The past two years have been rough on the relationship between American nuns and the Church. In 2012, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released its "Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious," an eight-page report that criticized aspects of the assemblies, addresses, and newsletters of the country's largest organization of nuns. Among other things, it pointed to "significant doctrinal and moral content ... which often contradict or ignore magisterial teaching." The sisters were instructed to withdraw or revise several publications, review their statutes, and reframe their discussions of Catholic doctrine.
Last week, the cardinal in charge of leading these reforms addressed the leaders of the LCWR in Rome, and he didn't have a lot of praise for the group's progress.
"I apologize if this seems blunt, but what I must say is too important to dress up in flowery language," Gerhard Ludwig Müller said.
For the last several years, the Congregation has been following with increasing concern a focalizing of attention within the LCWR around the concept of Conscious Evolution. Since Barbara Marx Hubbard addressed the Assembly on this topic two years ago, every issue of your newsletter has discussed Conscious Evolution in some way. Issues of [your publication] Occasional Papers have been devoted to it. We have even seen some religious Institutes modify their directional statements to incorporate concepts and undeveloped terms from Conscious Evolution.The fundamental theses of Conscious Evolution are opposed to Christian Revelation and, when taken unreflectively, lead almost necessarily to fundamental errors...
To be clear, "conscious evolution" is a non-Christian concept developed by author and public speaker Barbara Marx Hubbard, whom Müller mentioned in his comments. In large part, the philosophy seems to focus on mindful interaction with the environment. It's described on Hubbard’s website as "an effort to discover the inherent design of life itself, which can be seen as the process of one intelligence, striving to know itself through our many eyes, and to set the stage for a future of immense co-creativity." The site features colorful clip art of planets illuminated by sunbeams and an endorsement from Deepak Chopra.
Words like "conscious," "universe," and "cosmic" do show up in descriptions of Occasional Papers on the LCWR's website, but all in the context of faith. "Humanity finds itself in the midst of an explosion of new understandings of the universe," reads the abstract to the summer 2012 edition of Occasional Papers. "Where do we find God in this?"
Müller went on.
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.
This is a pretty serious rhetorical move. The LCWR is generally considered to be the less conservative organization of women religious in the United States; members of its more conservative counterpart, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, maintain more traditional practices like wearing habits. But the LCWR has a much broader reach—the orders that belong to the organization account for roughly 80 percent of women religious in the United States. Comparing them to adherents of early Christianity's spiritual competition seems like a particularly barbed way to criticize them.
Müller also called out the LCWR's choice to honor Sister Elizabeth Johnson, a Fordham University theology professor, with its Outstanding Leadership Award for this year; Fordham’s book, Quest for a Living God, was criticized by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for its alleged divergence from Church teachings. "This is a decision that will be seen as a rather open provocation against the Holy See and the Doctrinal Assessment," Müller said. Because of this, the sisters will now have even more oversight from Church officials—any speakers or presenters that participate in the organization's events will have to be vetted by an American archbishop, Peter Sartain.
It's unclear how the sisters will respond to these comments and new oversight, but it seems likely that this won't be the last conflict between the curia and the LCWR. As the organization's leaders said in a press statement in 2012 after the USCCB's first review was released, "The presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious was stunned by the conclusion of the doctrinal assessment of LCWR. ... This is a moment of great import for religious life and the wider church. We ask your prayers."