There is a need to redefine “obedience”, especially in the context of religious life, to put an end to spiritual abuse in the Catholic Church.
Speaking at a Zoom event put together on November 29 by an international organisation Voice for Faith, Te Kupenga theologian and lecturer Dr Rocio Figueroa said spiritual abuse is hard to see, because it is not physical.
“The problem lies in how we define and understand violence. In popular culture, the term violence is usually linked to an act of force. If we only understand violence in this narrow way, as an act of force, it would be very difficult to comprehend the significance of spiritual violence or spiritual abuse,” she said.
Spiritual abuse, said Dr Figueroa, “is the violation of a person’s spiritual freedom by a leader who misuses their religious power”.
“In our religious communities, we have seen many religious women are suffering spiritual abuse, and it has never been addressed,” she said.
Dr Figueroa is currently working with Otago University Professor David Toombs on a qualitative study with ex-nuns who are victims of spiritual abuse involving the Peruvian community Siervas del Plan de Dios (Servants of God’s Plan). This community was founded by Luis Fernando Figari, founder of Sodalicio Christianae Vitae, who is accused of sexual abuse, abuse of power, and psychological abuse of members of the community. In 2017, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life ordered that Figari be “prohibited from contacting, in any way, persons belonging to the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, and in no way have any direct personal contact with them.” He was formally expelled from the SCV in 2019.
Dr Figueroa said the former nuns gave examples of abuse like not being able to complain of tiredness, being forced to go down dark stairs “to overcome fear”, handwashing a superior’s underwear, and even doing university assignments for the superior.
The nun who was ordered to take the darkened stairway ultimately fell down, and had to have 15 surgical procedures. However, she was told not to question the order and that the accident was allowed by God.
“In these examples, we can see that religious obedience has been understood as the expectation that one would not only follow the orders of a superior, but completely abandon one’s will and intellect. But this concept is the standard in religious life,” she said.
“Perfectae Caritatis of the Second Vatican Council affirms, ‘in professing obedience, religious offer the full surrender of their own will as a sacrifice of themselves to God . . . subject themselves in faith to their superiors who hold the place of God’.”
Dr Figueroa said spiritual violence becomes structural when tradition is involved, and rules and regulations are not questioned.
“For me, the tradition of religious life regarding obedience is a structural spiritual violence. If our tradition affirms that we must obey superiors because they represent God, we have a problematic equation. That is why we need to redefine obedience, because the vow of obedience is to God . . . not to an authority that looks to their own interests,” she stressed.
Dr Figueroa said that victims of spiritual abuse possess a “formative inherent bias” that made it impossible for them to recognise the abuse.
“Why did these nuns allow it to happen? They could not see the full reality of their own experience,” she explained. “They were saying, by tradition, they were obeying God. That it was a sacrifice, that it was a giving up because they interpreted abuse as an act of obedience to God himself.”
Dr Figueroa said that violence, according to American philosophy professor Newton Garver, should be defined, not just as use of force, but in terms of the verb “violate”.
She said there are two kinds of right that can be violated: the right to our body and the right to our dignity as a person.
“The problem is while physical violence can be seen, spiritual abuse or spiritual violence is not clear in plain sight and can be perpetrated without being addressed. The second problem is, up until now, the ones who have interpreted the Gospel, the values and the experiences of faith as Catholics, officially have always been men,” she observed.
Dr Figueroa expressed disappointment with the response of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith to a letter of one of the former nuns of the Servants of God’s Plan, when asked about what actions the Vatican has taken.
“For the good of all and for the good of the Church, the same authorities have been asked to act, overcome, and correct the improper and incorrect aspects that were found in the government, in the formation, and in the verification of possible acts of abuse of power, of psychological violence, or manipulation of the conscience,” wrote Sr Carmen Ros Nortes, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith undersecretary, in a letter dated October 25, 2021.
“It’s such a weak answer,” Dr Figueroa said. “It’s like, ‘ok, we will talk to them (Servants of God’s Plan).’ But they (Vatican congregation) weren’t talking about the systemic problem. They cannot see it because they are in the system.”
She said that, while studies have been developed in other churches, “little has been done in the Catholic context”.
“Things have to change,” she said.