Card. Müller to LCWR leaders: Come back to “ecclesial center of faith” or be gone!

The head of Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith appears to have lost his patience with the LCWR’s stalling tactics and open dissent.

Last August, I wrote a blog post, “O Sister, Where Art Thou? “, in which I stated:

The LCWR has long had an agenda of subverting Church authority and doctrine, and it has long used two simple tactics: ignore what Church leaders say and stall, stall, and stall. And, so far, it has worked. In addition, the leadership of the LCWR has long misused its authority and even misrepresented the positions of many of its members.

The subhead for that post, “After forty years of ‘faithful dissent’, the LCWR needs to go away”, summed up my stance fairly well. In short, like many Catholics, I’m quite tired of the endless chatting, and even coddling, that goes on with persons or groups who claim to be Catholic but who continually and consistently thumb their noses at Church teaching, practice, and authority—not just for a few years, but for a few decades!

It appears that Cardinal Gerhard Müller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is tiring of the nonsense as well. In a short but blunt April 30th address given to the Presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), Müller zipped through the pleasantries and got down to business very quickly, focusing on two points of the contention: the LCWR leadership’s objection that the CDF’s April 2012 Doctrinal Assessment was too harsh and that its finding were “unsubstantiated”. Of the first, Card. Müller stated, in part:

Let me begin with the notion of “disproportionate sanctions.” One of the more contentious aspects of the Mandate—though one that has not yet been put into force—is the provision that speakers and presenters at major programs will be subject to approval by the Delegate. This provision has been portrayed as heavy-handed interference in the day-to-day activities of the Conference. For its part, the Holy See would not understand this as a “sanction,” but rather as a point of dialogue and discernment. It allows the Holy See’s Delegate to be involved in the discussion first of all in order to avoid difficult and embarrassing situations wherein speakers use an LCWR forum to advance positions at odds with the teaching of the Church. Further, this is meant as an assistance to you, the Presidency, so as to anticipate better the issues that will further complicate the relationship of the LCWR with the Holy See.

He then noted that the LCWR recently gave its “Outstanding Leadership Award” (see PDF on the LCWR site) to theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson, who, as I noted two years ago, “supported women’s ordination in the 1970s and has challenged essential tenets of the Church’s beliefs about Christ and salvation over the past three decades.” Her 2011 book, Quest For the Living God, was strongly criticized by the USCCB, which published a 21-page critique, which stated that Johnson’s book “contains misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors that bear upon the faith of the Catholic Church as found in Sacred Scripture, and as it is authentically taught by the Church’s universal magisterium…” The USCCB then reaffirmed its criticisms in an October 2011 statement, saying, “The Committee comes to the conclusion that ‘the language used in the book does not adequately express the faith of the Church.'”

In his address last week, Card. Müller said that the LCWR’s recent honoring of Johnson “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.” Those are, without doubt, some pretty stern words. If the bishops and the LCWR have, for the past forty years, been involved in a sort of diplomatic dance, this remark, and the statement as a whole, marks a shot across the bow. Card. Müller then stated:

The decision taken by the LCWR during the ongoing implementation of the Doctrinal Assessment is indeed regrettable and demonstrates clearly the necessity of the Mandate’s provision that speakers and presenters at major programs will be subject to approval by the Delegate. I must therefore inform you that this provision is to be considered fully in force. I do understand that the selection of honorees results from a process, but this case suggests that the process is itself in need of reexamination. I also understand that plans for this year’s Assembly are already at a very advanced stage and I do not see the need to interrupt them. However, following the August Assembly, it will be the expectation of the Holy See that Archbishop Sartain have an active role in the discussion about invited speakers and honorees.

In addressing the second objection, Card. Müller said:

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.

In other words, the LCWR has continually shown its willingness—nay, its desire—to sever communion with the Church. Period. It is at a point of no return. Card. Müller notes the LCWR’s fixation on New Age guru Barbara Marx Hubbard, a proponent of “Conscious Evolution”:

We have even seen some religious Institutes modify their directional statements to incorporate concepts and undeveloped terms from Conscious Evolution.

Again, I apologize if this seems blunt, but what I must say is too important to dress up in flowery language. The fundamental theses of Conscious Evolution are opposed to Christian Revelation and, when taken unreflectively, lead almost necessarily to fundamental errors regarding the omnipotence of God, the Incarnation of Christ, the reality of Original Sin, the necessity of salvation and the definitive nature of the salvific action of Christ in the Paschal Mystery.

My concern is whether such an intense focus on new ideas such as Conscious Evolution has robbed religious of the ability truly to sentire cum Ecclesia. To phrase it as a question, do the many religious listening to addresses on this topic or reading expositions of it even hear the divergences from the Christian faith present?

That final sentence is especially notable, I think, because Card. Müller is openly and publicly asking, in all seriousness, if the LCWR leadership even has the capacity—spiritually, theologically—to recognize falsehood and dissent, and to step away from it. Well, after forty years, I think the answer is quite clear. And Card. Müller’s languge suggests a similar conclusion:

This concern is even deeper than the Doctrinal Assessment’s criticism of the LCWR for not providing a counter-point during presentations and Assemblies when speakers diverge from Church teaching. The Assessment is concerned with positive errors of doctrine seen in the light of the LCWR’s responsibility to support a vision of religious life in harmony with that of the Church and to promote a solid doctrinal basis for religious life. 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.

The head of the CDF then flatly identifies “Conscious Evolution” for what it is: a gussied up New Age form of the ancient, perennial heresy, gnosticism:

I do not think I overstate the point when I say that the futuristic ideas advanced by the proponents of Conscious Evolution are not actually new. The Gnostic tradition is filled with similar affirmations and we have seen again and again in the history of the Church the tragic results of partaking of this bitter fruit. Conscious Evolution does not offer anything which will nourish religious life as a privileged and prophetic witness rooted in Christ revealing divine love to a wounded world. It does not present the treasure beyond price for which new generations of young women will leave all to follow Christ. The Gospel does! Selfless service to the poor and marginalized in the name of Jesus Christ does!

Card. Müller urged the LCWR leadership to reread Pope Francis’ remarks to the Plenary Assembly of the International Union of Superiors General in May of 2013. But, really, the game is up. And his concluding words suggest as much:

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.

Anything is possible, certainly, by God’s grace and with proper humility and contrition on the part of those moving “away from the ecclesial center of faith in Christ Jesus the Lord”. But I think the days of the LCWR are numbered, because I’m convinced the leadership will, as always, ignore what Church leaders say and stall, stall, and stall. And, surpise, I think Pope Francis will give Cardinal Müller the green light to take the next step.  

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About Carl E. Olson 1190 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.