Editor's Note: This report was updated to include comments from Archbishop J. Peter Sartain and a statement from the LCWR.
Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), has told the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) that the organization must show “more substantive signs of collaboration” for implementing the mandate of reform ordered by the CDF in 2012.
That mandate followed a doctrinal assessment of the LCWR, a canonically erected leadership group of 1,100 sisters, that began in 2008.
During their annual visit to the Vatican, LCWR leaders met with Cardinal Müller on April 30. In his very measured opening remarks at that meeting, which are posted on the CDF website, the cardinal acknowledged that some progress had been made in revisions of the LCWR statutes and bylaws, but he expressed deep concern about other issues that persist.
Cardinal Müller noted that a new LCWR book published earlier this year repeated the LCWR charge that the doctrinal assessment was “flawed and the findings based on unsubstantiated accusations” and that the so-called “sanctions” were “disproportionate to the concerns raised and compromised the organization’s ability to fulfill its mission.”
Using specific examples of recent decisions and actions of the LCWR, he then explained “why it is that we believe the conclusions of the 'Doctrinal Assessment' are accurate and the path of reform it lays before the LCWR remains necessary so that religious life might continue to flourish in the United States.”
Outstanding Leadership Award
The CDF prefect said that the LCWR considered one of “the more contentious aspects” of the mandate to be the need for speakers and presenters at major programs to be cleared by the apostolic delegate overseeing the reform, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle. This aspect, he said, was not a “sanction,” but, rather, “a point of dialogue and discernment” designed to avoid speakers using an LCWR forum “to advance positions at odds with the teaching of the Church.” It also was meant to help the LCWR leaders anticipate issues of concern to the Holy See.
“It saddens me to learn that you have decided to give the Outstanding Leadership Award during this year’s assembly to a theologian criticized by the bishops of the United States because of the gravity of the doctrinal errors in that theologian’s writings,” Cardinal Müller said, referring to the LCWR 2014 award going to Sister of St. Joseph Elizabeth Johnson.
“This is a decision that will be seen as a rather open provocation against the Holy See and the 'Doctrinal Assessment,'” the cardinal continued. “Not only that, but it further alienates the LCWR from the [United States] bishops as well.”
Had Archbishop Sartain been involved in the conversation about choosing an honoree, “he would have added an important element to the discernment,” the cardinal said.
“The decision taken by the LCWR during the ongoing implementation of the 'Doctrinal Assessment' is indeed regrettable and demonstrates clearly the necessity of the mandate’s provision that speakers and presenters at major programs will be subject to approval by the delegate,” Cardinal Gerhard Müller said.
He added that since plans are already made for this year’s August LCWR annual assembly, he would not interrupt them, but, “following the August assembly, it will be the expectation of the Holy See that Archbishop Sartain have an active role in the discussion about invited speakers and honorees.”
The second concern the cardinal raised was the subject matter of recent LCWR assemblies, publications and programs. He said that the CDF mandate was criticized as “unsubstantiated” when it spoke of religious “moving beyond the Church or even beyond Jesus.” That is hard language that probably sounded “harsh” to many faithful religious, he said, and he emphasized that the CDF does not call into question “the eloquent, even prophetic, witness of so many faithful religious women.”
However, he continued, “the issues raised in the assessment are so central and so foundational; there is no other way of discussing them except as constituting a movement away from the ecclesial center of faith in Christ Jesus the Lord.”
Cardinal Müller explained that, for the last several years, the CDF has been concerned about the LCWR focusing attention on the concept of conscious evolution. He said that since Barbara Marx Hubbard addressed the 2012 LCWR assembly on the topic, every issue of the LCWR newsletter has discussed conscious evolution in some way. “We have even seen some religious institutes modify their directional statements to incorporate concepts and undeveloped terms from conscious evolution,” he added.
Apologizing for sounding blunt, the cardinal continued: “The fundamental theses of conscious evolution are opposed to Christian Revelation and, when taken unreflectively, lead almost necessarily to fundamental errors regarding the omnipotence of God, the incarnation of Christ, the reality of Original Sin, the necessity of salvation and the definitive nature of the salvific action of Christ in the Paschal Mystery.”
Cardinal Müller said he is concerned that “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 and embrace its teachings).” He also expressed concern that the religious hearing and studying this topic may not discern these divergences from the faith and the LCWR does not present counterpoints that explain Church teaching.
“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,” the cardinal continued. “I am worried that the uncritical acceptance of things such as conscious evolution, seemingly without any awareness that it offers a vision of God, the cosmos and the human person divergent from or opposed to Revelation, evidences that a de facto movement beyond the Church and sound Christian faith has already occurred.”
Cardinal's Remarks ‘Born of Great Love’
Cardinal Müller urged the LCWR to reread and discuss the remarks of Pope Francis to the plenary assembly of the International Union of Superiors General in May last year to see the vision of religious life the Holy Father proposed.
He emphasized that his remarks were “born of great love” for women religious, who taught him and encouraged his own vocation. He also spoke of the generations of young women who left everything to follow Christ and minister to a wounded world. Cardinal Müller concluded:
“The Holy See and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith deeply desire religious life to thrive and that the LCWR will be an effective instrument supporting its growth. In the end, the point is this: The Holy See believes that the charismatic vitality of religious life can only flourish within the ecclesial faith of the Church. The LCWR, as a canonical entity dependent on the Holy See, has a profound obligation to the promotion of that faith as the essential foundation of religious life. Canonical status and ecclesial vision go hand-in-hand, and at this phase of the implementation of the 'Doctrinal Assessment,' we are looking for a clearer expression of that ecclesial vision and more substantive signs of collaboration.”
The Register asked Archbishop Sartain for his reaction to the April 30 meeting between the LCWR leaders and the CDF, which he attended. He said that it was clear to him that Cardinal Müller respects women religious and the vocation to consecrated life, and the CDF prefect brought that perspective of respect to the discussion.
Cardinal Müller’s opening remarks “invited a frank and open discussion,” Archbishop Sartain said, and “that is what took place in a very respectful conversation.”
Archbishop Sartain said he was in full agreement with the concerns raised by Cardinal Müller, and he had “frequently discussed” those same issues over the past two years with the LCWR. He said he has a good relationship with the LCWR and looks forward to continuing to address the “important matters” raised by the CDF prefect in the same “respectful and forthright manner.”
The archbishop said he will be present at the LCWR annual assembly in Nashville, Tenn., this August.
The LCWR issued a two-paragraph statement about the meeting, saying that Cardinal Müller’s opening remarks “accurately reflect the content of the [CDF] mandate.” The cardinal’s remarks were “meant to set a context for the discussion that followed,” the LCWR statement said, and “the actual interaction with Cardinal Muller and his staff was an experience of dialogue that was respectful and engaging.”
Veteran journalist Ann Carey is the author of Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women’s Religious Communities