In the mid-1920s, working at the Mount Wilson Observatory in Southern California, Edwin Hubble began to realize some of the numerous distant, faint clouds of light in the universe were actually galaxies -- much like our own Milky Way. In 1929, he saw the farther a galaxy is from Earth, the faster it appeared to move away.
The universe was expanding, and it was unimaginably larger than scientists had thought to that point.
Rewinding that expansion, using mathematics -- dividing distance by speed -- scientists came to determine the universe began some 14 billion years ago when a tiny, dense, exceedingly hot particle exploded. It came to be known as the Big Bang.
These discoveries represented perhaps the largest shift in human cosmic understanding since Galileo, looking through his homemade telescope, came to realize that Earth revolves around the sun.
In 1984, then-Pope John Paul II, long fascinated by science, had the Vatican begin a process that would eventually lead to a statement in 1992 admitting church officials had erred in condemning Galileo.
Explore Pope Francis' environmental encyclical. Receive our FREE readers' guide when you sign up for the weekly Eco Catholic email.
Hoping to avoid such reactive mistakes in the future, he went on to say he wanted more than a truce, a mere "two worlds" strategy; rather, discoveries in the natural sciences needed to be imaginatively confronted, interpreted philosophically and theologically.
In 1987, through the offices of the Vatican Secretary of State, he initiated an international research conference to be convened at the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, by observatory director Jesuit Fr. George Coyne. In a letter to Coyne at the opening of the conference, John Paul wrote: "Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes."
Fast-forward 25 years. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, pondering their traditional mission as pioneers in service and education, pondering the very issues John Paul wrestled with, decided to spend time asking themselves how their missions could assist in reconciling Catholic thought with some of the 20th-century changes in cosmology.
- Column by Ilia Delio: Renewing the conversation between faith and science on GlobalSistersReport.org
- Timeline of interactions between LCWR, doctrinal congregation
Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Annmarie Sanders, speaking before LCWR's 2012 gathering, said the group invited Barbara Max Hubbard to be its keynote speaker to get her perspective "on the context of the world in which women religious are living and ministering."
Hubbard, who was raised in a nonreligious Jewish family, said her talk would be hopeful. "I feel that we are an evolving species, and that the type of humans that are being born in all these different experiences are trying to make a better world in any possible way," she said at the time.
At first brush, one might ask why an organization of Catholic sisters representing the heads of congregations across the nation would take days to contemplate science and Christian theology.
Looking at the history of U.S. women religious orders provides clues. These women pride themselves on living and working at the frontiers, pushing the boundaries, seeking ways to serve the church, often before others recognize the need. This adventurous mindset led them from hospital, education and missionary work in the 19th and 20th centuries to theological centers, AIDS ministries and eco-farming in the 21st century.
Notre Dame Sr. Mary Heather MacKinnon, explaining the mission of women religious today, wrote for NCR in 1993: "Postmodern consciousness asks that religious life re-envision itself within a new social and cultural paradigm that is challenging traditional understandings of anthropology, economics, politics, ethics, education, religion and spirituality."
The 850 U.S. women religious leaders who gather each year for LCWR's national assembly are arguably the largest group of educated Catholic women to regularly assemble under one roof.
LCWR itself is a novel and collegial group. Having come into its current iteration in 1971 during a period of rich church renewal following the Second Vatican Council, it chose not to organize in a traditional pyramid style with authority vested at the top.
Picking up on the idea of collegiality -- one of the main themes of Vatican II, as Pope Francis reminds us -- the women instead said their group would be more democratic. Religious communities elect their leaders, and these, in turn, are sent by the congregations to represent them at regional and national gatherings. Furthermore, these gatherings elect temporary rotating governing officers, including a president-elect, president and past president. Major decisions, as a result, come about often painfully slow at annual assemblies after deliberation and prayer.
In keeping with the science, cosmos, and religious mission themes, last year, LCWR invited Franciscan Sr. Ilia Delio, who teaches at Georgetown University, to stir imagination and help nudge members forward. Her talk was appropriately called, "Religious Life on the Edge of the Universe," referring to the scientific fact that our solar system is, indeed, on the edge of the universe, not at its center.
Delio is the author of more than a dozen books and holds doctorates in pharmacology and theology. She is known for her work on environmental issues and for academic research on the interplay of science and religion in modern society.
The essence of her message -- her challenge -- to the women was succinctly put in a March 2011 issue of US Catholic, in which she said that the age of the universe alone requires us to talk about creation and Christ in a new language:
The whole cosmos, from the big bang on, is that Word of God being spoken in the vast spaces of the universe ... Christ is probably the most inclusive term we could use to talk about God's presence. Christ is the one who draws together, who unifies the new creation.
Delio told the LCWR assembly, "A dynamic universe provokes the idea and the understanding of a dynamic God. This is not a stay-at-home God. This is a God who is deeply immersed in a love affair with the beloved, the creation which flows out of his divine heart."
In his opening remarks to the LCWR leadership April 30 in Rome, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told the women they had ignored procedures for choosing speakers for their annual conferences and questioned if their programs were promoting heresy.
