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