Sinsinawa Dominicans’ “Wisdom’s Well” banned from leading programs at Catholic churches

I was not aware of the organization, “Wisdom’s Well,” till I read today’s WI State Journal article by religion reporter Doug Erickson (the Diocese also now has a statement). But I am pretty well aware this is the tip of  the iceburg of new-agey and religiously-indifferent activity of (some) Sinsinawa Domincan Sisters. 2 Sisters and 2 laywomen were banned from giving talks, teaching or doing spiritual direction on church property. I think this took courage from our good bishop, since past experience suggests he’s probably in for yet another wearying fit by upset liberals.  He doesn’t let that stop him from protecting his flock, and he deserves all our gratitude.

Two longtime Madison nuns who lead an interfaith spirituality center have been banned by Madison Catholic Bishop Robert Morlino from holding workshops or providing spiritual direction or guidance at any Catholic churches in the 11-county diocese.

Sisters Maureen McDonnell and Lynn Lisbeth, both Sinsinawa Dominicans, have diverged too far from Catholic teaching, according to a confidential memo sent Nov. 27 to priests on behalf of Morlino. A copy of the memo was leaked to the State Journal. [the diocese now has this memo online as well as a synopsis of the diocese’s concerns]

Two other women connected to the interfaith center, called Wisdom’s Well, also have been banned as part of the same action. [according to the diocese, one, Beth O’Brien, is an oblate of  “Holy Wisdom Monastery” the heretical formerly Catholic s0-called “ecumenical” organization; the other, Paula Hirschfeld, is a a former Sinsinawa Dominican who got herself ordained a Zen Buddhist priest.]

The memo says Morlino has “grave concerns” about the women’s teachings, specifically that they “espouse certain views” flowing from such movements as “New Ageism” and “indifferentism.” The latter, according to the memo, is “the belief that no one religion or philosophy is superior to another.” [also of concern was panentheism]

The women “may not share an authentic view of the Catholic Church’s approach to interreligious dialogue,” the memo said.

Brent King, a spokesman for the diocese, said three other potential parish guest speakers, all male, have been banned “in recent years.” The women are not prohibited from attending Mass or, if Catholic, from receiving communion, King said. Asked whether they could contribute to parish life in other ways, such as reading Bible passages from the pulpit or chairing a church committee, King said that would be up to individual priests.

My personal experience as a former fallen away Catholic religious progressive, deeply involved in a then good-sized online interfaith community called “Street Prophets”, was that religious indifferentism tends to be non-negotiable “dogma” among religious progressives. It was outrageous to them to suggest that all religions aren’t equally true and good! They didn’t particularly believe in objective religious or moral truth.

So what sort of things is “Wisdom’s Well” up to? On their website they are proud of a newspaper article from last month:

Founded in 2006, Wisdom’s Well (then Wisdom’s Well Spirituality Center) was created to respond to “a need in the Madison area for adults who were yearning for a deepened spirituality and a connection with others who were also seeking more meaning in their lives,” says staff member Beth O’Brien, a Benedictine oblate. [in fact she is an oblate of Holy Wisdom Monastery, where the nuns obtained release from their vows and voluntarily gave up the Catholic status of the monastery, upon which Bishop Morlino forbade Mass to be said there so people would not be confused since it used to be a Catholic Benedictine monastery. They now hold a lay-led “eucharist” on Sundays, attended by fallen-away Catholics and protestants]  (The other staff members are Lynn Lisbeth and Maureen McDonnell, Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa.)

Programs embrace a wide spirituality rooted in Christianity, but honoring other spiritual paths as well. The focus would be on contemplative prayer, “a way of deepening our connection to God, the Divine, Source, Love,” says O’Brien who serves as a Spiritual Guide. Contemplative practices include sacred chanting, yoga [Hindu practice], Tai Chi [Taoist practice], walking a labyrinth, and meditation. “Such practices,” she explains, “have the ability to transform your relationship with yourself, improve your relationships with others, and enrich your relationship with the world around you.”

Wisdom’s Well’s interfaith approach reflects the great diversity of spiritual and religious practice in the greater Madison community, explains McDonnell, “and also a number of people who are really searching for a spirituality that goes beyond the religious tradition they grew up in.”

