In an address to the presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Cardinal Gerhard Müller reaffirmed the necessity of reform of the conference, saying it has effectively moved beyond the Christian faith.

“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,” the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said in his April 30 address, delivered in Rome.

He went on to say that the group's acceptance of ideas opposed to revelation is evidence that a movement beyond the faith "has already occurred."

Cardinal Müller began by saying he is grateful for the LCWR’s corrections to their statutes and civil bylaws, but remains concerned about their continued promotion of doctrinal errors in their writings and choice of annual assembly speakers.

In 2012, after four years of observation, the Vatican found a state of doctrinal crisis within the LCWR, a group of U.S. women religious superiors, and detailed their conclusions in a Doctrinal Assessment of the group. The Vatican listed several issues that needed correction, and at the same time assigned Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle to oversee the conference’s reform.

Among the key findings in the assessment were serious theological and doctrinal errors in presentations at the conference's annual assemblies in recent years.
Several of the addresses, the assessment said, depicted a vision of religious life that is incompatible with the faith of the Church. Some attempted to justify dissent from Church doctrine and showed “scant regard for the role of the Magisterium.”

Cardinal Müller noted that LCWR officers have taken issue with the assessment, saying it was “flawed and the findings based on unsubstantiated accusations” and that the Vatican’s reforms were “disproportionate” to their findings, a belief that has been reaffirmed in the group’s recently published collection of LCWR Presidential Addresses.

One of the most contested points of reform was the Vatican’s mandate that presenters at major LCWR gatherings first be approved by the delegate, Archbishop Sartain.

“It allows the Holy See’s Delegate to be involved in the discussion first of all in order to avoid difficult and embarrassing situations wherein speakers use an LCWR forum to advance positions at odds with the teaching of the Church,” Cardinal Müller explained.

This part of the reform had “not yet been put into force” when the LCWR announced it would award Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ – a theologian whom the U.S. bishops have criticized several times because of her serious doctrinal errors – with their “Outstanding Leadership Award” at this year’s General Assembly.

“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.”

Cardinal Müller announced that this provision is now “fully in force,” and that the decision to honor Sr. Johnson “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.”

The cardinal went on to address the LCWR’s claim that the Vatican’s conclusions in its Doctrinal Assessment are not backed up by any real evidence.

“The phrase in the Doctrinal Assessment most often cited as overreaching or unsubstantiated is when it talks about religious moving beyond the Church or even beyond Jesus. Yes, this is hard language and I can imagine it sounded harsh in the ears of thousands of faithful religious.”

“And yet, 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.”

In 2012, the same year the assessment was released, the conference hosted philosopher Barbara Marx Hubbard, an author and promoter of “Conscious Evolution” as the keynote speaker for their annual General Assembly. The prefect noted that since then, the concept has been featured heavily in LCWR materials.

Cardinal Müller expressed his concern over the LCWR’s promotion of such a philosophy, saying that “the fundamental theses of Conscious Evolution are opposed to Christian Revelation.”

“When taken unreflectively,” he said, they “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.”

“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. To phrase it as a question, do the many religious listening to addresses on this topic or reading expositions of it even hear the divergences from the Christian faith present?”

The doctrine prefect said he is worried that “uncritical acceptance” of such ideas 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,” is evidence that “a de facto movement beyond the Church and sound Christian faith has already occurred.”

He reminded leaders that Conscious Evolution, although presented as a futuristic way of thinking, is not “actually new,” as its roots can be found in the gnostic heresy.

“Conscious Evolution 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,” he said. “It does not present the treasure beyond price for which new generations of young women will leave all to follow Christ.”

The Gospel does! Selfless service to the poor and marginalized in the name of Jesus Christ does!”

He reminded the religious sisters that Pope Francis spoke last year to superiors general of religious orders in which he proposed what the cardinal called “a positive articulation of issues which come across as concerns in the Doctrinal Assessment.”

“I urge you to reread the Holy Father’s remarks and to make them a point of discussion with members of your Board as well,” Cardinal Müller told the LCWR’s presidency.

He concluded by reminding the LCWR’s representatives that “I owe an incalculable debt to the women religious who have long been a part of my life. They were the ones who instilled in me a love for the Lord and for the Church and encouraged me to follow the vocation to which the Lord was calling me. The things I have said today are therefore born of great love.”

He emphasized that the Holy See and his congregation “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.”
When Pope Francis was elected in March 2013, American nuns who belong to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) were optimistic that they would enjoy a fresh start. The group, which represents 80 percent of American nuns, had been lambasted under Pope Benedict XVI for “pushing radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

But the sisters, it seems, were dead wrong to think they might get a fair shake under Francis. In what is being viewed as an even stronger clampdown, the Vatican has essentially warned the nuns that they must reform their organization and mend their errant ways or risk further scrutiny by the Holy See. In scathing remarks at an April 30 meeting, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, criticized the nuns’ choice of speakers to address their conferences, their leadership awardees, and the lack of spiritual guidance in their work.

