Vatican at war with nuns over evolutionary thinking

Nuns kneel in prayer at the end of Easter Mass service at Cathedral of the Holy Cross, on April 20, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.</p>

Nuns kneel in prayer at the end of Easter Mass service at Cathedral of the Holy Cross, on April 20, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.

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.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a French Jesuit and paleontologist who died a church outcast in New York City in 1955 at age 74. Vatican officials had suppressed his writings on sequential evolution in the universe.

Teilhard was not officially a heretic, but rather a victim of church officials who were ignorant and fearful of science.

A decade later after his death, Teilhard’s books were being taught in Jesuit schools. Today he has a global reputation on evolution and spirituality.

Long before the internet, Teilhard wrote of an emergent planetary consciousness as a scientific development. He also wrote of this “noosphere” in mystical terms, as mankind’s quest for closeness with the divine. And he sounded prescient notes of warning.

“There is a danger that the elements of the world should refuse to serve the world,” he wrote in The Phenomenon of Man, published in 1957. “What is forming and growing is nothing less than an organic crisis in evolution.”

Pope Francis sounded a lot like his fellow Jesuit at a May 21 general audience. “Creation is a gift,” he told 50,000 people at St. Peter’s Square, “that God has given us, so that we care for it and we use it for the benefit of all.”

“We are custodians of creation, not masters of creation,” the pope continued. His sermon would well fit an anthology on conscious evolution, a school of thought that bridges science and faith in arguing that humanity has an urgent moral duty for care of the planet.

“I am the master of creation but to carry it forward I will never destroy your gift,” the pope asserted. “And this should be our attitude towards creation. Safeguard creation. Because if we destroy creation, creation will destroy us! Never forget this!”

Francis’s remarks came two weeks after Cardinal Gerhard Müller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a rebuke of Leadership Conference of Women Religious, representing most of America’s 57,000 nuns, for their promotion of conscious evolution.

The LCWR is operating under a Vatican mandate to submit its speakers and writings for vetting, and to show greater obedience to the bishops.

“I apologize if this seems blunt, but what I must say is too important to dress up in flowery language,” Müller declared. “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” and other matters of church dogma.

Müller stopped short of using the ‘h-word,’ but heresy was on his mind:

“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.”

How did a movement of theology and nature go so terribly wrong?

“Either Muller doesn’t understand what conscious evolution means,” Margaret Susan Thompson, a Syracuse University scholar on religious life told GlobalPost, “or he’s using it like in Cold War, when they accused Sen. Claude Pepper of having a sister who was a thespian, because it sounded like lesbian.”

Responding to Müller in a post on National Catholic Reporter website, Barbara Marx Hubbard, a non-Catholic who spoke at an LCWR conference, and is president of the Foundation for Conscious Evolution, cited Teilhard and the late Passionist Father Thomas Berry [no relation to this writer], a prolific writer on ecology and spirituality, as major influences on the burgeoning movement.

“For me, the most vital source of meaning of conscious evolution is the Catholic understanding of God and Christ as the source of evolution, as its driving force as well as its direction,” said Hubbard.

“Through science, research, technology communications and virtually every other area of human activity, we are weaving a delicate membrane of consciousness, what Teilhard called the ‘noosphere’ or the thinking layer of Earth that is embracing and drawing into itself the entire planet.”

Teilhard, who died before climate change became an issue, saw the noosphere in a mystical light, a reach closer to God.

Father Berry wrote with a lyrical sensibility, setting what he called deep ecology in a thematic line with Dante and early mystic saints, notably Francis of Assisi and Hildegard of Bingen.

In The Dream of the Earth (1988) Berry called for “a spiritual context to the ecological age” and bemoaned society’s “neglect of faith in favor of reason, its exaltation of technology as the instrument for the conquest of nature.”

“In this disintegrating phase of our industrial society,” the priest wrote, “we now see ourselves not as the splendor of creation, but as the most pernicious mode of earthly being...We are the violation of the earth’s most sacred aspects.”

Cardinal Müller did not respond to an interview request. His denunciation of conscious evolution suggests that the first duty of theology is to uphold past teaching, rather than draw from an interdisciplinary well, as the nuns’ leadership conference has done in choosing their speakers.

“Theology cannot continue to develop apart from 21st-century cosmology and ecology, nor can science substitute for religion, “ Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio, a research theologian at Georgetown University wrote in a 2011 essay for America Magazine.

“Both the light of faith and the insights of science can help humanity evolve toward a more sustainable future.”

As the standoff between the Vatican doctrinal office and LCWR deepens, the sisters’ leadership has chosen a path of silence — self-muzzling —apparently to avoid the risk of more punishment.

Pope Francis, though speaking passionately about care of the earth, has through his silence given de facto support to Cardinal Müller.

“Müller did not give a considered response to conscious evolution,” Sister Christine Schenk of Cleveland, who is writing a book on women in the early church, told GlobalPost.

“To me, he clearly has not engaged the deep strand of theological reflection from Thomas Berry and Teilhard. It’s not lightweight stuff; there’s a lot of science involved. Why is this an issue?”

The LCWR conferences are not presented as official teachings of the Catholic Church — another source of conflict with the bishops.

“The nuns are trying to engage the world as it is,” says Schenk. “How do we live the gospel in the midst of an evolving universe? These are important questions that need to be engaged by anyone curious about the gospel.”

GlobalPost religion writer Jason Berry is author of Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church. 

In Part One, Pope Francis detached as Vatican continues to attack American nuns.