For Catholics, our true spiritual life is specifically within the context of practicing the Catholic faith and the Sacraments and has to do with tending the life of grace, growing in Faith, Hope and Charity. The perennial and universal Catholic spirituality taught by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church is consistent with this; practices of other religions or new age practices do not add anything necessary that Catholic spirituality lacks, but put the person at risk of spiritual and doctrinal confusion. True contemplative prayer is an immense grace–and it’s not obtained by doing trendy techniques or practices, but is a gift from God. Although I’d say there are some sincere contemplative souls who are on their way toward Jesus and His Catholic Church (I myself was led back to the Faith after I’d long fallen away, by the contemplative prayer teachings of St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila, both Doctors of the Church), “contemplative” spirituality that wanders astray from sound Catholic practice and the sound teaching received through the Catholic Church, goes astray from the Truth, astray from Jesus, Who is God, the object of contemplation.

On Sr Lynn Lisbeth’s page about spiritual direction, she gives a strong statement of religious indifferentism, that seems characteristic of “Wisdom’s Well” and certainly does substantiate the diocesan claims about a lack of fidelity to the Catholic understanding of authentic interreligious dialogue:

INTERFAITH Spiritual Direction recognizes the unity of spiritual experience underlying the diversity of religious expressions of faith-wisdom traditions and spiritual practices.  This exploration welcomes a wide variety of religious traditions as well as those who come to spirituality outside the personal experience of a “church” background or membership.

In today’s global society and Earth’s ecological state, we can decide and discover how to respect our differences as assets, not view them with suspicion.  We can learn to cooperate for the common good and not just stay on our own side of the street and hope “others” do the same.  We can create the future together by how we daily choose to live HERE and NOW.  We can connect what we believe with how we live.  We can explore our interfaith world not in theory, but with people!

This was just how we thought on that progressive interreligious website “Street Prophets”. Members of various religions came together there for common cause: progressive politics! Even when politics is not the explicitly articulated focus, religious progressives’ indifferentism is oriented toward working together for a utopian social vision. In reality that was the primary “religion” all my interreligious friends had in common, so everyone discarded (or put in parentheses) any conflicting moral or truth claims of their faith–in the name of “peace & justice” and “the common good”… as defined by the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The point was to organize the “diversity of faith-wisdom traditions” to implement Progressivism, the new universal secular “religion”.

The 2 Sinsinawa Dominicans and 2 lay women have simply been barred from being speakers, teachers, or spiritual guides at Catholic churches, and don’t seem to be under any kind of censure. Publicity materials for “Wisdom’s Well” are now disallowed at Catholic parishes. The “Wisdom’s Well” nonviolence study sessions in progress at St James Parish are now being moved to another location. I realized while reading their website that I recently saw their “prayer packets” and “prayer squares” (whatever that is) for sale at the Blessed Sacrament Parish Christmas Market. I found those puzzling, and was disappointed the pickings were so slim in terms of authentically Catholic Christmas presents at Blessed Sacrament Christmas Market, but those things are not necessarily banned.

I think Bishop Morlino’s action about this can help set boundaries, and help parishes to have the bishop’s authority to point to when they have to say “no” to something similar. The surrounding culture is full of new-age “spiritual not religious” meanderings, and Catholicism offers something different, authentic and trustworthy.

The Sinsinawa Dominican prioress told the reporter that there hasn’t ever been a restriction like this before against their members’ ministry in parishes. There shouldn’t have to be. I hope the Sinsinawa Dominicans will consider attending more closely to the sound doctrinal formation of members. How about the Year of Faith guidance to all of us, to read the Catechism and the Vatican II documents.

At Sinsinawa Mound Gift shop, a whole shelf of Joan Chittister's books, with a shelf or two of Thomas Merton below.

Typical Sinsinawa reading material. I took this picture earlier this year at the gift shop of the Sinsinawa Dominicans’ motherhouse (Sinsinawa Mound), of a whole shelf of Joan Chittister’s books, with a shelf or two of Thomas Merton below. Joan Chittister is a Benedictine nun and heresiarchess, a former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and liberal media darling, who touts a progressive distortion of social justice, and purports to teach Catholic spirituality while rejecting a variety of Catholic moral and doctrinal beliefs. Thomas Merton, the convert and Trappist monk whose early writings are soundly Catholic, became involved in questionable interreligious spiritual and dialogue activities later on, on the premise that practices of various religions were interchangeable as “contemplative practices”. Over on the bottom left of the photo, I spot Sadhana, the Hindu-influenced book of “Catholic spirituality” that led the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to issue a doctrinal condemnation of the works of author Fr Anthony DeMello.

24 Responses to Sinsinawa Dominicans’ “Wisdom’s Well” banned from leading programs at Catholic churches

  1. “In today’s global society and Earth’s ecological state….”