And lest anyone assume the strong language was a leftover from Benedict’s days, Müller made sure the nuns knew Francis heartily endorsed the criticism. “What the Holy Father proposes is a vision of religious life and particularly of the role of conferences of major superiors which in many ways is a positive articulation of issues which come across as concerns in the doctrinal assessment,” he said. “I urge you to reread the Holy Father’s remarks and to make them a point of discussion with members of your board as well.”

What Müller was specifically referring to, among other things, was the LCWR’s choice to honor Sister Elizabeth Johnson with its most prestigious leadership award. A prominent theologian from Fordham University, Johnson has been a thorn in the side of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has criticized her work, including her popular book Quest for the Living God: Mapping the Frontiers in the Theology of God. “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,” Müller told the LCWR. “This is a decision that will be seen as a rather open provocation against the Holy See and the doctrinal assessment. Not only that, but it further alienates the LCWR from the bishops, as well.”

Muller then went on to inform the LCWR that it will be required to get approval from Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, whom Benedict assigned to guide the group through reforms, for almost everything it does that concerns the public. Sartain, he said, would be far more involved in the group’s decisions and daily business from now on. Müller warned the sisters to pay special attention to the LCWR’s annual assembly in August, when new speakers and awardees will be named. “I also understand that plans for this year’s assembly are already at a very advanced stage, and I do not see the need to interrupt them,” he said. “However, 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 LCWR is choosing not to give interviews on the meeting, but it did confirm to the National Catholic Reporter that Müller’s meeting notes were accurate in terms of tone and tenor. In a statement posted on their website, the sisters said, “As articulated in the Cardinal’s statement, these remarks were meant to set a context for the discussion that followed. The actual interaction with Cardinal Müller and his staff was an experience of dialogue that was respectful and engaging.”

In an interview with The Daily Beast before Francis’s election, then LCWR president Sister Florence Deacon said she had high hopes for the new pope. “It is important that we have a leader who appreciates the roles of the laity and of women religious who have accepted its call to renewal and who are committed to building a more just and peaceful world,” she said.

The clampdown on the nuns began in 2012, when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued its original doctrinal assessment after investigating the organization. Then it chastised the sisters for staying silent on some of the church’s signature issues, including birth control, euthanasia, homosexuality, and the ordination of women. Instead, in their work in schools, hospitals, and centers for the poor, they were just doing what they could to help the population, rather than acting as missionaries for the church. Their silence on the issues was interpreted as an endorsement, which was particularly annoying to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which felt the sisters were undermining the status quo.

According to the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR, the sisters were “moving beyond the Church” and as such, creating “a serious source of scandal” that is incompatible with religious life.

The nuns’ next trial of faith will be their August assembly, which will be seen as a litmus test for just how seriously they are taking the Vatican’s criticism. Their options will be to get in line with with the bishops and cardinals or break away and form their own group outside the Holy See’s jurisdiction.

Francis, for his part, does not appear flexible on the topic. In several interviews, including one last September with the Jesuit magazine America, he dismissed the idea of women as equals. “I am wary of a solution that can be reduced to a kind of ‘female machismo,’ because a woman has a different make-up than a man. But what I hear about the role of women is often inspired by an ideology of machismo,” he said then. Now it is up to the nuns to flex their muscles or succumb.
Commenting on the blunt scolding they recently received from the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, representatives of the Leadership Conference of Women religious have acknowledged that “mistrust has developed” in their dealings with the Vatican.

And how could that be? The LCWR leaders profess never to have understood the Vatican’s concern about the group’s adherence to Catholic orthodoxy, despite the “doctrinal assessment” that pointed to a parade of dissident speakers at LCWR meeting, and to public agonizing over “whether the Eucharist should be at the center of a special community celebration since the celebration of Mass requires an ordained priest, something which some sisters find ‘objectionable.’” The LCWR has been ordered not to continue promoting dissident theologians, yet its leaders are surprised with the Vatican’s dismay that a theologian whose work has been panned by the US bishops’ conference will be given the group’s top award at this year’s meeting.

The LCWR laments that “our attempts to clarify misperceptions have led to deeper misunderstandings.” Not so, I’m afraid; the “mis” should be stricken from those two nouns. The perceptions have been accurate, and the Vatican has come to understand the LCWR all too well.
An American woman religious with a history of radical dissent from Catholic teaching has signed an open letter urging President Barack Obama to restore funding for programs that promote abortion in other countries.

Sister Jeannine Gramick, who heads the National Coalition of American Nuns, was the sole Catholic in a group of religious leaders who signed the letter. The text said:

Although we come from different religious traditions, we are united in our belief that women and girls who face sexual violence and rape deserve meaningful access to the full range of reproductive healthcare options including safe abortion.
In 1999 the Vatican issued a caution that New Ways Ministry—a group with which Sister Gramick was involved— had promoted “ambiguities and errors” regarding the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. The Vatican asked the group’s leaders, Sister Gramick and Father Robert Nugent, not to speak or write on the topic. Although Father Nugent obeyed that directive, Sister Gramick defied it.

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