Vatican’s doctrine chief blasts U.S. nuns for disobedience

(RNS) Catholic nuns in the U.S. have been thumbing their nose at Rome’s demands to toe the doctrinal line and they need to obey or face serious consequences, the Vatican’s enforcer of orthodoxy said in a surprisingly tough talk to women representing most American sisters.
Archbishop Gerhard L. Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is pictured in a Jan. 11 photo in Rome. Photo by Paul Haring/courtesy Catholic News Service

Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Photo by Paul Haring/courtesy Catholic News Service


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“The Holy See believes that the charismatic vitality of religious life can only flourish within the ecclesial faith of the church,” Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told four members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Mueller said the LCWR — which represents about 80 percent of the more than 50,000 Catholic nuns in the U.S. – is dependent on the Vatican for its bona fides as a church body. He indicated that the group’s status, and the Catholic faith of the sisters, was at risk if they did not heed Rome’s directives. “Canonical status and ecclesial vision go hand-in-hand, and at this phase … we are looking for a clearer expression of that ecclesial vision and more substantive signs of collaboration,” Mueller said. Mueller’s talk was dated April 30, apparently at the opening of talks with the four LCWR leaders; it was published by the Vatican on Monday (May 5). The cardinal twice acknowledged that his talk was “blunt,” and indeed his remarks were the toughest since the Vatican takeover of LCWR was announced in 2012. “What I must say is too important to dress up in flowery language,” he said at one point. While his comments seemed to reverse expectations that the crisis was on the way toward a resolution, the LCWR leaders who met with Mueller appeared to downplay the impact of the cardinal’s criticisms. “As articulated in the cardinal’s statement, these remarks were meant to set a context for the discussion that followed,” the sisters said Monday from Rome, where they are holding talks with Vatican officials. “The actual interaction with Cardinal Mueller and his staff was an experience of dialogue that was respectful and engaging,” they added. The LCWR leaders — Sisters Carol Zinn, Florence Deacon, Sharon Holland and Janet Mock — declined all interview requests. When the Vatican censure was announced, both Rome and American bishops took a lot of heat from Catholics and the wider public, who embraced the nuns and bristled at the takeover. Rome justified the move as necessary to ensure the group’s orthodoxy. The Vatican accused the sisters of being too focused on social justice work, and said they did not sufficiently promote church orthodoxy, especially on issues like gay marriage and abortion. The Vatican appointed three U.S. bishops, led by Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain and including Archbishop Leonard Blair of Hartford, CT (formerly bishop of Toledo), to have final say on speakers at the LCWR’s annual meeting and approval over other matters. As some American bishops worked behind the scenes to ease the tensions with the sisters, Pope Francis’ election last year also seemed to signal a detente. As a Jesuit, Francis is a member of a religious order himself and has often expressed solidarity with other religious orders of men and women. Last June, he told a group of priests and sisters from Latin America not to worry too much if they get a critical letter from Mueller’s office, but to deal with it and move on. The pope also retained officials at Vatican congregations who are seen as more sympathetic to the LCWR. But Francis also kept on Mueller, who was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI soon after the action against the LCWR was unveiled. The cardinal told the nuns that he was particularly upset by two developments. One was the LCWR’s ongoing focus on a topic called “conscious evolution,” which was the subject of the LCWR’s annual conference two years ago. In Rome, it’s seen as a nebulous, New Age-sounding concept of spiritual development that critics say is unmoored from traditional Christian doctrine. “The fundamental theses of Conscious Evolution are opposed to Christian Revelation and, when taken unreflectively, lead almost necessarily to fundamental errors,” Mueller said, warning that the American nuns were straying from the basics of the faith and from the Catholic Church itself. A second point of contention, Mueller said, is that the LCWR is honoring a prominent Catholic theologian, Sister Elizabeth Johnson of Fordham University, at this year’s conference in August despite the fact that one of Johnson’s recent books was challenged by the U.S. bishops as straying from accepted doctrine. Johnson vigorously rejected those charges — and was supported by a broad swath of the Catholic theological guild — as she sought to engage the bishops in discussions. But the overture was rejected. The choice to honor Johnson without Sartain’s approval, Mueller said, “will be seen as a rather open provocation against the Holy See. … Not only that, but it further alienates the LCWR from the bishops as well.” Mueller said that if Sartain had been informed, Johnson may not have been chosen. He said he would not attempt to undo the invitation to Johnson but said that Sartain must have final say over next year’s LCWR convention, adding that the Vatican mandate is now “fully in force.”

26 Responses to “Vatican’s doctrine chief blasts U.S. nuns for disobedience”

  1. nick batt

    Aah, I see a basis for consensus.

