Conflict combines several current problems in the church

Schismatic Poor Clares: A major scandal surrounding a small monastery

Belorado - The schismatic Poor Clares from Spain have been making international headlines for a week now. But how did the nuns break with the Pope in the first place? And why does the conflict move so many people? An attempt at an explanation.

Published  on 17.05.2024 at 18:18  – by Roland Müller

The Santa Clara convent in the small town of Belorado in central Spain is actually just a small convent on the edge of the Way of St James. Normally, 16 Poor Clares live there in seclusion and earn their living by making pastries and chocolate truffles. But since the beginning of the week, the tranquil life of the nuns in the archdiocese of Burgos has come to an end. They are making international headlines and are being besieged by journalists, as the Poor Clares have decided to take a radical step: they have left the community of the Catholic Church and placed themselves "under the protection and jurisdiction" of a schismatic bishop. Pablo de Rojas Sánchez-Franco is a sedisvacantist, which means that he considers all popes after Pius XII (1939-58) to be illegitimate heads of the Church. According to Rojas, the Holy See in Rome is actually vacant ("sede vacante") and Pope Francis is a heretic and usurper.

The Poor Clares of Belorado also share this view, as their abbess Sister Isabel de la Trinidad (Elisabeth of the Trinity) explained in a 70-page manifesto that she published on the monastery's website at the beginning of the week. In it, she renounces herself and her sisters from the "Council Church" and describes Rojas as the "legitimate bishop of the Holy Catholic Church" - even though he was officially excommunicated in 2019. In the pamphlet, Pope Francis is consistently referred to as "Mr Bergoglio" because the abbess represents the view of the sedisvacantist scene that the ordinations received by the pontiff are invalid.

In a television interview from the convent a few days later, the nun repeated her criticism of the innovations of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and affirmed that she no longer sees herself in the Church at present. "The Catholic Church is almost unrecognisable, the centre is no longer God, but man." The faithful need to wake up and recognise this heresy, the abbess said. "The parishes are more reminiscent of the Anglican Church than the Catholic Church." The sisters see their salvation in the schismatic Bishop Rojas. "As Catholics, we need a bishop," believes Sister Isabel.

A Poor Clares
Bild: ©KNA-Bild

The Santa Clara convent in the small town of Belorado in central Spain is actually just a small convent on the edge of the Way of St James. Normally, 16 Poor Clares live there in seclusion and earn their living by making pastries and chocolate truffles. But since the beginning of the week, they have been making international headlines.

The Poor Clares have been in contact with the sedisvacantist head pastor for around a year. Both sides emphasise that the sisters approached Rojas of their own accord. Exactly how and when the radicalisation of the convent began remains unknown. However, it is certain that the sisters' affinity for the so-called Tridentine Mass and the teachings of the Sedisvacantists played a role. Reports on the schism of the Poor Clares repeatedly refer to property disputes with several Spanish dioceses, which led to the Poor Clares' great dissatisfaction with the official church.

In 2020, the convent signed a purchase agreement for the vacant monastery in Orduña for 1.2 million euros. The building is located in the diocese of Vitoria and was sold to them by the local Poor Clares. Regular instalments were agreed by the Poor Clares with the nuns who own the convent and the diocese. However, the convent apparently did not make the payments regularly, which is why it was sued for damages. In her manifesto, however, the superior of the Poor Clares spoke of unjust behaviour towards her convent. "Contradictions, duplicity and confusion" prevailed in the church. At the same time, there is repeated talk of an unnamed benefactor who wants to buy the convent and make it available to the Poor Clares.

Sisters from Belorado are "no longer Poor Clares" after the schism

The nuns from Belorado are also dependent on the sale of another empty convent in Derio, as they need the money from the sale of the building. However, the Vatican appears to have objected to this. In addition to the extremely confused and unclear situation surrounding these property transactions, the Poor Clares from San Antonio in the diocese of Vitoria have now announced that they will sue their fellow sisters from Belorado. They do not want to leave the convent in Orduña to a "sect" and want to return it to Catholic ownership. "This is not a question of money," said a representative of the diocese of Vitoria, which is supporting the nuns in their lawsuit. The reason is clearly the schism of the Sisters of Belorado, as they are now "no longer Poor Clares".

