Dominican Sisters of the Holy Spirit Photo: Bitter Winter

Vatican v. France on religious freedom could go to Strasbourg court

The Holy See reminded France that when civil courts second-guess the decision of expelling a nun from her religious order, freedom of religion is “gravely violated.”

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Massimo Introvigne

(ZENIT News – Bitter Winter / Rome, 04.22.2024).- If some believe that the attack against religious liberty in France only targets “cults” and Islam, they are wrong. On April 13, a religious organization in an official statement lamented that it is a victim in France of “a serious violation of the fundamental rights to religious freedom and freedom of association.” The name of this religious organization is the Roman Catholic Church, and the statement came from the Holy See Press Office.

In short, a religious order called the Dominican Sisters of the Holy Spirit asked the Vatican to investigate the behavior of one of its nuns, Sabine de la Valette, who had taken the religious name of Sister Marie Ferréol. As usual in these cases, the Vatican ordered an apostolic visitation of the convent, under the authority of Cardinal Marc Ouellet. Following the visitation’s report, the Vatican decided in 2020 that Sister Marie should be dismissed from the Dominican Sisters of the Holy Spirit.

Unhappy with the decision, Sister Marie sued and asked the Tribunal of Lorient to declare that she had been wrongfully dismissed from her order. On April 3, the Tribunal found in favor of the ex-nun and ordered the religious order, Cardinal Ouellet, and the two Vatican envoys who conducted the apostolic visitation to pay more than Euro 200,000 to her as damages. According to media reports, the Tribunal found the visitation biased as Cardinal Ouellet was “friendly” with another nun known as an opponent of Sister Marie.

On April 13, the Vatican stated that it had learned of the case only from the media, Cardinal Ouellet “never received any summons from the Lorient Tribunal,” and neither the Cardinal nor the Holy See have been served with a copy of the verdict.

Assuming that what the media reported about the decision is true, the Vatican stated that what it still calls an “alleged” ruling (since it has not seen an official copy of it) “could raise not only significant issues concerning immunity, but if it ruled on internal discipline and membership in a religious institute, it might have constituted a serious violation of the fundamental rights to religious freedom and freedom of association of Catholic faithful.”

The Vatican is, of course, right. The decision has been appealed and may well go to Strasbourg to be examined by the European Court of Human Rights. The latter, as did courts in the United States and Canada, has constantly ruled that the decisions of expelling members from a religious body are based on theological and not only on legal reasons, on which secular courts cannot interfere without seriously violating religious liberty—just as the Vatican said. But it seeems that violating religious liberty is now a daily occurrence in France.

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