Canon Law in American Courts, or, Real Nun or Fake Nun?

From McCarthy v. Fuller (7th Cir. Apr. 10, 2013), an interesting opinion by Judge Posner (some paragraph breaks added), with the first appearance of “exclaustration” in a Westlaw-accessible American court decision:

These three interlocutory appeals arise from a complicated and acrimonious litigation, charging RICO, trademark, and copyright violations along with Indiana torts, that has been percolating in the district court for almost five years. The origins of the litigation go back to 1956, when Sister Mary Ephrem …, a Catholic Sister of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood of Jesus …, had experienced a series of apparitions of the Virgin Mary, in the course of which Mary had told Sister Ephrem (according to the latter’s report): “I am Our Lady of America.”

The Archbishop of Cincinnati … was convinced of the truth of her report of the apparitions, and with his support an elaborate program of devotions to Our Lady of America was launched. Our Lady has been credited with healing sick people who appealed to her for a cure, although whether either the apparitions or the cures are authentic has not been ruled on by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the body within the Roman Catholic hierarchy that is responsible for making such determinations.

Perhaps inspired by her visions, Sister Ephrem joined with other sisters within the Congregation of the Sisters of the Precious Blood in seeking to form a “contemplative cloister” — a “strictly cloistered house for members of the [Congregation] who were principally dedicated to a contemplative life.” In 1965 Pope Paul VI approved the creation of the cloister, in New Riegel, Ohio, designating it a “papal enclosure.” … The New Riegel cloister lasted until at least 1977, when its three surviving members, including Sister Ephrem and Sister Mary Joseph Therese, left the Congregation of the Sisters of the Precious Blood and formed a new congregation that they called the Contemplative Sisters of the Indwelling Trinity, dedicated to promoting devotions to Our Lady of America….

[Eventually] Sister Ephrem willed all her property to Sister Therese [referred to in the litigation by her birth name, Patricia Fuller]. In 2005 Kevin McCarthy, a lawyer and Catholic layman, and Albert H. Langsenkamp, who claims (whether truthfully or not is in dispute) to be a Papal Knight of the Holy Sepulcher, approached Fuller and offered to help her with the devotions to Our Lady of America. She accepted their offer and the three worked together until 2007, when they had a falling out that erupted the following year into this bitter lawsuit….

McCarthy and Langsenkamp brought this suit against Fuller charging all manner of tortious conduct, including conversion (theft) of both physical and intellectual property, fraud, and defamation. Fuller counterclaimed vigorously, accusing them of the same things, including theft of the statue of Our Lady of America and of the website of Our Lady of America Center, and of defaming her by calling her a “fake nun.” …

[McCarthy] contests the claim of defamation by denying (among other things) that he lied in saying Fuller is not a nun. Whether or not that’s accurate (given the uncertainty that we noted concerning the precise meaning of “nun” in the Catholic religion), calling her a “fake nun” could readily be understood to deny that she had any religious vocation whatsoever — and in fact McCarthy does deny this, and obtained from the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See a statement that Fuller is no longer either a nun or a religious sister. Located in the Vatican, the Holy See is the central governing body of the Roman Catholic Church, and the Apostolic Nunciature is the Holy See’s diplomatic mission to the United States.

McCarthy asked the district judge to take judicial notice of (and thus defer to) the Apostolic Nunciature’s statement of the Holy See’s ruling on Fuller’s status in the Church. McCarthy’s ground was that the court, being a secular body, could not reexamine the Holy See’s ruling but must accept it as authoritative. The judge refused ….

A secular court may not take sides on issues of religious doctrine. The district judge in this case has ruled that a federal jury shall decide whether Patricia Fuller is a member of a Roman Catholic religious order, though if the jury decides that she is it will be rejecting the contrary ruling of the religious body (the Holy See) authorized by the Church to decide such matters.

A secular court must be allowed to decide, however, whether a party is correct in arguing that there is an authoritative church ruling on an issue, a ruling that removes the issue from the jurisdiction of that court…. But once the court has satisfied itself that the authorized religious body has resolved the religious issue, the court may not question the resolution….

That no religious institution is a party to this case is of no moment. McCarthy is asking us to reverse a district judge’s ruling that if it stands will require a jury to answer a religious question. (He has standing to challenge the ruling because it bears directly on his claim.) Religious questions are to be answered by religious bodies. So we asked the Holy See to advise us on the matter, and in response it has filed a 51–page amicus curiae brief which concludes that Fuller, since leaving the Congregation of the Sisters of the Precious Blood in 1979 (or at the very latest since 1983), has not been a member of any religious organization recognized by the Holy See. She is not a nun (she may never have been one, as we noted earlier), not a member of the Catholic Sisterhood or of any Catholic religious order, and not entitled under Catholic law to call herself Sister Therese….

Sister Therese petitioned in 1979 for a one-year exclaustration, which was granted, as was her petition the following year for a second one-year exclaustration. But the Holy See told her there would be no further extensions — that when the second one expired she would either have to return to the Congregation of the Sisters of the Precious Blood “and live fully under obedience to the superior general,” or have to “request a dispensation from your vows and separate yourself from your Congregation.” The Holy See gave her till May 31, 1981, to decide. She did not respond, and the following year the Holy See, at the request of the Congregation, dispensed her from her vows and dismissed her from the Congregation on the ground of “incorrigible disobedience.” …

[The trial] judge neither could see how the Catholic Church could be harmed by allowing a jury to determine Fuller’s religious status nor was satisfied that the Church’s determination was valid, in the sense of being both consistent with canon law and procedurally regular. The judge’s first reason was, as we said, erroneous; submitting the question of Fuller’s religious status to a jury would undermine the authority and autonomy of the Church.

His second reason — his concern with validity — has been laid to rest by the amicus curiae brief, which the judge didn’t have the benefit of. The brief is the unquestionably authentic statement of the Holy See. In it the Holy See has spoken, laying to rest any previous doubts: Fuller has not been a member of any Catholic religious order for more than 30 years. Period. The district judge has no authority to question that ruling. A jury has no authority to question it. We have no authority to question it.

All that this means, however, so far as the litigation is concerned, is that Fuller’s religious status is no longer a litigable issue. She is not a member of any Catholic religious order, and hasn’t been since 1983 at the latest, when she exhausted her remedies within the Church by failing to seek “recourse” from her expulsion by the Holy See from the Congregation of the Sisters of the Precious Blood.

At any point in the trial or other proceedings at which her religious status becomes relevant to a legal issue, the judge must instruct the lawyers, and if there is a jury the jurors as well, that the Roman Catholic Church has determined that Fuller has not been a member of any Catholic religious order since 1983 at the latest; that she is not a nun or a sister and does not live in a convent, cloister, or other religious property owned or used by the Church; and that these rulings by the Church may not be questioned in the litigation.

What bearing the rulings have on particular charges and countercharges is for the district court to decide in the first instance. Obviously it is relevant to the plaintiff’s charge of fraud, though not necessarily determinative, as Fuller may try to prove that she believed, albeit erroneously, that she remained a sister after her expulsion by the Congregation of the Sisters of the Precious Blood. But she will not be permitted to argue or offer evidence that she is a sister. The Holy See’s ruling has removed that issue from the litigation.

So, to conclude, the district court’s denial of McCarthy’s motion that the court take judicial notice of the Holy See’s rulings on Fuller’s status in the Church … is reversed, with a reminder to the district court that federal courts are not empowered to decide (or to allow juries to decide) religious questions….

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