Why is the Vatican so upset with some of the nuns in the United States? Is there trouble brewing in the sisterhood that has Rome concerned? What could be so bad that it warrants a "crackdown"?
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, or LCWR, is the organization at the center of all this lately. The LCWR is the largest umbrella group for U.S. nuns.
Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, recently addressed the LCWR leadership about the Church's disappointment in some of that organization's activities and statements. His comments were based on a previous Doctrinal Assessment, or probationary improvement plan, that had been imposed upon the LCWR by the Vatican.
Back in 2012 Archbishop J. Peter Sartain was tasked with overseeing changes in the LCWR to conform more closely to "the teachings and discipline of the Church." This action was ordered by Pope Benedict, but has carried on under the leadership of Pope Francis.
But the beginnings of the Church's displeasure with the LCWR goes back further than Pope Benedict.
Back in 1979, when John Paul II was still Pope, the group asked the Pope to consider ordaining women as priests. The topic was broached by Sister Theresa Kane, then president of the LCWR. She had been invited to publicly address Pope John Paul II during a his visit to the United States.
In a publicly televised moment, Sister Theresa said, “We have heard the powerful message of our church addressing the dignity and reverence of all persons. As women, we have pondered these words." The Church, "must respond by providing the possibility of women as persons being included in all ministries.”
The Pope did not immediately respond, but the question had made it to the airwaves. The Church asked the group to not ask about it again.
The group was taken to task by Mueller for presenting its Outstanding Leadership Award to feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson, whose book Quest for the Living God was publicly denounced by the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2011.
Mueller told the nuns, "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."
"I realize I am speaking rather bluntly about this, but I do so out of an awareness that there is no other interpretive lens, within and outside the Church, through which the decision to confer this honor will be viewed."
Mueller also criticized the LCWR for its talk of "religious moving beyond the Church or even beyond Jesus". Mueller said that such talk constitutes "a movement away from the ecclesial center of faith in Christ Jesus the Lord."
In the end, Mueller reminded the nuns that their organization exists at the pleasure of the Vatican, and that they are expected to get back in line.
"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."
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