    How could the earth’s ecological state or economic globalization possibly have any effect whatsoever upon Spiritual Direction? Last I checked, Spiritual Direction was about leading one’s soul to the eternal joy of the Beatific Vision, and avoiding the eternal torments of hell. Never in reading the spiritual works of the saints have I come across the topic of ecology….

    “We can explore our interfaith world not in theory, but with people!”

    The goal is Christ. Not people. When the people refused to listen to the Truth of the Gospel, St Anthony of Padua began preaching to the fishes instead. In a wondrous miracle, the fishes came out of the sea to hear that holy friar’s words, and the people, amazed by this miracle, were converted en masse.

    This shows just how far gone these people are. Their religion is focused on man and other created beings; Catholicism demands we be focused on Christ Himself.

    • How could the earth’s ecological state or economic globalization possibly have any effect whatsoever upon Spiritual Direction?

      • “Therefore, if you have risen with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Mind the things that are above, not the things that are on the earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:1-2).

        The earth is only a temporary dwelling:
        “For behold, I create new heavens, and a new earth: and the former things shall not be in remembrance, and they shall not come upon the heart” (Isa 65:17).
        “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief; at that time the heavens will pass with a great violence, and the elements will be dissolved with heat, and the earth, and the works that are in it will be burned up” (2 Pet 3:10).
        “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth. For the first earth and the first heaven passed away, and the sea is no more” (Apoc 21:1).

        The eternal state of the soul is worth infinitely more than the temporal things of the earth:
        “And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather be afraid of him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s leave. But as for you, the very hairs of your head are numbered. Therefore do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Mt 10:28-31).

        • We are not masters of this earth nor are we better than this earth:

          Job 12:7-10
          “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or ask the birds of the air, and they will tell you. Speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea tell you. Every one of these knows that the hand of the Lord has done this. The life of every creature and the breath of all people are in God’s hand.”

          “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
          ― Mahatma Gandhi

          • Kathleen, I say this as a daily Mass going, confession going practicing Catholic who is also in all truth a small-carbon-footprint non car driver (not ever), non meat eater (not for over a dozen years), abstain from all animal foods during Lent, very much for humane treatment of animals (it is contrary to human dignity to cause unnecessary suffering or death to animals, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says), very rarely travel anywhere, live in a small efficiency apartment, recycle diligently.

            Man is made in the image of God, particularly in the sense of having intellect, memory and will capable of contemplation unto union with God in love. This is true of persons but not true of the animals. God has given Man dominion over the domestic and wild animals, the birds and fish, all creatures. This does not mean “to stomp on”, but for the right ordering and use, in keeping with truth, beauty and goodness, of all the things in the world according to the knowledge of God and His laws, of which Man is uniquely capable.

            Ghandi is right to think humane treatment of animals is good. If he means that treatment of animals is a keener sign of the moral state of a society than treatment of humans then that is false, after all in our crazy times someone could even be passionate supporter of their local no-kill dog and cat shelter and yet for rights to abort and euthanize people! Some people today, through their actions, even imply that they value animal lives above human lives and that is wrong. Gandhi, as a Hindu pantheist, would have a profoundly different idea of the relationship between man and animals. In Hinduism, man and animals are not God’s creatures. Rather, they make an error that everything that exists is actually a part of God, a manifestation of God (Brahman–in actuality their idea of God of course does not correspond to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but I am speaking as if they are simply confused about Him). In the error of Hinduism, people are God and animals are God, etc so all have to be treated with the same regard. As Christians we would speak about humane treatment of animals being moral, without any implication that humans and animals are morally exactly the same, much less that they are God.

          • “And God created man to his own image: to the image of God he created him: male and female he created them. And God blessed them, saying: Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth” (Gen 1:27-28).

            Job chapter 12, when read in context of the book, clearly describes the power and inherent superiority of the true God, Who is the Creator of all things. It has nothing to do with idolizing or literally “learning” from terrestrial creatures.

            Mohandas Gandhi was not only a Hindu, but also adhered to the false concept of Religious Indifferentism (“I came to the conclusion long ago … that all religions were true and also that all had some error in them, and that whilst I hold by my own, I should hold others as dear as Hinduism.”). This heresy was explicitly identified and condemned by Pope Gregory XVI in his Encyclical Mirari Vos:

            Now We consider another abundant source of the evils with which the Church is afflicted at present: indifferentism. This perverse opinion is spread on all sides by the fraud of the wicked who claim that it is possible to obtain the eternal salvation of the soul by the profession of any kind of religion, as long as morality is maintained. Surely, in so clear a matter, you will drive this deadly error far from the people committed to your care. With the admonition of the apostle that “there is one God, one faith, one baptism” may those fear who contrive the notion that the safe harbor of salvation is open to persons of any religion whatever. They should consider the testimony of Christ Himself that “those who are not with Christ are against Him,” and that they disperse unhappily who do not gather with Him. Therefore “without a doubt, they will perish forever, unless they hold the Catholic faith whole and inviolate.” Let them hear Jerome who, while the Church was torn into three parts by schism, tells us that whenever someone tried to persuade him to join his group he always exclaimed: “He who is for the See of Peter is for me.”

