Redefining the Obedience Necessary to Stop Spiritual Abuse

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There is a need to redefine “obedience”, especially in the context of religious life, to end spiritual abuse in the Catholic Church.

Dr Rocio Figueroa

Speaking at a Zoom event hosted on November 29 by an international organization 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 is 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 understand the meaning 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 abuses his religious power.”

“In our religious communities, we have seen many religious women suffer spiritual abuse, and it has never been addressed,” she said.

Dr Figueroa is currently working with University of Otago professor David Toombs on a qualitative study with former religious victims of spiritual abuse involving the Peruvian community Siervas del Plan de Dios (Servants of the Plan of God). 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 community members. In 2017, theCongregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Lifeordered that it be “forbidden for Figari to contact, in any way, persons belonging to Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, and not to have any direct personal contact with them”. He was formally excluded from the SCV in 2019.

Dr Figueroa said former nuns gave examples of abuse such as not being able to complain of fatigue, being forced to descend dark stairs “to conquer fear”, washing a superior’s underwear and even do university homework for the superior.

The nun who was ordered to take the dark staircase eventually fell and had to undergo 15 surgeries. However, he was told not to question the order and that the accident had been authorized by God.

“In these examples we can see that religious obedience has been understood as the expectation that one not only follows the orders of a superior, but completely surrenders his will and intellect. But this concept is the norm in religious life, ”she said.

Perfectae Caritatisof the Second Vatican Council affirms, “by professing obedience, religious offer the complete surrender of their own will as a sacrifice of themselves to God. . . submit in faith to their superiors who take the place of God ”.

Dr Figueroa said spiritual violence becomes structural when tradition is involved and rules and regulations are not challenged.

“For me, the tradition of religious life in matters of obedience is structural spiritual violence. If our tradition says that we are to obey superiors because they represent God, we have a problematic equation. This is why we must redefine obedience, because the vow of obedience is to God. . . not to an authority that cares about its own interests, ”she stressed.

Dr Figueroa said that victims of spiritual abuse had an “inherent training bias” that prevented them from acknowledging the abuse.

“Why did these nuns allow this to happen? They couldn’t see the full reality of their own experience, ”she explained. “They said, by tradition, that they obeyed God. That it was a sacrifice, that it was an abandonment because they interpreted the abuse as an act of obedience to God himself.

Dr Figueroa said violence, according to US philosophy professor Newton Garver, should be defined, not only as the use of force, but in terms of the verb ‘to violate’.

She said that there are two types of rights that can be violated: the right to our body and the right to our dignity as a person.

“The problem is, while physical abuse is visible, spiritual abuse or spiritual abuse is not obvious and can be done without being treated. The second problem is that until now those who have interpreted the Gospel, values ​​and experiences of faith as Catholics, have officially always been men, ”she observed.

Dr Figueroa expressed disappointment at the response of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to a letter from one of the former nuns of the Servants of the Plan of God, when asked 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, to overcome and correct the improper and incorrect aspects that have been found in government, in training and in verification of possible acts. abuse of power, psychological violence or manipulation of conscience, ”wrote Sr. Carmen Ros Nortes, undersecretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in a letter dated October 25, 2021.

“It’s such a weak response,” said Dr Figueroa. “It’s like, ‘Okay, we’re going to talk to them (the servants of God’s plan).’ But they (the Vatican congregation) weren’t talking about the systemic problem, they can’t see it because they’re in the system.

She said that although studies have been developed in other churches, “little has been done in the Catholic context.”

“Things have to change,” she said.


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