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Who’s a Nun? Only Holy See Can Say

CHICAGO (CN) - A jury cannot decide whether a woman is a religious sister in the Roman Catholic Church, as only the Holy See has the authority to make that determination, the 7th Circuit ruled.

In 1956, Sister Mary Ephrem, a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Precious Blood, claimed to have experienced an apparition of the Virgin Mary in which Mary told her, "I am Our Lady of America."

Inspired by her visions, she formed a contemplative cloister devoted to Our Lady of America and lived there with other sisters until her death in 2000. The sisters took simple vows, but not the solemn vows that distinguish nuns from sisters.

Ephrem, who was born Mildred Neuzil, willed all her property to Sister Mary Joseph Therese, who also took over their Fostoria, Ohio-based congregation.

Kevin McCarthy and Albert Langsenkamp approached Sister Therese in 2005 to help support her devotions, but the trio had a falling out two years later and wound up in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, with each side accusing the other of theft, fraud and defamation. The court record identifies the religious sister by her birth name, Patricia Fuller.

Fuller claimed specifically that McCarthy had called her a "fake nun." McCarthy did not deny this claim, but presented a statement from the Holy See, the governing body of the Roman Catholic Church, declaring that Fuller is no longer a nun or a religious sister.

Though McCarthy claimed that the court, being a secular body, does not have the authority to review the Holy See's decision, U.S. District Judge William Lawrence rejected this line of reasoning, and ruled that the question should go to a jury.

A three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit reversed Wednesday, finding that "the commingling of religious and secular justice would violate not only the injunction in Matthew 22:21 to 'render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's,' but also the First Amendment, which forbids the government to make religious judgments. The harm of such a governmental intrusion into religious affairs would be irreparable."

Judge Richard Posner, writing for the three-judge panel, continued: "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. Religious questions are to be answered by religious bodies."

The ruling notes that the Holy See stated in a 51-page amicus brief 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," the judgment said. (Parentheses in original.)

Posner said this brief is the authoritative statement of the Catholic Church on Fuller's status.

"The district judge has no authority to question that ruling. A jury has no authority to question it," he wrote. "We have no authority to question it."

As the case proceeds, the District Court must instruct the lawyers and potential jury members that the church's ruling "may not be questioned in the litigation," according to the 18-page opinion.

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