Among the most faithful of all of the new Catholic religious orders, especially in regard to their pro-life commitment, was an order known as the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate (FFI). They were made a pontifical institute of religious life by His Holiness John Paul II in January 1, 1998. The order has thrived and been considered stellar in its evangelization efforts. However, recent actions by the Vatican against the order have generated a firestorm of controversy and confusion about what priority the Church is now giving to the fidelity of religious orders to all Church teachings. Many pro-life Catholic fans of the order are reeling from what has been done to the order in just the past few months.

Most Americans are familiar with the many religious orders of sisters who have sided with President Obama against the Bishops of the United States.  Some will remember that under Pope Benedict an investigation into such dissident nuns was undertaken with a good start but eventually little result and hardly any discipline meted out whatsoever. Catholics have been pleading for decades for Vatican intervention to halt the decline of many of these orders into New Age, lesbian, pro-abortion and otherwise out-of-control, anti-Catholic behaviour that has had serious negative effects on the Church and a catastrophic vocations drop-off.

On the other hand, there have been relatively unknown faithful orders growing in the Church, with seminaries and convents bursting at the seams with new applicants, having to turn many away because of overcrowding. These orders have been attracting the large numbers of young men and women with callings who have been repelled by the infidelities and chaos in most of the older, mainstream orders.

The FFI has been considered one of the very best of these astonishingly thriving new orders. The FFI were very traditional to be sure, even encouraging the Latin Mass and all that, but they were known to be teachers of the faith on the Culture of Life par excellence – unwavering in their adherence to the truths of life and family.


However, an internal dispute in the order around the use of the traditional Latin Mass has ended up in one of the most severe disciplines against any order that many can ever recall seeing in their lifetimes.  While religious orders (for example, the Jesuits) riddled with major, in-your-face dissent, sexual abuse, rampant homosexuality and more for decades remain still comparatively untouched by Church authorities, the FFI have been ruthlessly dismantled in a period of just several months.

The controversy began in July when Pope Francis named Capuchin Fr. Fidenzio Volpi as Commissioner of the order, displacing the founder at least temporarily and also simultaneously forbidding the friars from celebrating the Latin Mass (known as the Extraordinary Form).

From there things got worse quickly.

As the Associated Press reported earlier this month, Fr. Volpi issued “a series of sanctions in the name of the pope that have stunned observers for their seeming severity.” Reports AP, Fr. Volpi:

–       Sent their founder, the Rev. Stefano Maria Manelli, to live in a religious home while he set about turning the order around.

–       He closed the friars' seminary and sent its students to other religious universities in Rome.

–       He suspended the activities of the friars' lay movement.

–       He suspended ordinations of new priests for a year

–       and required future priests to formally accept the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and its new liturgy or be kicked out.

–       And he decreed that current priests must commit themselves in writing to following the existing mission of the order.

AP’s Nicole Winfield notes “The sanctions seem harsh when compared to recent actions taken by the Vatican against other much larger religious orders or groups found to have doctrinal or other problems, such as the Holy See's crackdown on social justice-minded American nuns or the Vatican's reform efforts of the disgraced Legion of Christ. In both cases, a papal envoy was named to rewrite constitutions or statutes and oversee reforms, but Volpi's actions with the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate would appear to go much further.”

Traditional Catholics have sounded the alarm. A petition by Italy’s famed Catholic Professor Roberto de Mattei has over 5000 signatures. In America, the traditional blog Rorate Caeli has been following the case closely with the most up-to-date information in English.

However, it is not only ‘traditionalist’ Catholics that have sounded the alarm. Last week, the EWTN-owned National Catholic Register, published a plea to Pope Francis for help.  Written by Pat Archbold known for his popular Catholic blog Creative Minority Report, the appeal to Pope Francis Archbold details the above discipline on the order.

Archbold reminds Pope Francis of the Holy Father’s own words about being lenient with religious orders which make mistakes, and urging them to move forward nevertheless.

Archbold adds: “Fr. Volpi himself has stated, in response to criticism, that the reason for such draconian and disproportionate measures is that ‘the founder and ex- MinisterGeneral, Father Stefano Maria Manelli, in January 2012, had already evaded constructive dialogue with the religious who had complained of a crypto-lefebvrian and definitely traditionalist drift.’”

 Says Archbold:

Crypto-lefebrvrianism? A traditionalist drift?

Dear Holy Father, is faithful traditionalism within the Church now a crime? Is becoming more traditional a sign of deficiency within an order? Holy Father, that cannot be!

Perhaps the FFI did not manage this transition as well as one would hope, but certainly this response is disproportionate and wildly severe.

Holy Father, perhaps the FFI has made some mistakes, but why are they being prevented from moving forward?

I cannot believe that you know the full detail of what is occurring. Holy Father, if these draconian and disproportionate actions of Fr. Volpi are allowed to stand, I fear that one message will be loud and clear:

Faithful Catholic traditionalists no longer have a place in the Church.

Holy Father, I do not believe for one second that this is the message you intend to send.

Please Holy Father, please help.

In the meantime, religious orders in the world must be considering what their direction should be under the current circumstances. Under Pope Benedict, there was encouragement to give respectful attention to long-standing Church traditions, including the Extraordinary Form, and also to place emphasis on the Church’s authentic moral teachings, an emphasis lacking in much of the Church for the past several decades.

Now, especially in the thriving new orders, all growing almost entirely because of their consistent emphasis on joyful faithfulness to all Church teachings, there has to be anxiety as to how Rome sees them and what might be expected in the years ahead. Whether intentionally or not, the FFI have been made a very blunt example to all – but to what end is not exactly clear.