Using what he acknowledged was unusually “blunt” language, Cardinal Gerhard Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, rebuked officers of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious on April 30 for promoting futuristic ideas he described as “opposed to Christian revelation,” and he criticized the group’s plan to honor the Catholic theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J., whose work he said has been judged “seriously inadequate.”
The L.C.W.R. represents about 80 percent of the 57,000 women religious in the United States; it is currently undergoing a major reform ordered by the Vatican in 2012.
In a statement on May 8, L.C.W.R. officers described the cardinal’s address as “constructive in its frankness and lack of ambiguity. It was not an easy discussion, but its openness and spirit of inquiry created a space for authentic dialogue and discernment.”
They also said their meeting with the cardinal should be viewed within the context of all of their visits to Vatican offices, where they “experienced a culture of encounter, marked by dialogue and discernment.”
Cardinal Walter Kasper, a theologian and retired president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, characterized the criticism of American nuns as typical of the “narrower” view that officials of the Roman Curia tend to take, and he said Catholics in the United States should not be overly concerned. Cardinal Kasper addressed the topic on May 5 at Fordham University in a wide-ranging conversation on mercy.
“I also am considered suspect!” he said with a laugh.
Cardinal Kasper told the audience that after Francis praised him by name just days after his election, an old cardinal approached the new pope and told him, “Holy Father, you cannot do this! There are heresies in this book!”
As Francis recounted the story to him, Cardinal Kasper said, the pope smiled and added, “This enters in one ear and goes out the other.”
Asked about Elizabeth Johnson and another feminist theologian, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, whose views have also been disputed by the hierarchy, Cardinal Kasper said that he has known them both for years and added: “I esteem them both.”
Critiques are part of academic discourse, he said, but the C.D.F. sometimes “sees some things a little bit narrower.” He said that the criticism of Johnson “is not a tragedy and we will overcome.” He noted that St. Thomas Aquinas, the medieval theologian now considered one of the greatest minds in the church, was condemned by his bishop and lived under a shadow for years.
“So she is in good company!” Cardinal Kasper said.
Cardinal Kasper said that he hoped that the confrontation between the Vatican and the L.C.W.R. would be overcome. “We should be in communion,” he said, “which also means in dialogue with each other. I hope all this controversy will end in a good, peaceful and meaningful dialogue.”