Vatican Derangement Syndrome

Ever since Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), told officers of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) on April 30 that the organization must comply with the CDF 2012 mandate of reform, the LCWR and its supporters have been in a state of hysteria.

We’ve seen sensational blog and article headlines such as: “No More Mr. Nice Pope: Vatican Tightens Its Grip on Radical Nuns,” “Why You Should Care That the Vatican Is Going After American Nuns, Even If You’re Not Religious” and “Nuns to Vatican: Quit Picking on Our Sisters.”

Now, with incredible hubris, a coalition of dissident groups is calling on Pope Francis to remove the CDF mandate and apologize to the LCWR and to Sister of St. Joseph Elizabeth Johnson, a feminist theologian chosen for LCWR’s highest honor this year in spite of the fact that the U.S. bishops had cited one of her books for doctrinal errors.

The so-called Nun Justice Project released a May 15 letter asking the Pope to intervene personally and remove the CDF mandate of reform. Signing onto the Nun Justice Project letter are groups that include the Women’s Ordination Conference, Voice of the Faithful, Call to Action and the Association of Roman Catholic Womenpriests.

With friends like these, the LCWR may find it difficult to convince people that the Vatican misunderstands the organization, as LCWR contended in a May 8 public statement after the April 30 annual visit of LCWR leaders to the Vatican.

The CDF prefect did not issue any new mandates for the LCWR when he met with the officers, but he did say that the organization must show “more substantive signs of collaboration” for implementing the mandate of reform ordered by the CDF in 2012 because of doctrinal problems within the organization. And he expressed his concern that the LCWR is strongly promoting “conscious evolution,” a theory influenced by eco-spirituality, mysticism and Eastern religions that holds humans can evolve by choice to a super-human level.

Cardinal Müller pointed out that, “The fundamental theses of Conscious Evolution are opposed to Christian Revelation,” and because they had strayed so far from the heart of Church teaching, he questioned whether the LCWR sisters even could recognize the divergences from Christian faith in that theory.

An internal memo was sent to LCWR members by the group’s officers after their April 30 meeting with the CDF and prior to their May 8 public statement. Obtained by reporter Jason Calvi of EWTN News Nightly, the memo stated that LCWR officers told the CDF they were “exploring these areas of contemporary culture, not proposing them” or “using them to replace our firm commitment to the Christological foundation of consecrated life.”

However, that position may be hard to defend, for as Cardinal Müller observed in his statement, ever since futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard spoke on conscious evolution at the 2012 LCWR assembly — which had the theme “Mystery Unfolding: Living in the Evolutionary Now” — the LCWR newsletters and its journal Occasional Papers have treated conscious evolution extensively. He also noted that, “We have even seen some religious Institutes modify their directional statements to incorporate concepts and undeveloped terms from Conscious Evolution.”

Cardinal Müller also said that the choice of Sister Elizabeth Johnson for the LCWR leadership award “further alienates the LCWR from the Bishops as well.”

What he did not say is that the LCWR’s annual award has a history of provocation and alienation: In 2012, the award was given to Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Sandra Schneiders, who had led resistance to the Holy See’s 2009-2011 apostolic visitation of women religious. In 2011, the award went to Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity and president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association. Sister Carol helped secure passage of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), in spite of warnings by the U.S. bishops that the law allowed for funding abortion and did not protect conscience rights.

The LCWR’s internal memo defended the choice of Sister Elizabeth and reported that LCWR officers told the CDF that it was “distressing” that “one aspect in one book” cast a shadow on all of her work. The memo did not mention the U.S. bishops’ 2011 21-page critique of Sister Elizabeth’s Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (Continuum, 2007) and found the book contained “misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors that bear upon the faith of the Catholic Church.”

The bishops particularly noted that her view of “panentheism” (the infusion of God into all matter) “undermines God’s transcendence, in that God’s manner of existence, as Creator, would no longer differ in kind, but only in degree, from that of all else that exists.”

The Church generally allows reasonable speculation by theologians among themselves, but the bishops wrote that they issued the extensive critique of Quest for the Living God because the book was written not for specialists in theology but for “a broad audience.”

Nor was this the only work of Sister Elizabeth that has caused concern, for some of her other works have raised questions, such as She Who Is: the Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (Crossroad Publishing Co., 1992). That book is a feminist rethinking of the names and images for God with the expressed goal of transforming institutional patriarchal structures and liberating women from an inferior, oppressed status.

The May 8 LCWR public statement concluded that communication between LCWR leaders and the CDF has “broken down,” and more dialogue is needed. The truth is that the past two years of talks between the LCWR and the CDF apostolic delegate charged with overseeing the reform, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle, had made little-to-no progress, so there was not much to break down. The only progress reported by Cardinal Müller was on revision of the LCWR statutes and civil bylaws.

For years, the LCWR’s answer to concerns of the Holy See has been to “dialogue” further. The former prefect of the CDF who originally issued the mandate in 2012, Cardinal William Levada, alluded to that pattern when he characterized the 2008-2012 CDF talks with the LCWR that preceded and prompted issuance of the mandate as “a dialogue of the deaf.” Had that dialogue succeeded, there would have been no mandate.

Cardinal Müller’s remarks to the LCWR leaders on April 30 seems to indicate that the Holy See’s patience with dialogue is close to expiring, and now the CDF wants to see some action, even if it is upsetting groups like the so-called Roman Catholic Womenpriests.