  2. Wow. Excellent article again, Elizabeth. Thank you so very much. Everyone please pray for and thank Bishop Morlino and pray for these lost souls. The path of destruction is wide. Lord have mercy.

  3. The Sinsinawa Dominicans have long been leaders in the Church of John XXIII and Vatican II. What is being done to these individual sisters and their ministry, Wisdom’s Well, is being done to countless other men and women, including me. Banish them, Bishop [s] and consider me banished too.

    • Thanks for your comment, Kathleen. I googled and found that you were one of the 5 (out of 5000) catechists in your diocese of Arlington, VA who refused to sign saying you agreed with the Catechism. For instance, you disbelieved that contraception is immoral, and you disbelieved that the Church has no authority whatsoever to ordain women priests. You disagree with the Catholic faith yet somehow you felt it was unjust that you not be authorized to catechize others? What baloney. The bishop is obliged to protect the children.

      Kathleen, I was seriously harmed both humanly and spiritually by not having been catechized on the immorality of contraception when I was a Catholic kid! SO many women I know were harmed. I truly lacked the basic knowledge of the Faith to remain a practicing Catholic or to remain in the state of grace, nor did I even understand how or why to go to confession, and I fell away for many years. I got involved in the catechesis program at my parish recently to try to help today’s kids to truly know their faith.

      I have the documents of Vatican II right here and nowhere does it say dissent and heresy are okay. It does say that we are gravely obliged to form our conscience in keeping with Catholic teachings. That’s what sound catechesis is meant to do.

      • Elizabeth, I am not from Virginia. I am from Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and might do you good to check your facts before you go after anyone.

        • Sorry, your reply fit exactly with this other Kathleen Riley! So you are a different individual, what is your story then?

          • My story is; I became a full, involved human woman in the Catholic Church after Vatican II. I see a sad future for a church that is abandoning all those marvelous folks, men and women, who love their church and have been so excited to get more involved.

          • I meant what was happening that made you feel like you were being treated like the 4 women who are not allowed to teach or guide others at churches (but are still of course welcome to ATTEND the churches, partake of the Sacraments and be part of parish life) because some of what they believe publicly differs from what the Catholic Church believes. If they truly corrected the problems, who could doubt that they would again be allowed to give workshops etc, and it would be cause for joy.

  4. Nicely stated, Elizabeth. I too was poorly catechized as a child, left the Faith, and (thanks be to God) eventually found my way back. However, I am also confused about Ms Riley’s reference to the “Church of John XXIII and Vatican II.” The One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church has lived through 265 popes and 21 Ecumenical Councils. There has only been the one same Church that entire time, from the moment Christ said to Peter “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church” (Mt 16, xviii) to the present moment. As St Paul insistently taught, there is but “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph 4, v).

    The Church of John XXIII is also the Church of Pius X and the Church of Benedict XVI. The Church of Vatican II is also the Church of Trent. The Church herself does not ever change.

  5. The church herself, like God, changes, adapts, grows………

    • Kathleen, let’s start with the God aspect of this comment. One of the attributes of God is immutability, which was emphasized at the Council of Nicea. Even when the Second Person of the Trinity became incarnate, God did not change. God is perfect, and He is infinite and cannot grow. So, what you have said is untrue in regards to God.

      The Church is Christ’s Bride and Body. The Church serves the unchanging and divine Truth. She has a charism of infallibility and at every time her teaching is fully worthy of religious assent. Within history her understanding of and articulation of that Truth does develop. The Truth doesn’t change. The Immaculate Conception of Mary cannot later “develop” to be untrue. Sodomy cannot “develop” to be morally okay. The Sacrament of Holy Orders cannot “develop” so it is possible to ordain women. etc. On these matters the Church is teaching objective truths. There are other matters that are simply matters of discipline, for instance what the liturgical colors are, or the rules of fast and abstinence, or whether women must wear a chapel veil. The Church could specify these things by law, or not; these specific disciplines are sometimes matters of prudence, but are not universal moral necessities.