Müller specifically challenged the LCWR leaders for deciding to bestow its 2014 Outstanding Leadership Award to "a theologian criticized by the Bishops of the United States because of the gravity of the doctrinal errors in that theologian's writings." Although he does not name her, Müller is referring to St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, a theologian at Fordham University.
Johnson, who has been widely honored in U.S. Catholic universities, is considered one of the most esteemed U.S. Catholic theologians. A March 2011 statement by the U.S. bishops' doctrine committee said that Johnson's book, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God was marred by "misrepresentations, ambiguities and errors" and "completely undermines the Gospel and the faith of those who believe in that Gospel."
The finding came after a year of private deliberations and took place without notifying Johnson or allowing her to defend the book, which caused great controversy.
To honor Johnson -- one of the most prominent women religious in the country -- despite the committee's critique of that single book fits with how the LCWR, the effective thinking head of the body of U.S. Catholic sister congregations, looks at its mission -- contemplating contemporary religious life, its challenges, and the ways it can serve the church moving ahead.
Johnson's Quest maps out the ways different groups are searching and finding God in their lives. It maintains, echoing Aquinas, that no single view or description is adequate because, in the final word, God is mystery.
Conflicts between bishops and religious go back centuries to the very foundations of religious life. At issue are differing views on the use of authority and the place and role of women religious within the church.
These conflicts are primary but rest within even a broader context, one of sometimes-conflicting understandings of religious life, mission and worldviews.
Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister captured some of these conflicts in her 1995 book The Fire in These Ashes: A Spirituality of Contemporary Religious Life. In that book, she wrote the world that spawned religious life, even the religious life of the 20th century, "is not the world we're living in."
"If religious life has anything to do with real life, the hope of recasting it in old molds smacks of pure fantasy ... Spending time and energy yearning for the return of the mythical past while the present swirls perilously around us, awash in the debris of rationalism in the social order and dogmatism in the church, only holds us back, I think, from moving in holy ways in a post-modern world."
Many educators place human worldviews into three broad categories: pre-modern, modern and postmodern. Pre-modernism began with earliest recorded history and lasted until the 17th century. In this period, authority was revealed through structures and religions, with knowledge with truths traceable to God. Modernism lasted until the mid-20th century. In this period, truth was found through reason and was empirical, coming from science. Postmodernism has lasted to current times and sees knowledge coming from multiple sources; hierarchy is distrusted and authority is more diffuse. The Internet, as a source of communication and information, is an example of this diffusion.
Vatican II attempted to bring the church into the modern world just as that world was giving way to the postmodern era, a time of instant satellite and global communication, a time when information can no longer be controlled, a time in which the heaven is no longer above, but all around: no ups, no downs.
In criticizing LCWR's choice of Hubbard as a keynote speaker and through his attack on conscious evolution, Müller might have triggered what some feel should be another serious round of discussions within the church about contemporary science-driven cosmology and church teaching within it.
It was French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, forbidden by the doctrinal congregation to publish in his lifetime and whose works became popular in Catholic circles in the mid-1980s, who first drew attention to these needs. His writings, in turn, sparked Passionist priest and eco-theologian Thomas Berry's interest.
Berry popularized what has come in some circles to be called the new cosmology, writing that the universe is God's primary revelation and the quintessence of reality. All other stories emerge, he maintained, from this primary revelation, this primary story.
Many U.S. women religious communities, influenced by Teilhard and Berry, became active proponents of what some have called creation spirituality, using science and traditional Catholic sacramental notions to energize Christian belief and present the faith in a more contemporary setting.
This work has sparked a greater ecological awareness throughout the church. Countless women religious communities, meanwhile, have started eco-friendly farms and gardens to helps sustain themselves and others.
If there is a question as to where LCWR feels comfortable and plans to go, however they eventually come to terms with the CDF mandate, one need not go further than recall what Franciscan Sr. Pat Farrell told the LCWR assembly in her 2012 presidential address:
"It is easy to see this LCWR moment as a microcosm of a world in flux. It is nested within the very large and comprehensive paradigm shift of our day. The cosmic breaking down and breaking through we are experiencing gives us a broader context. Many institutions, traditions, and structures seem to be withering. Why? I believe the philosophical underpinnings of the way we've organized reality no longer hold. The human family is not served by individualism, patriarchy, a scarcity mentality, or competition. The world is outgrowing the dualistic constructs of superior/inferior, win/lose, good/bad, and domination/submission. Breaking through in their place are equality, communion, collaboration, synchronicity, expansiveness, abundance, wholeness, mutuality, intuitive knowing, and love. ... We can, indeed, live in joyful hope because there is no political or ecclesiastical herbicide that can wipe out the movement of God's Spirit. Our hope is in the absolutely uncontainable power of God.
Just $5 a month supports NCR's independent Catholic journalism.
We are committed to keeping our online journalism open and available to as many readers as possible. To do that, we need your help. Join NCR Forward, our new membership program.
Looking for comments?
We've suspended comments on NCRonline.org for a while. If you missed that announcement, learn more about our decision here.