Time to face facts: Pope Francis agrees with the doctrinal assessment of LCWR

This story appears in the LCWR CDF 2014 feature series. View the full series.

by Jamie Manson

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On May 9, 2013, I wrote the following headline: "For LCWR, the more the papacy changes, the more it stays the same."

One year later, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, sadly, has confirmed my suspicions. 

I wrote the headline after the head of the doctrinal congregation, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, announced that the newly elected pope had affirmed the findings of the doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

At that point, Francis' papacy had barely hit the two-month mark. Many saw hopeful signs that the Vatican would soon undergo substantive changes and that the whole LCWR debacle would fade into distant memory.

Some even posited that Francis was barely aware of what Müller was doing. Once the new pope got up to speed, many commentators said, he would put a stop to the scrutiny of the nuns. He'd probably get rid of Müller altogether once he started his curial cleanup.

Instead, Francis not only kept Müller in his job, he elevated him to cardinal.

Some LCWR supporters found increasing hope in an unofficial transcript of a talk that Francis gave to members of the Latin American Conference of Religious in June 2013. In the course of his off-the-cuff remarks, Francis reportedly said:

They will make mistakes, they will make a blunder, this will pass! Perhaps even a letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine (of the Faith) will arrive for you, telling you that you said such or such thing ... But do not worry. Explain whatever you have to explain, but move forward.

What got less attention in that speech, however, was Francis' disapproval of spiritual "elites" who espouse a new form of gnosticism:

The second [worry] is over a gnostic current. These pantheisms ... they're both currents of elites, but this one is of a more formed elite. I knew of one superior general who encouraged the sisters of her congregation to not prayer in the morning, but to give themselves a spiritual bath in the cosmos, such things. ... These bother me because they lack the Incarnation!

Francis' criticism of these so-called elites sounds strikingly similar to Müller's criticism of LCWR last week:

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.

Müller also expressed his concern over "whether such an intense focus on new ideas such as Conscious Evolution has robbed religious of the ability truly to sentire cum Ecclesia."

That Latin phrase, which translates to "feel with the Church," evokes a similar phrase Francis used in a speech in May 2013 to the International Union of Superiors General, a membership organization of some 1,800 global leaders of congregations of women religious.

As NCR's Joshua J. McElwee reported back then, Francis told women religious "to keep their lives centered on Christ, to think of authority in terms of service, and that they must hold a 'feeling with the church that finds its filial expression in fidelity to the magisterium' " (emphasis mine).

The similarities between Francis' quotes and Müller's statement demonstrate clearly that Müller's talking points are coming directly from the pope.

Yet some Catholics still want to distance Francis from the doctrinal congregation's latest attack on LCWR, as if Müller were somehow working in a parallel church that exists outside of papal control. At some point soon, we must take into account all that we've learned about the new pope over the past year and face reality: Francis agrees with the doctrinal assessment.

In 2012, the doctrinal congregation criticized LCWR for exhibiting "radical feminist themes" and for failing to promote the church's teachings on women, contraception and same-sex marriage.

Francis has been painfully honest about his discomfort with feminism. In the 2010 book On Heaven and Earth, then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio explained that the feminist movement achieved its goals when women won the right to vote:

[F]eminism, as a unique philosophy, does not do any favors to those that it claims to represent, for it puts women on the level of a vindictive battle, and a woman is much more than that. The feminist campaign of the '20s achieved what they wanted and it is over, but a constant feminist philosophy does not give women the dignity that they deserve. As a caricature, I would say that it runs the risk of becoming chauvinism with skirts.

Francis' negative sentiments about feminism have persisted. He distorted the struggle for women's equality in his much-celebrated "Big Heart Open to God" interview with Jesuit Fr. Antonio Spadaro, saying,

I am wary of a solution that can be reduced to a kind of "female machismo," because a woman has a different make-up than a man. But what I hear about the role of women is often inspired by an ideology of machismo.

Additionally, Francis has given no signs that he will change any of the teachings that the LCWR supposedly failed to promote.

He has reasserted John Paul II's ban on the ordination of women.

He was silent while Filipino hierarchs continued their full-court press to stop the enactment of a law requiring state-sponsored contraception, a law that vastly improves medical care for poor women and children and promises to decrease poverty and overpopulation.

He took no action when Ugandan Archbishop Cyprian Lwanga publicly lauded the president of Uganda for passing an extreme anti-homosexuality law, a law that clearly violates the Catholic church's teaching to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination.

With words and precedents like these, should we be surprised that Pope Francis is pushing forward on the doctrinal assessment?

Pope Francis and the women of LCWR share a deeply sacramental understanding of their calling to serve those on the margins of our world. They agree that it is in ministering to the poor, the sick, and the vulnerable that they touch the wounded body of Christ.

Where they seem to disagree sharply, however, is in their understanding of religious life as a prophetic life form. When women religious touch the wounded body of Christ in their work, it breaks open their hearts in a way that compels them to ask deeper theological questions. It gives them the eyes to read the signs of the times and recognize the prophets in their midst. It gives them the courage ask bold new spiritual questions.

Like most popes before him, Francis sees the church as a prophetic voice to the outside world but is far less enthusiastic about the prophetic voices that cry out for justice inside the church. As he told the International Union of Superiors General last May, women religious should put themselves "in an attitude of adoration and service" and find their "filial expression in fidelity to the magisterium." It is an "absurd dichotomy," he said, to think "of following Jesus outside of the church, of loving Jesus without loving the church."

Pope Francis believes women religious should continue to do the work of the church while remaining obedient to the voice of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Women religious, on the other hand, believe their work and their faith demand that they remain radically obedient first and foremost to the voice of God.

What may appear to be a conflict over feminism, culture wars and conscious evolution is, ultimately, a cosmic struggle over whose voice the sisters choose to follow.

[Jamie L. Manson is NCR books editor. She received her Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School, where she studied Catholic theology and sexual ethics. Her NCR columns have won numerous awards, most recently second prize for Commentary of the Year from Religion Newswriters (RNA). Her email address is jmanson@ncronline.org.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Jamie Manson's column, "Grace on the Margins," is posted to NCRonline.org. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.

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