  2. Patrick

    Curiously enough, I understand where Nick is coming from on this, and other matters – and even sympathise in a rather roundabout way.

    The Catholic Church is a wonderful and totally comprehensive guide to life – but only if you are either tired of thinking for yourself, or have, most likely, never tried it in the first place.

    It will provide non-negotiable instructions for every possible eventuality – even including – as we saw recently – foot washing.
    So, if errant “nuns,” or whatever – decide they don’t like Nick and Co.’s rigid rules, and want to wash feet the way they think feet should sensibly be washed – they ought not, I think, simply ignore these rules – but instead accept that these rules are not in line with their consciences or whatever – and so should get out of the Catholic Church, and start one of their own.

    It’s like if you breed dogs, and “The Rules ” say
    “Greyhounds must have long tails,” and you say “No, I think Greyhounds should not have tails at all,” and then get all pissed when your tail-less dog is laughed out of town at the dog show.
    Right, Nick?
    The thing to do is to start an entirely new breed called, “No-Tail Greyhounds,” with an entirely separate standard of excellence.
    …Where tails are an abomination.

    …Then everyone will be happy.

  3. Denis Eble

    “This isn’t the biggest issue facing the Church.”

    What IS the biggest problem, Nick? Irrelevance?

  4. nick batt

    Cardinal Kasper’s “don’t worry be happy” attitude” is fine by me. This isn’t the biggest issue facing the Church. These women can strain as much as they want but, at some point, they will be in schism. The same problem Satan had; seeking to exalt his throne above God’s.

  5. Michele Joseph

    “When the Vatican censure was announced, both Rome and American bishops took a lot of heat from Catholics and the wider public, who embraced the nuns and bristled at the takeover. ”
    It’s more than just Jesus and the Pope. It’s a done deal.

  6. Zappa912

    Nick, your thoughts on Cardinal Kasper as a theologian? Why is Cardinal Mueller correct in his characterization of the LCWR versus Cardinal Kasper? Because you say so? Why not allow for debate and dialogue as Cardinal Kasper suggests? What are you so afraid of? Cardinal Kasper does not say the LCWR is breaking the rules. What rules? Your rules? You have buried yourself so deeply in a hole on this one, that it is time to pick on someone your own size again, and not an esteemed and respected theologian like Cardinal Kasper, a close adviser to Pope Francis. The good sisters will eventually win this battle because they have Jesus and the pope on their side, and fortunately your opinion won’t matter.

  7. nick batt

    Since I have a simple mind, explain to me why breaking the rules is ok. Explain how these women got the right to dismiss the authority of the Church. I realize that aging hippies still cling to “if it feels good do it” mentality. In a world where people will kill or kidnap you for being Christian, the Church doesn’t need a fifth column in its midst.

  8. Zappa912

    Nick, you really need to calm down. For another totally different approach to the issues surrounding the LCWR and Sister Elizabeth Johnson, please see the comments at this website today of another leading theologian and close adviser to Pope Francis, Cardinal Kasper. Since you are so knowledgeable, and of course correct in your own mind of your interpretation of the doctrine and theology on LCWR related issues, go ahead and take on Cardinal Kasper too. Assuming you disagree with him, he must be another obstruction to your view of all that is Catholic theology today. You are right and he is wrong in your simple mind. Just that easy for someone like you who does not tolerate discourse and dissent very well. Peace to all.

  9. nick batt

    So I’m a racist homophobe because I reject the LCRW. Talk about name calling. As I’ve said before these women are not serving anybody. They live cushy lives as they run multi-million dollar bureaucracies that thumb their nose at the church to which they claim to belong. Nobody put a gun to their head when they joined. If they don’t like the rules they should just get out. Their morality fits quite nicely with modern secular hedonism. I’m sure NARAL has a place for them.

  10. Zappa912

    Very interesting observations Denis. Much truth about women being subservient to men in the Catholic faith. A real source of friction within the Church right now. Thanks for sharing. Peace to all.

  11. Denis Eble

    Here’s my take on the recent spate of ugly remarks re nuns. I suspect that this ugliness corresponds to the same nastiness that goes on in the far-right wing of the GOP. Recall the oft heard mantra there, ‘I want my country back!’ They see a black man in the White House. They see Latinos, Asians and blacks in executive positions and living in THEIR neighborhoods. They see the family not reflected as Ozzie & Harriet. They see openly gay and lesbian couples. Mixed-race couples, biracial children.

    They also see lots of empty pews at church on Sunday, assuming that their church hadn’t been closed down. They read the statistics that report ‘none of the above’ as a growing trend in choice of religion. They note that the Bible is no longer recognized as an historical document but often seen as myth. As Catholics, they note the wide-spread issue of priest sex abuse in their church that severely damages both the reputation and functioning of the hierarchy.

