The Leadership Conference of Women Religious must show “more substantive signs of collaboration” to conform to a Vatican reform mandate, Cardinal Gerhard Müller told the LCWR leadership team during an April 30 meeting in Rome.
In rather blunt remarks, Cardinal Müller, the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, chided the LCWR for honoring an American theologian whose writings have been criticized by the U.S. bishops for advancing an alleged neo-gnostic ideology and for continuing to maintain that the CDF’s April 2012 doctrinal assessment is flawed.
“The assessment is concerned with positive errors of doctrine seen in the light of the LCWR’s responsibility to support a vision of religious life in harmony with that of the Church and to promote a solid doctrinal basis for religious life,” Cardinal Müller said.
The early response from the LCWR — which is comprised of the superiors and leaders of more than 57,000 religious sisters and nuns in the United States — was that it was “saddened” that certain impressions of the organization have become “institutionalized in the Vatican, and these institutionalized perceptions have led to judgments and ultimately to the doctrinal assessment.”
While saying that the follow-up conversation with the CDF staff was “constructive in its frankness and lack of ambiguity,” the LCWR said in a May 8 statement that, despite “maximum efforts through the years,” communication has broken down and mistrust has developed.
The LCWR said: “We do not recognize ourselves in the doctrinal assessment of the conference and realize that, despite that fact, our attempts to clarify misperceptions have led to deeper misunderstandings.”
Despite promises of ongoing respectful and open dialogue, it still appears, little common ground has been reached in the two years since a Vatican assessment of the LCWR found “serious doctrinal problems,” including addresses at LCWR conferences that dissented from Church teachings.
The LCWR, from Cardinal Müller’s perspective, sent a shot across the bow of the CDF and Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle, the apostolic delegate tasked with implementing the reform, in its decision to give Sister Elizabeth Johnson, a Fordham University theology professor, its Outstanding Leadership Award at the LCWR August meeting in Nashville, Tennessee.
In 2011, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Doctrinal Committee critiqued Sister Johnson’s book, “Quest for the Living God,” and said it contained “misrepresentations, ambiguities and errors” pertaining to the Catholic Faith. The LCWR still decided to honor Johnson, and it did so without notifying Archbishop Sartain.
“This is a decision that will be seen as a rather open provocation against the Holy See and the Doctrinal Assessment,” Cardinal Müller said.
“Not only that, but it further alienates the LCWR from the bishops as well.”
Archbishop Sartain, who was present during the April 30 meeting in Rome, released a statement that, while not directly addressing Johnson’s award, said he was “in full agreement with the issues raised by the cardinal and over the past two years (has) frequently discussed them with LCWR leadership.”
Father Roger Landry, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who has written widely on Church issues, said Cardinal Müller’s remarks indicate his frustration.
“What the CDF is trying to do is to save the LCWR from self-destruction. That is what this whole doctrinal assessment is about,” Father Landry told Our Sunday Visitor.
Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., said he was “certainly in agreement” with Cardinal Müller’s comments. “I think it was good that (Cardinal Müller) got to put those things out on the table,” said Bishop Paprocki, who is tasked with assisting in the LCWR reform, particularly on drafting the LCWR’s revised canonical statutes and civil bylaws.
From their point of view, the LCWR, in its advocacy for social justice causes and its engagement with the world, is exercising an expression of spiritual renewal. In its May 8 statement, the LCWR said its “passion for all that the Church can be deepens our commitment to stay at the table and talk through differences.” The LCWR added: “We want to be part of the universal Church rooted in the Gospel, a Church that hears the cry of the poor and is united in its response.” However, the LCWR’s recent embrace of “conscious evolution” could undermine its Christian witness and may in fact, Cardinal Müller added, lead to fundamental errors regarding Church doctrine.
“My concern is whether such an intense focus on new ideas such as conscious evolution has robbed religious of the ability truly to sentire cum Ecclesia (think with the Church),” Cardinal Müller said.
At its 2012 assembly, the LCWR invited Barbara Marx Hubbard to be its main speaker. Hubbard, a futurist and writer lauded by New Age practitioners, spoke on conscious evolution, which Hubbard describes on her website as “part of the trajectory of human evolution, the canvas of choice before us now as we recognize that we have come to possess the powers that we used to attribute to the gods.”
Cardinal Müller compared conscious evolution to gnosticism and added that its “fundamental theses are opposed to Christian revelation.”
“Most Catholics would be shocked to learn the topics that are being spoken about at many LCWR conferences,” Father Landry said. “These aren’t the type of things that are going to strengthen the faith of women religious, but it will actually take them in a different direction beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus.”
Bishop Paprocki told OSV that progress is being made on revising the statutes, which he said will emphasize the fact that the LCWR “is not a trade organization.”
“It’s not a private group,” Bishop Paprocki said. “It’s an entity of the Holy See, accountable to the Holy See.
“Everybody at this point wants to continue the dialogue,” Bishop Paprocki added. “Even though the issue is not easy, nobody has walked away from the table.”
Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German theologian who has been critical of the CDF, told a Fordham University audience May 5 that he hoped the differences can be overcome.
“If you have a problem with the leadership of women’s orders, then you have a discussion with them, you have to dialogue with them, an exchange of ideas,” Cardinal Kasper said, according to Religion News Service. “Perhaps they have to change something. Perhaps also (CDF) has a little bit to change its mind. That’s the normal way of doing things in the Church. ... The Church is not a monolithic unity.”
Cardinal Müller said that the Holy See and CDF want religious life to thrive and the LCWR to be an instrument supporting its growth, but he added that the LCWR, as a canonical entity dependent on the Holy See, has a “profound obligation” to promote a vision of religious life rooted in the Faith of the Church. Father Landry said it was “theoretically possible” that the Holy See could strip the LCWR of its ecclesial status if it failed to cooperate with the mandate.
“Obviously, the Vatican is trying to work with them to reform from the inside so that would never happen,” Father Landry said.
The LCWR says its dialogue with the CDF is a “very complex matter ... fraught with tension and misunderstanding,” yet is “one of the most critical endeavors we, as leaders, can pursue for the sake of the world, the Church and religious life.”
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.