Dissent and Disagreement Persist Among LCWR’s Women Religious (UPDATED)

Dissent and Disagreement Persist Among LCWR’s Women Religious (UPDATED) May 4, 2014

The LCWR, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, has dug in its heels against the U.S. Bishops–selecting for its highest award a religious sister whose book has been called by the U.S. Bishops’ Conference “seriously inadequate as a presentation of the Catholic understanding of God.”

At its Annual Assembly in Nashville in August 2014, which has as its theme “Holy Mystery Revealed in Our Midst,” the LCWR will honor Sister Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ with its 2014 Outstanding Leadership Award.  According to the organization’s website:

“…This prestigious award honors a person whom the LCWR members wish to recognize and thank for modeling extraordinary leadership.  

Elizabeth, a Sister of St. Joseph of Brentwood, New York, serves as a professor of theology at Fordham University.  She has a long history of distinguished ministry to the church, including past service as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and the ecumenical American Theological Society.  Her leadership in her field has grounded, inspired, and challenged people of faith throughout the world.  She is a prolific writer whose works have drawn her readers into an exploration of the mystery of God and have been translated into more than 12 languages.  Her public service in the church has included consultation to and service on committees of the Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on topics such as science and religion, ecological ethics, and issues related to justice for women.  

LCWR will celebrate Elizabeth’s selfless service and superb leadership on the last evening of the LCWR assembly.”

Sister Johnson’s best known work, Quest for the Living God, has been resolutely criticized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.   In 2011, the USCCB Committee on Doctrine issued a statement saying that Quest for the Living God  (Continuum, 2007) “does not recognize divine revelation as the standard for Catholic theology” and “differs from authentic Catholic teaching on essential points.”  According to the Committee, the work:

“contains misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors that bear upon the faith of the Catholic Church as found in Sacred Scripture, and as it is authentically taught by the Church’s universal magisterium.”

The Committee went on to say that they felt

“obligated to state publicly that the doctrine of God presented in ‘Quest for the Living God’ does not accord with authentic Catholic teaching on essential points” because of “the fact that the book is directed primarily to an audience of non-specialist readers and is being used as a textbook for study of the doctrine of God.”  

That is, Quest for the Living God is marketed not to theologians for discussion and consideration, but to college students and the general public.  The USCCB recognized its responsibility for the spiritual well-being of the faithful and the oversight of authentic teaching, and felt obliged to express their disagreement with key points in the book.

Sister Johnson responded to the Bishops’ charges, insisting that the Committee had misinterpreted her work.

On further review, however, the Committee on Doctrine reaffirmed its critique of Quest for the Living God, saying that Johnson’s arguments “[had] not in fact demonstrated that the Committee has misunderstood or misrepresented the book.”  

*     *     *     *     *

It seems, to this outsider, that the LCWR could have tried harder this year to “make nice” with the Bishops’ Conference.   In 2002, the Vatican ordered a reform of the LCWR, after an investigation found that “the current doctrinal and pastoral situation of LCWR is grave and a matter of serious concern.”

The LCWR may have entertained the hope that the affable Pope Francis would dismiss the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s concerns, welcoming Johnson’s work.  However, in April 2013, then-Archbishop Gerhard Muller, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told LCWR leaders that Pope Francis had strongly supported the Vatican “assessment” with its critical findings, and that the Pope concurred with the need for reform to bring the group into line with Church teachings.

 *     *     *     *     *

One last note:  Lest it appear that the US Bishops are being unrealistic, as the Sisters are wont to believe, I offer a quote from liberal writer Fr. Andrew Greeley.  Greeley called Sister Johnson a “feminist ideologue”, describing her as “one of those hard feminists who think that the use of that label [patriarchal] is enough to settle a debate.”

 *     *     *     *     *

 And a look back to psychotherapist William Coulson, who regretted that he had worked to destroy women’s religious orders and the LCWR:  “We overcame their traditions and their faith.”

*     *     *     *     *

UPDATE:   From Catholic World News, a report regarding the meeting between Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and representatives of the LCWR.   According to CWN, Cardinal Müller reprimanded the group for giving the award to a dissident theologian, pointedly reminding them that the LCWR is “a canonical entity dependent on the Holy See,” and must comply with Vatican-mandated plans for reform.

CWN reports:

Cardinal Gerhard Müller said that the decision by the LCWR to confer its Outstanding Leadership Award on Sister Elizabeth Johnson, whose writings have drawn a caution from the US bishops’ committee on doctrine, can be “seen as a rather open provocation” in light of the Vatican’s call for reform of the American group.

Under the terms of the reform ordered by the Vatican in 2012, Cardinal Müller reminded the LCWR, the speakers at LCWR meetings should be cleared by the Vatican’s delegate supervising the reform process, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle. But Archbishop Sartain was informed about the award for Sister Johnson “only after the decision had been made,” the cardinal observed, in an apparent violation of the Vatican’s directives.

Cardinal Müller—who apologized several times during his address for speaking so bluntly to the women religious—advised the LCWR leaders to bear in mind that an “assessment” of their group, at the conclusion of a Vatican investigation in 2011, had uncovered serious doctrinal problems. He said that these problems “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.”

To illustrate his point, the cardinal spoke about the “Conscious Evolution” movement, which has been discussed at length in LCWR meetings and publications. Cardinal Müller said:

Again, I apologize if this seems blunt, but what I must say is too important to dress up in flowery language. 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.

You can read the Cardinal’s full statement here.

I don’t know.  It seems to me that the liberal sisters have so much wrapped up in this, have invested so much pride in their so-called “conscious evolution,” that they may very well balk and reject the reforms that would bring them into line with Catholic teaching.  Should that happen, the Vatican will withdraw their canonical status, and the group will cease to exist as a Catholic entity.

These are interesting times.

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