    They ‘want their church back.’ They want the nuns to shut up about all of the ills of the Catholic Church. As mere women, nuns, like housewives, ought to be silent and serve the men.

    ‘I want my country back!’ ‘I want my church back!’

    Sorry. Neither.

  12. Michele Joseph

    I’m guessing by your silence that you do mean the sisters, unless it’s Barbara Marx Hubbard or Elizabeth Johnson. I’m trying to follow this conversation, but I don’t know that much about Catholicism anymore, but I do know you don’t go around bad-mouthing sisters.
    And acting all Mr.Uber Catholic while you do it !
    STOP IT.

  13. Michele Joseph

    OMG. Wait. Wait. Nick, are you saying the SISTERS are seeking a man-hating free sex atheism ?
    I’m getting mixed up here.
    Is that what you are saying ??????

  14. nick batt

    I stand by my analysis. These people do not preach, live out or acknowledge the Gospel. They seek a man-hating free sex atheism that should disgust any faithful Catholic

    • Denis Eble

      Put down that bottle of gin, Nick. Talk to us when you’re sober.

  15. Zappa912

    Wow Nick. Are you taking on the wrong group, especially with the name calling. All of your accusations are so hollow. The good sisters are women of action in carrying out the love preached by Jesus, which is why if push comes to shove with Pope Francis, he will find a way to continue supporting their mission of carrying out the teachings of Jesus. As for the doctrinal and theological interpretations by the “fathers”//men of the Church, that will not hold the sisters back. And please Nick, no more name calling or saying the sisters are evil. That is beneath you.

    • Denis Eble

      I’m not sure it is beneath him. I have come to realize that he lives there!

  16. nick batt

    I remember the campus parish pushing Chardin in the 70s. He was an idiot then and these so-called religious women are now. They want to claim the Church’s good name but reject its doctrine. My only question is whether they’re “useful idiots” or actual agents of the secularist left.

  17. Josie Setzler

    Read about Barbara Marx Hubbard’s “conscious evolution” and its connection to Catholic theological thought in this article. http://ncronline.org/news/catholic-theology-inspires-lcwr-keynote-speaker
    “Catholic theologians familiar with Hubbard and her writing on “conscious evolution” say there is, indeed, a link between her work and Teilhard’s.”(Pierre Teilhard de Chardin).

  18. Josie Setzler

    I applaud the LCWR for choosing Elizabeth Johnson as their 2014 honoree. Is their choice a “provocation”? No, I think it’s entirely likely the sisters chose Johnson simply because they greatly admire her work. Johnson’s writings help many of us women (and men as well) develop more fully as believers and disciples of Jesus.

  19. Patrick

    …It would seem a new “Reformation,” with a further split in Catholicism into two factions, is becoming extremely likely.
    What’s interesting is what the “Nicks” of this world (and he is by no means unique ) will end up being: “Old” Catholics whose seat is in the Vatican – or “New” Catholics, with a Pope and seat somewhere else – Africa, possibly?
    The labels are reversible, naturally, and either side will stridently declare, “We are the true Catholics. The others are heretics!”
    …Just like the old days, really – but with waterboarding replacing burning at the stake, maybe. (kinder and nicer.)

  20. Michele Joseph

    Feminist- a person who supports feminism. Feminism- the belief that women should have equal rights & opportunities. Nick, you are not a feminist ??

  21. Denis Eble

    Nick- would you denigrate the nuns ever further by using Limbaugh’s famous characterization, “feminazi?” Bad disobedient nuns! They need to get back into their Medieval costumes and back inside the nunnery! How dare they attempt free-speech!

    You crack me up, Nick. By the way, the year is 2014, FYI.

  22. nick batt

    These self righteous feminist bureaucrats deserve whatever they get. They shame the orders to which they belong. They took vows which they’re now breaking. The church has survived worse heresies but theirs is no less evil.

  23. Zappa912

    Fight on Sisters. God is on your side as is Pope Francis. Don’t worry about Cardinal Mutthead. He is this week’s enforcer with nothing better to do than pick on the real source of good works in the Church, the fighters for social justice, those who teach, care for the poor, the hungry, the homeless, and the sick on a daily basis with the compassion and commitment of saints. God bless you sisters. My prayers are with you, and lifelong appreciation for all you do.

  24. Denis Eble

    “Vatican’s doctrine chief blasts U.S. nuns for disobedience.”

    Disobedience? Seriously? I haven’t heard that term since I was in grade school. But then, the Vatican has not yet apparently moved past adolescence-at least in its thinking.

    What a hoot! DISOBEDIENCE!

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