Vatican Publicly Rebukes Dissenting Nuns

Like recalcitrant teenagers, taunting their teachers with their latest refusal to submit to authority, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious—an organization that represents more than 80 percent of the more than 50,000 Catholic women religious in the United States—has finally been publicly rebuked by the Vatican.  After several decades of trying to persuade the intractable women religious to comply with the teachings of the Catholic Church, Cardinal Gerhard Muller, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a strong statement on April 30, 2014, demanding that the group return to the “ecclesial center of faith in Christ Jesus the Lord.”

For decades, the LCWR has refused all calls for renewal by the bishops. Promoting women’s ordination, reproductive rights, and an “end to patriarchy,” the LCWR has refused to comply with Pope John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata entitled Sentire Cum Ecclesia—“to think with the Church.”

More than six years ago, in response to the decades-long defiance by the LCWR, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith initiated a Doctrinal Assessment of the LCWR on April 8, 2008. The concern of the doctrinal Assessment was to assist the LCWR in implementing “an ecclesiology of communion founded on faith in Jesus Christ and the church as the essential foundation for its important service to religious Communities and to all those in consecrated life.”   Three major areas of concern were given by the CDF as motivating their decision to initiate the Assessment including: concerns about the speakers at the LCWR Assemblies; the policies of corporate dissent on issues like women’s ordination; and the prevalence of radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith in some of the programs and presentations sponsored by the LCWR.

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muller_(CNS)These three areas of concern remain intact today.  In fact, it appears that things may have actually gotten worse within the LCWR as Cardinal Muller concluded that a “de facto movement beyond the Church and sound Christian faith has already occurred” in the LCWR.  For evidence of such dissidence, Cardinal Muller wrote that he was “saddened” to learn that the sisters had decided to give the 2014 Outstanding Leadership Award to Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, a Fordham University theologian who has been criticized by the bishops of the United States because of the gravity of the doctrinal errors in her book, The Quest for the Living God.  Cardinal Muller advised the LCWR that their decision to honor Johnson was an “open provocation against the Holy See … further alienating the LCWR from the bishops as well.”

The choice of Sr. Johnson as honoree was clearly calculated to demonstrate the LCWR’s contempt for the teaching authority of the bishops.  More than three years ago, on March 24, 2011, the USCCB Committee on Doctrine published a “Statement on Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, by Sister Elizabeth Johnson,” which concluded that Johnson’s book does not adequately express the faith of the Church. And, although the USCCB Committee wrote that they made no attempt to judge the intention of the author, the book created a “particular pastoral concern” because it was written for a broad audience—and was being adopted as a textbook for the study of the doctrine of God—rather than a more narrow scholarly audience.  As the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, the bishops have a responsibility to ensure that the truth of the teachings of the Church are presented accurately.  Honoring Sister Elizabeth Johnson—a theologian who has devoted her career to denouncing as a “tool of patriarchal oppression” the traditional masculine language for God, including God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—was itself a statement of resistance.

In addition to the honors given to Sr. Johnson, Cardinal Muller was especially concerned with what he called a “focalizing of attention with the LCWR around the concept of Conscious Evolution.”  Cardinal Muller writes: “Since Barbara Marx Hubbard addressed the Assembly on this topic two years ago, every issue of your newsletter has discussed Conscious Evolution in some way.  Issues of Occasional Papers have been devoted to it, and we have even seen some religious Institutes modify their directional statements to incorporate concepts and undeveloped terms from Conscious Evolution.”  For Cardinal Muller, such a focus has “robbed the religious of the ability truly to sentire cum Ecclesia…. 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.”

Dismissing the “new fad” of Conscious Evolution as nothing more than a resurgence of the “bitter fruit” of the Gnostic tradition, Cardinal Muller concludes that such a focus “does not offer anything which will nourish religious life as a privileged and prophetic witness rooted in Christ revealing divine love to a wounded world. It does not present the treasure beyond price for which new generations of young women will leave all to follow Christ.”

Cardinal Muller knows that the “charismatic vitality of religious life can only flourish within the ecclesial faith of the Church.” Faithful Catholics have known this for decades and have been bewildered by the lack of attention given by the bishops to the dissidents within the women religious communities—especially on Catholic college campuses and beyond.

Perhaps it is finally time to stop cajoling and flattering the dissident women religious.  While well meaning, the constant accolades given to these women for their many sacrifices on behalf of the Church is misplaced.  In 2013, Archbishop Carlo Vigano, the Vatican apostolic nuncio to the United States showered praise on the annual gathering of the LCWR in Orlando Florida—claiming that the Holy Father “is most thankful to you for all the good you have done throughout the years…. By the sacrifice of your own lives you have been deeply touching other people’s lives, bringing hope and healing, helping to form minds and hearts in the image of Jesus.”

Likewise, the well-meaning Seattle archbishop J. Peter Sartain, who had been appointed the apostolic delegate, charged by the Vatican with helping to bring the LCWR back into communion with the Church, told the 2013 annual Assembly that he was there as “your brother and friend.”  Concluding that “we have developed a wonderful respect for each other and, yes, I would say a friendship with one another,” Archbishop Sartain had to be disappointed to find that the hand of friendship he extended to them was all for naught given that the Assembly chose to defy the bishops by honoring someone like Sr. Johnson the very next year.

Earlier this week, Archbishop Sartain stated that he is in “complete agreement” with Cardinal Muller’s statement.  And, although Archbishop Sartain continues to maintain that he has “developed a very good relationship” with the women religious during  his time as Archbishop Delegate, he has promised to work more closely to address concerns regarding significant areas of the Doctrinal Assessment that have not been addressed; he has “asked for clearer signs of collaboration with the Holy See and with me as Archbishop Delegate.”  Archbishop Sartain will attend the August, 2014  LCWR gathering in Nashville as the Assembly gives its award to Sister Elizabeth Johnson—providing a powerful witness to the Truth of Catholic teachings in the midst of the accolades given to the heretical writings of Sr. Johnson.  In doing so, Archbishop Sartain will truly be functioning as a brother and friend—dedicated to helping the members of the LCWR begin to recover their faith in Christ Jesus the Lord.

Editor’s note: The lead photo was taken August 10, 2012 at a press conference called by past and present leaders of the LCWR during their annual assembly held that year in St. Louis. (Photo credit: CNS photo / Sid Hastings) Inset photo: Cardinal Muller. (CNS photo)


  • Anne Hendershott

    Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Crisis Publications, 2020).

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