rather than Pontifical) Rite, the Code certainly envisages the involvement of the diocesan bishop in situations like this. Canon 595.1 says he is to treat matters of greater importance if they exceed the powers granted to the sisters for their internal governance. Yet canon 616 provides only that the bishop be consulted regarding the suppression of a religious house, without his consent being required and with the goods of the suppressed house being handled according to the proper law of the institute.

Where I suspect the Archdiocese is forcing their toes through the door is the requirement that the bishop give written permission for any sale which worsens the patrimonial state of the institute (c. 638.4). Though how they think this means they get to decided which deal to accept, over the express wishes to the contrary of the sisters, is, put mildly, unclear.

The Archdiocese are making the civil case that the sisters are basically a couple of senile old biddies, unable to see they’re being hosed by some development shark and who should get back to their knitting while the chancery of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, that shining ivory tower of probity, morals and good governance, to say nothing of strict canonical observance, handle the sale and decide what to do with the proceeds.

The sisters themselves seem savvy enough to have worked up a decent image of Katy Perry (and of the chancery staff) and to have decided that they’d just as soon not have whatever the hell goes on in the home of a woman once married to Russell Brand go on in their chapel, for reasons they consider “obvious”.

It has further been suggested by the Archdiocese that, even if they get their way in civil court, the whole deal will have to go to Rome for ratification. It’s not clear if this is because the convent is an autonomous house of nuns (c. 616.4) or if it is because the total amount is either more than the limit set by the Holy See or involves goods of artistic or historic merit (c. 638.3).

Either way, while the relegation of a chapel or oratory, which the convent will have, to profane use only needs the ordinary’s permission, canon 1222.1 says that a church (admittedly not explicitly a chapel or oratory) can be relegated to profane not sordid use. While it can be debated if Ms Perry is sordid or merely profane, there is an argument to be had.

Of course, none of this sheds any light on where the chancery derives the authority to dictate the terms of the sale and proceed against the express wishes of the sisters, or makes them think the public forum of civil court is the right place to press their claims. While the statutes of the institute remain a notable question mark, I’d say the sisters have more than enough to make an interesting appeal to Rome.


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