Vatican Official Offers Fresh Criticism of U.S. Sisters

Walter Kasper

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.

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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.”

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Robert Killoren
4 years 6 months ago
I was more than a little shocked when I read the title of this article and saw the picture of Cardinal Kasper. I was greatly relieved, however, after reading it. Cardinal Kasper is a lot kinder in his criticism of the Curia, and especially Cardinal Muller, than I would be. I haven't seen any attempts to have a real dialogue about the sisters, only continued condemnation of the leadership of LCWR (code for "those women") which is described by Muller as opposed to Christian revelation. Why not have some public debates on the role of women in the Church, on feminist theology, and on the Church's utter failure to bring women into roles of leadership? Let some of the critics from the Curia do something besides throwing stones from the sidelines. I'd love to see one of them debate Sister Johnson. While Cardinal Kasper urges Americans to not be overly concerned with the harsh words from Rome, I for one am getting quite fed up with the continued harassment of the women who are carrying the main load of caring for the sick and the poor around the world. Where would the Church be without them?
Mike Evans
4 years 6 months ago
This was a clear shot across the bows threatening any "uppity sisters" from any other region of the world from joining with the Americans in asserting their views. In most other areas of the world they are reduced to mere slavery, often doing only housekeeping chores for priests. As there are more and more doing professional work in teaching and medical work, they too might be tempted to assert a more "feminine agenda" in defense particularly of all the very poor women in the world who are so often also abused.
Frank Bergen
4 years 6 months ago
Robert Killoren has said it all. The 'traditionalists' in the curia didn't give up after Vatican II. A second and third generation of 'traditionalists' continue to place their chairs and would like to place the chair of Peter at water's edge in defiance of the tides. Ultimately their notion of 'tradition' shall not prevail. As one of my favorite theologians put it so succinctly: "Tradition is the preservation of the flame, not the worship of the ashes." That was Gustav Mahler. I guess some in the curia would hold him suspect, too.
Paul Ferris
4 years 6 months ago
Cardinal Gerhard Muller prefaced his remarks to the LCWR by saying he was being blunt. He needs to learn the difference between being blunt and being a jerk.
Jean-Pierre HERVEG
4 years 6 months ago

I don't know how someone can prove "objectively" that women are carrying the main load of caring for the sick and the poor around the world ... This sentence looks more like the beginning of a war between men and women than like the beginning of a dialog. By the way, theology is about God, not about feminism.

Michael Barberi
4 years 6 months ago
It is not unhistoric that a leading Cardinal of the RCC, Cardinal Kasper who is a close theological adviser to Pope Francis, opposes the judgment of another, Cardinal Muller, the prefect of the CDF. The bottom-line is this: What will the CDF do now, other than issuing harsh words? For some reason, I doubt they will do anything significant to change the work and practices of the L.C.W.R. The CDF does not want to risk an all-out-war and scandal.

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