Editor’s note: In GlobalPost’s 2013 series “A New Inquisition,” religion writer Jason Berry went deep behind the daily headlines on the Vatican investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the 1500-member council representing the majority of America’s 57,000 nuns.
Berry found that key cardinals and bishops who called for the investigation were complicit in the reassignment of clergy child molesters. Berry also found that Vatican officials sought information on the property and assets of communities of sisters, requests the nuns resisted and refused. Meanwhile “radical feminism,” a central charge against nuns, was an imprecise and punitive standard.
After Benedict became the first pope in 600 years to retire, Pope Francis has set the church on a different course, reviving ideas of pluralism and “radical mercy” inspired by the reform-minded Second Vatican Council. Nevertheless, religious sisters who have carried a social justice message to the ragged edges of globalization are under pressure to bend to a Vatican agenda of obedience. Jason Berry’s two-part series explores the forces behind the issues.
While his remarks on justice for the world’s poor have captivated the media, Pope Francis has taken a detached stance on the escalating tensions between Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the liberal leadership group for most of America’s 57,000 nuns, and Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office that governs moral teaching and theological conformity.
The tension reflects a schizophrenic split in the church as the pope is encouraging religious orders in evangelization and mission work in areas afflicted by political violence, human trafficking and deep poverty.
The LCWR has a papally approved relationship with the Vatican that dates to the 1960s. That standing, which the nuns have valued for many years, is now in question.
American bishops, their standing stained by the clergy abuse crisis, want the nuns to show adherence to church teachings and abandon the sisters’ embrace of theological approaches to evolution as well as the environment.
Following Cardinal William Levada’s 2012 charges of “radical feminism” against the nuns, Levada’s successor Cardinal Müller hammered the LCWR’s selection of conference speakers in a May 5 post, several days after meeting with LCWR officials at the Vatican.
Müller was particularly concerned about an Outstanding Leadership Award the group will give Sister Elizabeth Johnson, a prominent theologian at Fordham, the Jesuit university in New York, in August.
Müller singled out Johnson, a Fordham distinguished professor with fourteen honorary degrees, as “a theologian criticized by the Bishops of the United States because of the gravity of the doctrinal errors in that theologian’s writings” and “open provocation against” Muller’s own office.
Müller further denounced LCWR’s promotion of “conscious evolution,” a concept influenced by the late Jesuit scholar Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
“We’ve got two messages from the Vatican,” Sister Christine Schenk, a founder of the reform group FutureChurch, told GlobalPost. “Müller’s approach is follow the rules — or else. Francis’s message is to be pastoral, the rules are not the first card you play.”
At a 2013 conference of Latin American religious superiors in Rome, Francis said church officialdom “will make mistakes...[but] this will pass! Perhaps even a letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine [of the Faith] will arrive for you, telling you that you said such or such a thing... But do not worry. Explain whatever you have to explain, but move forward.”
An LCWR spokeswoman in Silver Springs, Maryland told GlobalPost that the organization was giving no interviews.
“We do not recognize ourselves in the doctrinal assessment,” LCWR said in a responding statement to Müller’s, “and realize that... our attempts to clarify misperceptions have led to deeper misunderstandings."
Johnson’s scholarship on the role of women in the imagination of divinity has collided with the bishops’ idea of structure, defending a male hierarchy that has been battered in the media on the abuse crisis, while making abortion and birth control issues of Catholic loyalty.
The Catholic Theological Society of America and US Conference of Catholic Bishops have a history of conflict, the bishops opposed to any variance from the Magisterium, or Vatican teaching office at the CDF.
Theological inquiry has gone in many directions since Vatican II. Many Catholic universities have changed the names of departments from Theology to Religious Studies.
“Discipline is not the way to approach 21st century culture,” continued Sr. Schenk. “[Müller’s] message is law-and-order, coercive and dominating, whereas Francis is washing the feet of women on Holy Thursday. His approach is more of a servant leader.”
Nevertheless, Pope Francis in allowing Müller’s rebuke — particularly his insistence that LCWR submit to a vetting process of speakers by the Vatican delegate, Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain — has disappointed many nuns who find their leadership in a deepening gender battle.
“It really is embarrassing that they were criticizing LCWR for giving an award to one of the most renowned theologians in the world, Sister Elizabeth Johnson,” Syracuse University Professor Margaret Susan Thompson, a historian of Catholic female religious life, told GlobalPost.
“Many of us think that if Francis could just read her books now in Spanish that it would be a different situation. What grieves me is that there are many wonderful theologians, but among the most famous, Beth Johnson is more Christocentric than most. It’s very confusing why she’s being attacked.”
Müller’s criticism of LCWR, a six-member group with a rotating annual presidency, spurred Cardinal João Bráz de Aviz, prefect of the congregation that oversees religious orders, to defend the nuns’ leadership group at a May 20 Vatican conference on human trafficking.
Bráz de Aviz remarked on “sensitive times” but said that religious orders generally enjoyed “very close“ relations with the Holy See, according to Religion News Service.
Alluding to the LCWR standoff at a press conference on trafficking in advance of the June 12 World Cup in Brazil, the Brazilian cardinal said: “We have chosen the path of dialogue. We have to speak positively.”
But Müller holds the upper hand to Bráz de Aviz in power dynamics of the Vatican. Doctrine of the Faith is the congregation that in its role of defending church teaching investigates church scholars and subjects those considered errant to punitive sanctions, such as the loss of a teaching license in theology, or an imposed period of silence.
Müller was an archbishop already in his position at the 2013 papal conclave. His sympathy for Liberation Theology, the Latin American movement of the 1980s that John Paul and then-CDF prefect Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger undercut, may explain why Francis made him a cardinal.
Although Bráz de Aviz has defended the LCWR, his actual authority over the dispute is limited.
The German cardinal showed that in telling the LCWR leaders that under the Vatican-imposed mandate, Archbishop Sartain should approve their speakers, but “was informed of the selection of the honoree [Johnson] only after the decision had been made.”
Sartain has made several remarks, generally favorable about LCWR officials, but avoided specifics, rebuffing media requests for comment.
”This work is fraught with tension and misunderstanding,” LCWR said in its statement, responding to Müller. “Yet, this is the work of leaders in all walks of life in these times of massive change in the world.”
Sartain has been stung by media coverage in Seattle of a priest, Harry Quigg, who was removed from ministry years ago for a sexual relationship with a teenage boy, yet recently surfaced saying Mass. Although the disciplinary proceeding happened before Sartain became archbishop, his oversight is at issue.
Documents from a clergy review board, “dating to 2004 and which the archdiocese has refused to make public, “would reveal that a 17-year-old boy involved with ... Quigg was passed among the priest and friends, according to multiple sources," wrote Joel Connelly in a blog post May 12 for the online Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
GlobalPost religion writer Jason Berry is author of Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.
In Part Two, the Vatican at war with nuns over evolutionary thinking.