The strong public scolding Cardinal Gerhard Müller delivered in April to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious really disturbed many Catholics. It was so obviously out of sync with Pope Francis’ call for dialogue, discernment and especially respect when discussing matters of faith.
Yet, Müller’s blunt, confrontational accusations stirred little immediate reaction. It was as if people were stunned into silence by the contrast between the pope’s approach and that of the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).
Some wondered if the pope and Müller might be playing a good-cop-bad-cop routine for reasons that were not clear. The LCWR leadership refused to respond to Müller’s specifics and said they somehow had a fruitful dialogue with the cardinal and affirmed their determination to stay at the table despite the cardinal’s opening rant. And several coalitions of reform groups urged the pope to apologize for an outburst so contrary to his own approach.
For more than a month then, there was mostly silence and a turn to other topics. I was not aware of any bishops or priests speaking out until a brisk retort to Müller was issued by the little known Association of U.S. Catholic Priests (AUSCP) at their meeting in Seattle on June 2. The association, formed three years ago, had been docile and relatively invisible until now. In a letter addressed to Francis, however, they expressed “sadness and dismay” at Müller’s “abuse of the process” with the sisters. Here are a few samples from their candid statement.
Müller’s “release without any reference to LCWR’s views or any inclusion of the subsequent dialogue seems to us to have been a disservice to the process.”
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“It served as a public ‘rebuke’ of the LCWR… Does that kind of premature, one-sided public comment build trust? Does it help the process or the public perception of the Church? Rather it projects what many perceive as clerical/hierarchical bullying of religious women, publicly shaming them.”
“Cardinal Müller ended his blunt welcome of the LCWR professing his debt to religious women and said he spoke as he did ‘out of great love.’ His critique included ‘concern that the LCWR present the treasure beyond price for which new generations of young women will leave all to follow Christ presented by the Gospel: selfless service to the poor and marginalized in the name of Jesus Christ.’ Perhaps the cardinal momentarily lost focus on the fact that the women he addressed and the tens of thousands of other women they represent have been and are living that ideal, laboring to keep it shining bright in today’s world.”
To Francis, the priests said, “We perceive you to be promoting an entirely different way of dealing with matters of concern within the church, allowing honest dialogue without preemptively defining the outcomes. The process CDF is using seems to us far removed from Acts 15 and Vatican II.”
The letter was signed by Fr. James Cooper, AUSCP president, and the nine members of the association board.
I congratulate AUSCP (though I cannot pronounce it) and pray it will become a strong voice for fairness and justice in the universal church.