When Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the superiors who represent 80 percent of American nuns, open their four-day summer convention Tuesday in Nashville, key members of the US Catholic hierarchy will be on hand, notably the Vatican-assigned overseer of the sisters’ group, Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain.
The big question will be whether one side blinks.
Vatican officials and certain US bishops are in a standoff with the liberal leadership of the mainstream communities of American religious sisters.
The rift between the two sides opened in 2012 when the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) ordered the nuns to revise their statutes and work under the supervision of a bishop for their alleged tilt toward "radical feminism" and for promoting theological positions at odds with the magisterium, or teaching office at the CDF.
As GlobalPost reported in 2013, key cardinals and bishops behind the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) investigation had been publicly tarnished for their concealment of pedophile priests.
The group included Cardinal William Levada, the CDF prefect, who was mired in abuse scandals in San Francisco when Pope Benedict called him to Rome in 2005. Levada misrepresented the work of Sister Laurie Brink, a respected scripture scholar, taking out of context her words in a speech she gave at an LCWR convention to suggest that she was attacking the hierarchy. A guest speaker, Brink was not an LCWR member.
Benedict’s resignation in 2013 changed things. Leveda himself retired soon thereafter. Though Pope Francis, with his stirring language of social justice and radical mercy, has been reorganizing the Roman Curia and Vatican Bank, he has not taken a public position on the ancien regime’s battle with the nuns.
Gerhard Müller, the German theologian appointed by Benedict to succeed Levada, remained in his position when Francis became pope — and has since become a cardinal.
Last May, Müller issued a blistering criticism of Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s writing and attacked LCWR’s support for conscious evolution, a theory rooted partially in the work of the Jesuit theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
The cardinal “couldn't bring himself to actually use Johnson's name, but everyone in the room knew that he was referring to a 2011 "critique" of her book Quest for the Living God that was published by the doctrinal committee of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops,” writer Grant Gallicho noted in a May 5 Commonweal blog.
“The Committee on Doctrine really disliked the book,” Gallicho wrote. “You can tell because they claimed it ‘completely undermines the Gospel.’ But the committee's case was rather weak. It seemed to rest on false assumptions about Johnson's intent — especially on issues related to feminism, which led me to wonder whether committee members had actually read the book. They didn't even invite her to discuss their concerns before publishing their broadside.”
LCWR will honor Sister Johnson at the convention this week, which might be taken as an assertion of their business as usual. Their strategy has been a flood-the-zone approach to discussion and dialogue with Sartain and officials in Vatican offices, particularly where they have support. Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, the Brazilian prefect of the office that governs religious orders, is their leading ally within the Vatican.
If they do not conform to the submission ordered by Levada and now Müller, the ultimate penalty would be the loss of canonical standing as one of two designated groups of religious sisters with official standing in the Vatican. The other group of American sisters is much smaller and more orthodox. LCWR superiors represent 80 percent of America's 57,000 sisters.
Should Francis intervene, and side with the CDF and bishops incensed at the direction the nuns have traveled in greater engagement with the poor, gay and marginalized peoples, the sisters’ search for theological meaning would still extend beyond the settled academic pastures.
They would become one more Catholic group without Rome's approval — a rather large constituency, some might argue.
But depriving the LCWR of official status would have repercussions for Francis. Not since John XXIII in the early 1960s has a pope achieved such popularity on the global stage, espousing international peace and justice, gaining respect of Jews and Muslims. To punish sisters who have gone into the trenches of the poor and castoff peoples would seem a contradiction of Francis's agenda of radical mercy.
In reality, Müller and the bishops opposed to LCWR are engaging in a turf war, fighting for territory of the mind, the control of theological terms as approved by a male hierarchy whose moral authority has been stained by the aching crisis of bishops concealing pedophiles. Nor do they seem to have come to terms with Teilhard, the French Jesuit who died a virtual outcast of the church and was buried in New York. His works today are taught in schools and universities across the world.
“Beth Johnson’s book is used in many Catholic universities and high schools,” said Sister Christine Schenk, a founder of the reform group FutureChurch.
“When the bishops slammed the book there was speculation that they knew it was becoming popular. That book presents a range of ideas about the diversity of the human community, and a larger, questioning larger notion of who God is.”
Quest for a Living God takes readers on a journey into the idea of God as few Catholic theologies do.
“Prophets and religious thinkers have long insisted on the need to turn away from false idols and escape out of their clasp toward the living God,” writes Sister Johnson, a Fordham professor.
“In this context, seeking the female face of God has profound significance. By relativizing masculine imagery it lassoes the idol off its pedestal, breaking the stranglehold of patriarchal discourse and its deleterious effects. God is not literally a father or a king or a lord but something ever so much greater. Thus is the truth more greatly honored.”
GlobalPost religion blogger Jason Berry is co-producer of the Frontline documentary “Secrets of the Vatican” and author of Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.