A somewhat more conciliatory, but no less horrified reaction to the move by the Poor Clares comes from the Franciscan family. The superior of the Federation of Poor Clares Convents in northern Spain and the responsible provincial of the Franciscan friars expressed their "surprise and shock" at the schism. But: "We will always be ready to welcome them back into our family, to which they also belong and from which they should never have distanced themselves." The Archbishop of Burgos, Mario Iceta, also hopes that at least some of the sisters will give in. Like the Commission for Consecrated Life of the Spanish Bishops' Conference, he is calling on the individual Poor Clares to enter into dialogue in order to clarify their positions on the abbess's manifesto. Only in this way could it be determined whether all members of the convent were really in break with the Church.

Pope Francis gives a speech
Bild: ©picture alliance / | Ettore Ferrari

In the abbess's pamphlet, Pope Francis is referred to throughout as "Mr Bergoglio" because she represents the view of the sedevacantist scene that the ordinations received by the pontiff are invalid.

Shortly after the declaration of the break with the Pope, one of the original 16 Poor Clares had already left the monastery and left for another convent of Poor Clares - probably because she does not agree with the schismatic line in Santa Clara. Ultimately, however, adherence to the sedisvacantist doctrine clearly means excommunication, according to Iceta. The head pastor also made it clear that the case of the convention in Belorado had made waves even in the Vatican: The competent dicastery is being kept up to date by the Spanish bishops on the case of the schismatic sisters.

Even if Santa Clara in Belorado is only an insignificant convent with a few contemplative nuns in the Spanish province, the case of the schismatic convent is nevertheless relevant. It brings together in one place several conflicts that are currently causing the church problems. Firstly, the radical opposition to Pope Francis is evident in the Poor Clares. In recent years, criticism of the pontiff has become sharper and its protagonists louder. Sedisvacantists and extreme traditionalists are at the very extreme end of the scale of Francis' critics and therefore no longer part of the communion of the Church. However, the transitions to criticism of the Pope from within the Church have become more fluid, as can be seen in the example of former Vatican diplomat Carlo Maria Viganò, who radicalised into a schismatic in just a few years.

Convention will continue to make headlines

Secondly, the case of the Belorado schism shows the potential for conflict between women's convents and bishops that has existed in the Church for centuries. The Poor Clares felt betrayed by a number of bishoprics and their senior pastors - whether rightly or wrongly remains to be seen. They wanted to escape this conflict-ridden situation and sought protection from a schismatic bishop of all people. But time and again - especially in Spain, but not only there - there are disputes between dioceses and religious communities. In Mallorca, a recent case concerning ownership claims to a monastery, which has now been dragging on for ten years, made the headlines. As a rule, conflicts of this kind are about financial or property disputes, but sometimes also about questions of monastic discipline. However, self-confident nuns (or men) and powerful dioceses are always at odds with each other.

The future of the Poor Clares in Belorado is questionable. Even if some of the just over a dozen remaining sisters were to transfer to a Catholic convent, the abbess and a hard core of sisters will probably remain loyal to the sedisvacantist Bishop Rojas. The criticism of the Catholic Church and Pope Francis expressed in the manifesto is too strong. Ultimately, this means excommunication in the near future. This will be followed by lawsuits over the ownership of the monasteries. Rojas also has no interest in releasing the convent from his "protection". With the monastery, the self-proclaimed prince-bishop and Franco admirer is expanding his schismatic diocese with a spiritual centre alongside the brotherhood of priests he founded. The Poor Clares of Belorado are therefore likely to continue to make headlines in the future.

by Roland Müller