      • The God I love and worship and work for is open to all the futures that God’s human creation can imagine. S[he] is an anazing shining in whom I trust, even though I do not understand. I am in love with God. John of the Cross, Theresa, Thomas Merton and their like are my guides.

        • Okay, see my recent post about St John of the Cross, my favorite Saint.

          Saint Teresa of Avila was the one who said she’d die a thousand deaths for the smallest detail of liturgical law (which is very “vatican II” of her since it taught that “no one, even a priest may add remove or change anything in the Mass on his own authority”), or for any teaching of the Church. She lived in the early era of the protestant heresy and had a deep sense of how important it was to be with the Church on doctrine, morals, and points of discipline and to practice obedience. She was such an amazing personality.

          • Is there no one beside this “Elizabeth” person who argues for this damnation of the Sinsinawa Wisdom project?

        • Dear Kathleen,

          I wholeheartedly support Bishop Morlino in his decision to ban Wisdom’s Well programs and its practitioners from parishes within the Diocese of Madison.

          The Catholic Church teaches her doctrine. Period.

          If individuals want to hold classes that teach things which are contrary to the explicit doctrine of the Catholic Church, they are free to do so. They are not free to do so within Catholic parishes.

  6. To quote the words of the same Blessed John XXIII:

    The Catholic Church teaches the necessity of believing firmly and faithfully all that God has revealed. This revelation is contained in sacred scripture and in the oral and written tradition that has come down through the centuries from the apostolic age and finds expression in the ordinances and definitions of the popes and legitimate Ecumenical Councils.

    Whenever a man has wandered from this path, the Church has never failed to use her maternal authority to call him again and again to the right road. She knows well that there is no other truth than the one truth she treasures; that there can be no “truths” in contradiction of it. Thus she repeats and bears witness to the words of the Apostle: “For we can do nothing against the truth, but only for the truth.

    and from the Second Vatican Council (emphases mine):

    Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held. This is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church, whose definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith.

    And this infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of Revelation extends, which must be religiously guarded and faithfully expounded. And this is the infallibility which the Roman Pontiff, the head of the college of bishops, enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith, by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals. And therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly styled irreformable, since they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, promised to him in blessed Peter, and therefore they need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgment. For then the Roman Pontiff is not pronouncing judgment as a private person, but as the supreme teacher of the universal Church, in whom the charism of infallibility of the Church itself is individually present, he is expounding or defending a doctrine of Catholic faith. The infallibility promised to the Church resides also in the body of Bishops, when that body exercises the supreme magisterium with the successor of Peter. To these definitions the assent of the Church can never be wanting, on account of the activity of that same Holy Spirit, by which the whole flock of Christ is preserved and progresses in unity of faith.

  7. You’re welcome. I’m sorry that the sources didn’t get named in the text though. Guess I don’t know how to use WordPress coding as well as I thought I did. The quote from Bl John XXIII is from his Encyclical Ad Petri Cathedram, paragraphs 69-70. The second quote is from the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, paragraph 25.

  8. These women profess belief in “Sophia” whom they describe in the following way: “In the West, divine wisdom is known as Sophia. In the East she is Mother Tao and Prajnaparamita. Sometimes she is recognized as incarnate in Mary and Kuan Yin.” This concept of “Sophia” belongs to the ancient Valentinian Gnostic heresy, as chronicled by St Iranaeus in his Adversus Haereses:

    These are the ten Æons whom they [the Valentinians] declare to have been produced by Logos and Zoe. They then add that Anthropos himself, along with Ecclesia, produced twelve Æons, to whom they give the following names: Paracletus and Pistis, Patricos and Elpis, Metricos and Agape, Ainos and Synesis, Ecclesiasticus and Macariotes, Theletos and Sophia.

    Tertullian gave the most succinct refutation of the Gnostic heresy in his Prescription against heretics:

    But yet, if I have believed what I was bound to believe, and then afterwards think that there is something new to be sought after, I of course expect that there is something else to be found, although I should by no means entertain such expectation, unless it were because I either had not believed, although I apparently had become a believer, or else have ceased to believe. If I thus desert my faith, I am found to be a denier thereof. Once for all I would say, No man seeks, except him who either never possessed, or else has lost what he sought.

    The Blessed Pope John XXIII in whose footsteps you claim to follow said (as I posted earlier): “Whenever a man has wandered from this path, the Church has never failed to use her maternal authority to call him again and again to the right road. She knows well that there is no other truth than the one truth she treasures; that there can be no “truths” in contradiction of it.” Thus, Bishop Morlino has called these women, who have strayed from the one Truth of Jesus Christ, back the the eternal, irreformable teachings of the Catholic Faith.


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