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What do the US nuns see in conscious evolution?
16 May 2014 by Margaret Susan Thompson

In light of the generally laudatory reception of Pope Francis among US Catholics, the 30 April statement by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has surprised, saddened, and even shocked many American Catholics.

It affirmed Vatican criticisms of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and reasserted the need for hierarchical oversight of its activities.

Many women religious are bemused by Cardinal Müller’s apparent belief that the presence of a controversial speaker at an LCWR meeting denotes either endorsement of all the speaker’s ideas or a serious possibility that merely by listening to controversial ideas audience members may be persuaded to “think dangerous thoughts.”

Cardinal Müller’s concern with “Conscious Evolution,” the focus of a 2012 LCWR keynote address by Barbara Marx Hubbard, was noted explicitly. Hubbard – herself not a sister or even Catholic – has responded directly to these concerns, and notes that her thinking draws extensively on such Catholic authorities as Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Berry, and Ilia Delio.

Delio, a Franciscan sister and professor at Georgetown University, places “conscious evolution” in the context of the ongoing dialogue between faith and science rooted in the papacy of St John Paul II: “In light of John Paul’s efforts and the concern of Cardinal Müller, it is timely that ‘conscious evolution’ draw our attention to the need for mutual enrichment between science and religion,” she wrote, adding: “The goal of science and religion, drawing each other into a wider world in which both can flourish, was at the heart of Teilhard de Chardin’s teachings on conscious evolution. This is precisely what he hoped for, that science and religion could share their respective insights for the deepening of life ahead, the rise of the cosmic Person, the fullness of Christ.”

In this connection, Delio notes, “Many US women religious communities, influenced by Teilhard and Berry, became active proponents of what some have called creation spirituality, using science and traditional Catholic sacramental notions to energise Christian belief and present the faith in a more contemporary setting. This work has sparked a greater ecological awareness throughout the Church. Countless women religious communities, meanwhile, have started eco-friendly farms and gardens to helps sustain themselves and others.” Thus, while the terminology of “conscious evolution may be unfamiliar,” the concepts it reflects are well grounded in long-standing Catholic theology and praxis.

The average LCWR member holds one or more postgraduate degrees and is familiar with theoretical and theological complexity. She comes from a culture that celebrates both free speech and academic freedom, and welcomes the challenge of exposure to new concepts, but does not automatically or easily buy into them.

As one sister, who asked “in the current climate” to remain anonymous, told me: “We see gatherings like those of LCWR as times for intellectual stimulation, not occasions for catechesis.”

Essentially most women Religious in the US, and those who support them, have a very different understanding of “Church” – and of “speaking for or with the Church” – than do Cardinal Müller, Archbishop Peter Sartain (the prelate charged with formal oversight of LCWR for a five-year period), and other involved members of the hierarchy. Sisters are used to broadly participatory consultation and consensus-building, not to edicts issued from authority figures, even those they have elected.

Most sisters I has consulted believe that not only hierarchy but patriarchy plays into the current dispute. They note that Pope Francis made far more conciliatory remarks a year ago to the largely male leadership of the Latin American Conference of Religious, saying most notably: “But do not worry. Explain whatever you have to explain, but move forward.”

For all his undoubted commitment to social justice and to broader consultation among his episcopal brethren, they note, Francis’ reaffirmation of “gender essentialism,” complementarity, and a “special theology” for women’s “special gifts” reveals perspectives not particularly different from those of his immediate predecessors.

Margaret Susan Thompson is Professor of History at the Maxwell School, Syracuse University, New York



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Comment by: sara_tms_again
Posted: 20/05/2014 20:42:41

Another possible interpretation of 'conscious evolution' is the scientific fact that we are now capable of altering humanity in various subtle and not-so-subtle ways. We have been doing so unintentionally for at least 12K years, and are now in a position to do so intentionally.

This raises huge moral questions that ordinary Catholics need to think about, since they partly involve life-destroying eugenics (though also adult gene therapies that will affect the next generation). Catholics need to think and talk about this. The Hubbard talks, meanwhile, seem more a kind of generalised new age-y thing- but her take on the concept is not the only one that's out there, or even the most important one for Catholics to talk about.

Comment by: Joseph
Posted: 19/05/2014 01:33:11

Intellectual stimulation is very important to engage with the world and evangelise appropriately. Let's face it: spreading the Good News is a very challenging task - and we need all the gifts that God generously gives us. An important gift is our capacity to engage in intellectual activities!

Comment by: Chico889
Posted: 18/05/2014 16:37:43

I am confused about the term "conscious evolution". I suspect that Muller, Delio and Hubbard mean different things by the same term.

I think Muller thinks the term means that individuals are evolving in their consciousness and therefore somehow becoming more meritorius with age. Even worse, in his view, would be the idea that each individual in each generation is increasing in consciousness.

I don't know what Delio means by the term. Indeed, it seems that she does not even use the term.

I especially don't know what Hubbard means by the term. The little I have seen of her writing seems pretty woolly.

To deny that Christians and others of good will increase in virtue and goodness over a life-time, would be to deny the efficacy of the Holy Spirit working in us. In this sense, I believe that many Christians and others evolve in consciousness, and Muller should admit this. On the other hand, I think we are in danger of narcissism if our energy in life shifts from serving others to growing in consciousness, and I think that some advocates of "conscious evolution" should take note of this.

Finally, I think that Teilhard would anticipate that the sum total of the best of human endeavours will quite likely result in social structures which are in some sense more humane and loving, even if innate human nature is unchanged. For example, the abolition of slavery, apartheid, etc are moves in such a direction, but clearly there is a long long road ahead.

Comment by: Denis
Posted: 16/05/2014 21:57:48

"As one sister, who asked “in the current climate” to remain anonymous, told me: “We see gatherings like those of LCWR as times for intellectual stimulation, not occasions for catechesis.”
All good stuff, but is it the truth? Is this really just stimulating discussion or are they afraid that if they admitted the truth about their religious views there would be no more church funding? In any case it appears that "Benedict bashing" is about to become "Francis bashing". How quickly he turned from hero to villain.