Strong new statement by CDF to LCWR, but the problem is deep (and close to home)

New Age figure Barbara Marx Hubbard was blessed and welcomed by the Sinsinawa Dominicans prior to giving her talk at the 2013 Community Days Celebration at Sinsinawa Mound. Via the Sinsinawa facebook page.

There’s been some very positive news for everyone who hopes for resolution of the serious problems in most communities of women religious whose leaders belong to the larger and far more troubled of the two US women’s religious superiors’ groups, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

The news is unfortunately not that there’s been deep reform yet, but nevertheless good news: the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Mueller, made a very forthright address April 30th to the leaders of the LCWR about the need for them to work closely with Archbishop Sartain and the other two US bishops who have been appointed for their reform and approving conference speakers and honorees. Mueller spoke firmly against their poor decision of honoring problematic feminist theologian Sr Elizabeth Johnson:

“It saddens me to learn that you have decided to give the Outstanding Leadership Award during this year’s Assembly to a theologian criticized by the Bishops of the United States because of the gravity of the doctrinal errors in that theologian’s writings. This is a decision that will be seen as a rather open provocation against the Holy See and the Doctrinal Assessment. Not only that, but it further alienates the LCWR from the Bishops as well.”

Mueller addressed then a second objection, “namely that the findings of the Doctrinal Assessment are unsubstantiated. The phrase in the Doctrinal Assessment most often cited as overreaching or unsubstantiated is when it talks about religious moving beyond the Church or even beyond Jesus. Yes, this is hard language and I can imagine it sounded harsh in the ears of thousands of faithful religious. I regret that, because the last thing in the world the Congregation would want to do is call into question the eloquent, even prophetic witness of so many faithful religious women. And yet, the issues raised in the Assessment 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.”

Mueller’s listeners were all aware it wasn’t some guy at the Vatican but rather Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Laurie Brink who originally said the words about religious moving beyond the Church or even beyond Jesus, in a talk at a LCWR Assembly. In my book A Report on the Sinsinawa Dominicans Today, I give some more context for Sister Laurie’s words, and I also quote a candid reaction of another Sinsinawa Dominican, Clare Wagner, after the CDF’s Doctrinal Assessment for the LCWR and its fallout:

The phrase “unsubstantiated accusations” gave me pause and cause me to wince. That is because for myself, many religious and LCWR members the “accusations” are not “unsubstantiated.”
We do support Network.
We talk about and look toward the choice of ordination for women.
We are at odds with some of the teachings on human sexuality.
We are radical feminists who oppose patriarchal domination.
We do at times challenge positions taken by bishops.
We do not agree to “submission of intellect and will.”
We differ with the magisterium on ecclesiology.
We accept the Systems Thinking Handbook.

So there you have it from a sister, in case you didn’t believe Cardinal Mueller. “The accusations ARE substantiated,” says Sister Clare. If you want to see quite a bit of further substantiation, read my book about her religious congregation. While it is a minor contribution, actually many of the key parties in the LCWR dialogues have reviewed it. I did send it to the CDF, and Cardinal Muller’s secretetary did reply not only that he received A Report on the Sinsinawa Dominicans Today, but that “The Prefect has looked through these materials, and thanks you both for your careful research as well as for you[r] obvious love for religious life in the Church.” Sister Janet Mock the executive director of LCWR also replied, saying “I really look forward to reading it” and congratulating me on “adding to the body of work written about women religious”. Archbishop Sartain also replied, saying that he had no role in regards to individual religious congregations but could tell I undertook the project out of love for the Church and religious life and the he would take a look at the book. Bishops Paprocki and Blair also replied with similar sentiments. Below, the message from the CDF:

CDF letter 600A friend commented to me yesterday about Cardinal Muller’s recent address to LCWR, “It is nice to see someone in authority speaking about specifics directly, though still quite diplomatically.  I think your report was quite timely.” While am grateful to be able to do any small service, precisely because I am motivated by love it really does make me sad that a book of this kind could even be needed or useful to the good of the Church and religious life.

Turning back to Cardinal Mueller’s recent talk to LCWR, he gives an example of the problem of religious moving beyond the Church or even beyond Jesus: a spiritual thinker even more problematic than Sister Elizabeth Johnson, the new age figure Barbara Marx Hubbard who was an LCWR keynote speaker last year and promotes an ideology called “Conscious Evolution”. This is similar to the Tielhardianism-gone-wild “new cosmology” or “universe story” ideas that have been “hot” among LCWR sisters for a number of years and mentioned in my Report.  Mueller said, “I am worried that the uncritical acceptance of things such as Conscious Evolution seemingly without any awareness that it offers a vision of God, the cosmos, and the human person divergent from or opposed to Revelation evidences that a de facto movement beyond the Church and sound Christian faith has already occurred.” He points out to the sisters who seem ever excited by novelty, “the futuristic ideas advanced by the proponents of Conscious Evolution are not actually new. The Gnostic tradition is filled with similar affirmations….”

Barbara Marx Hubbard at Sinsinawa Mound, 2013

So, sounds like something the Sinsinawa Dominicans would love, right? Yes, Barbara Marx Hubbard appeared at the Sinsinawa Community Days gathering last August (2013) before moving on to (of course) the formerly-Catholic Holy Wisdom Monastery where she led a retreat. Madison based Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Joan Duerst wrote of the event at her order’s motherhouse on the Sinsinawa vocations blog: “With inspiration from Barbara Marx Hubbard we saw  our personal and communal growth as part of the evolving universe. We are called to choose to be  part of evolution, that is  to a higher unity in love. We saw  American Dominicans as  one of evolution’s most potent forces.”

It is consoling for Catholics to remember there are some other American Dominicans, Sisters, nuns and friars who don’t aim to be forces for “evolution” but still are trying to be among the most potent preachers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Cardinal Muller’s address to the LCWR leadership concluded: “The LCWR, as a canonical entity dependent on the Holy See, has a profound obligation to the promotion of that faith as the essential foundation of religious life. Canonical status and ecclesial vision go hand-in-hand, and at this phase of the implementation of the Doctrinal Assessment, we are looking for a clearer expression of that ecclesial vision and more substantive signs of collaboration.” In other words, LCWR cannot continue to be a canonical entity if they are gnostics promoting beliefs so much at odds with Catholicism… by extension this really logically goes for individual religious congregations too.

LCWR states briefly that, following Cardinal Muller’s bracing address, “The actual interaction with Cardinal Müller and his staff was an experience of dialogue that was respectful and engaging.” Archbishop Sartain commented generically to the National Catholic Register that this ensuing conversation was frank, open, and respectful. This does not tell much except there was not a fistfight. I don’t think the dialogue has broken down. I personally think there is at least a possibility that the LCWR may begin to adhere better to the requirement to consult with Archbishop Sartain on choosing speakers and so forth. I think we need to pray for those engaged in this dialogue.

7 Responses to Strong new statement by CDF to LCWR, but the problem is deep (and close to home)

  1. Very nice article Elizabeth, but one note please, on the (Tielhardianism-gone-wild “new cosmology” or “universe story”) you mention.

    Fr. Teilhard’s work, which has long been embraced by recent popes, is centered on the Christ of the Church, while the others you mention are not; so I would think it is more a case of something other than Teilhardism and the only connection it has to Fr. Teilhard’s work—though all of those whose work I’ve read (including those you mentioned), claim Fr. Teilhard as a spiritual mentor—is that it is spiritual speculation.

    Fr. Teilhard was a great Catholic theologian and scientist whose value is increasingly being recognized by the Church; and anyone reading his works in depth, will appreciate this.

    The others are not even in the same ball park, regardless of the roots they claim to share with him.

    • Dear David, thanks for your comment. I have one or two books here by Tielhard de Chardin and one book about him by Henri de Lubac. While I have not read any of the books, I have looked through them and one can see at a glance that Fr Tielhard is, as you say, very far from being Barbara Marx Hubbard. I have seen his works referenced by Pope Benedict XVI and other very fine theologians. I have not found much use for his theology, but I do not think of him as a heretic based on what I know of him. As you point out, the fact he was both a noted anthropologist studying early man and a theologian makes him a significant figure. I should clarify that it is what others have done with his ideas and “gone wild” that is a problem–and that has happened a lot. The reality is that people used his ideas as a starting point (together with other, non Catholic sources) and developed that in heterodox directions.

  2. Thank you Elizabeth! Excellent work! Praying.

  3. Dear Elizabeth: I am happy to see you have works of Fr. Teilhard in your library; and I also have the works of Lubac about him as well as collecting over the years all of the works of Fr. Teilhard. I posted on my blog some additional comments about this, read at , which I hope makes the point a bit deeper.
    Take care.

    • David, you must confess that the very serious heterodoxies of contemporary theologians who draw on Tielhard do suggest the CDF was right to be concerned that his writings are ambiguous, not without some errors, and were already causing confusion in 1962. Since I have not read his works I cannot comment on their content, and the CDF’s monitum about his writings doesn’t get specific.

      I think that truly excellent theologians like Ratzinger do a service when they interpret the writing of a sometimes ambiguous author like Tielhard from an orthodox perspective, as it can help to direct the theological discussion of his ideas in healthy directions. Ratzinger is an exceptionally clear thinker who also expresses himself with exceptional clarity and this makes him a great teacher and a great theologian.

      Some churchmen who are in fact good people with many good and profound ideas are not real clear theological thinkers or communicators, or are sometimes a little bit mistaken. Pope Francis is one of these, and I don’t think it is a reflection on his character. He can be ambiguous and confusing to the point that it can be frustrating to try to attend to his day to day musings. His witness to the Faith is thus far not of the kind that makes for the most excellent theological documents.

  4. Yes Elizabeth, I do agree that the Church had cause to be concerned about Fr. Teilhard’s writings, but not, in my opinion, to the point of refusing to allow him to publish any of them in his lifetime.

    A far better response, in my opinion as a fairly recent convert (baptized in 2004), is to allow virtually any publications from Catholic priests and theologians and instead of sanctioning them, address any ambiguity through proper catechesis from the bishops and Peter.

    Restricting Catholics access to ideas about theology that are, as you noted: “very serious heterodoxies of contemporary theologians” by sanctions—rather than education, as you note in Pope Benedict’s response to Fr. Teilhard’s teaching—seems to imply that Catholics cannot be trusted to know or understand their own faith.

    As I wrote that I know many Catholics do not take the time to study their faith, so warnings, in the forms of sanctions, are a short-cut; but when it comes to the truth represented by our glorious Catholic body of teaching, I think short-cuts are not as good as taking the opportunity—given by heterodox (or first appearing so) Catholic theologians—for a teaching moment to explain the Church’s true teaching in light of the disputed work, which may, after study, actually enhance the Church’s true teaching.

    And, agreeing with you, I think this is just what Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict were doing when they did comment on Fr. Teilhard’s work; acknowledging its worth, while adding their interpretation.

    Any of the great Catholic theologians, including the greatest of them all, St. Thomas Aquinas— whose work means so much to me—has, in his quantity of output, said many suspect things as development of doctrine so often reveals; as the reality of heliocentrism championed by Galileo over the geocentrism once championed by Aquinas and the Church being one obvious example.

    Fr. Teilhard expressed this in a beautiful quote:

    “In a sense, Christ is in the Church in the same way as the sun is before our eyes. We see the same sun as our fathers saw, and yet we understand it in a much more magnificent way. I believe the Church is still a child. Christ, by whom she lives, is immeasurably greater than she imagines. An yet, when thousands of years have gone by and Christ’s true countenance is a little more plainly seen, the Christians of those days will still, without any reservations, recite the Apostles’ Creed.” (pp. 117-118)

    Chardin, P. T. D. (1978). The heart of matter. (. Trans. R. Hague). New York: A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

  5. Radical feminism is antithetical to Christianity. I don’t see why the conversation needs to go any further, or on what basis it can.

    Be penitent or be gone, “sisters.” Preferably the former. I pray for the former.


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