The Vatican’s heavy-handed investigations of U.S. women religious appeared to be fading away under Pope Francis. Critiquing the nuns for focusing too heavily on social justice, including equality for LGBT people, did not seem to fit within the new pope’s vision for the Church. Developments since late April have challenged these assumptions, leading progressive Catholics to act.
The Nun Justice Project, a coalition of church reform organizations that includes New Ways Ministry, released an open letter to Pope Francis defending the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and a petition for Catholics to sign. The letter, which you can read about in the National Catholic Reporter, says, in part:
“We write with respect and gratitude for your extraordinary leadership in our Church.
“Sadly, we also write with concern and dismay at the behavior that Cardinal Gerhard Müller recently exhibited toward women leaders of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and especially toward Dr. Elizabeth Johnson CSJ.
“Cardinal Müller’s preemptive public criticism of LCWR leadership and Dr. Johnson, one of the most beloved and respected theologians in the world, eclipsed any opportunity for public dialogue.
“This communicates that faithful Catholic female leaders are disrespected and discounted in our Church.”
The letter continues by asking Pope Francis to remove the reform mandate against LCWR and to publicly apologize to LCWR and Dr. Johnson.
The latest chapter of the controversy between the Vatican and the nuns started when Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who heads up the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, gave a statement at the opening of meetings between Vatican officials and LCWR’s leadership that Dennis Coday, editor of the National Catholic Reporter, described as “the most direct and confrontational language since the Vatican began to rein in” American sisters in 2012. The cardinal claimed LCWR was not abiding by the mandate, including failing to have speakers at their annual assembly approved, honoring theologian Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ who had been investigated by the US bishops’ doctrinal committee (though he did not specifically name her in the statement), and promoting conscious evolution by having author Barbara Marx Hubbard address an LCWR assembly. Archbishop of Seattle J. Peter Sartain, who is overseeing the mandate’s implementation, said he agreed with Müller’s statement.
In response, LCWR’s leadership initially released a statement which said there had been respectful dialogue. A further statement affirmed their commitment to dialogue, but said meetings with the Vatican have “broken down” and “mistrust has developed.”
Meanwhile, Catholics have questioned what all this means in relation to Pope Francis who, like American nuns, has championed social justice and tried to create a more welcoming Church. NCR columnist Jamie Manson writes that Catholics must admit Pope Francis agrees with the mandate against LCWR, based on some of his recent statements about nuns and about some of the topics that Müller addressed. Commentator Phyllis Zagano seeks an “evolution of consciousness” from the Vatican, borrowing from one of the theological perspectives critiqued by Müller. Sister of Loretto Maureen Fiedler has called on the pope to intervene on behalf of the sisters. Seasoned religion journalist Ken Briggs asks the questions behind many of these pieces:
“If the pope has agreed with yet another censuring of Sister Johnson, what does that say about him and his convincing humility. And if he’s appalled by the Congregation’s treatment, why doesn’t he step in and put a stop to it?”
Lastly, The Guardian columnist Sadhbh Walshe writes:
“The really disheartening thing about the pope’s unwillingness to end the nuns’ censure – indeed, about his unwillingness to openly support them – is that his stated values are no different than the ones the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) is being punished for carrying out…
“Whatever this week’s censure of nuns – who are in trouble precisely for stressing social justice issues over abortion, gay marriage and birth control – says about the pope’s dedication to his stated mission, one thing is more clear than ever: if the church continues to pressure analready-dwindling population of nuns to abandon its social justice work, Pope Francis may undermine his own agenda, just as much as some power players at the Vatican hope to undermine the nuns on and off the bus.”
There is one hopeful note about Pope Francis and LCWR, reported by David Gibson of Religion News Service, which is that Cardinal Walter Kasper, known as the “pope’s theologian” downplayed Müller’s remarks during a presentation at Fordham University. Gibson wrote:
“On Monday, Kasper told the audience that after Francis praised him by name just days after his election, ‘an old cardinal came to him and said, ‘Holy Father, you cannot do this! There are heresies in this book!’
“As Francis recounted the story to Kasper, he said, the pope smiled and added: ‘This enters in one ear and goes out the other.’
“Asked about Johnson and another feminist theologian, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, whose views have also been disputed by the hierarchy, Kasper said that he has known them both for years and added: ‘I esteem them both.’…
“He said that the criticism of Johnson ‘is not a tragedy and we will overcome,’ and he noted that St. Thomas Aquinas, the medieval theologian now considered one of the greatest minds in the church, was condemned by his bishop and lived under a shadow for years.
” ‘So she is in good company!’ Kasper said of Johnson.”
Part of the Vatican’s criticisms of American women religious and LCWR in 2012 included their support for LGBT people and New Ways Ministry. We encourage you to sign the petition and spread the word about the Nun Justice Project, which you can access here.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry