Response to Müller’s remarks: Real dialogue needed

Editor's note: To read the L'Osservatore Romano article, click here.

The latest remarks from the Vatican official overseeing the attempts to reform women religious in the United States show how far apart the two sides are, prominent sisters say.

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith prefect Cardinal Gerhard Müller told L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s semiofficial newspaper, that the congregation’s five-year reform agenda for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is in place not because the Vatican hates women, but to help them regain their identity. The LCWR is made up of the leaders of 80 percent of the nation’s approximately 52,000 sisters.

“Above all we have to clarify that we are not misogynists, we don’t want to gobble up a woman a day!” Müller told the newspaper for its Sept. 1 edition.

LCWR has been under the shadow of a Vatican-ordered doctrinal assessment since 2009. Following the investigation, in 2012 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ordered it to reform its statutes and appointed a bishop to oversee changes.

LCWR officials declined to respond to Müller’s comments.

Joan Chittister, a Benedictine sister from Erie, Penn., and former LCWR president, said Müller’s comments show the two sides continue to talk past one another. Chittister is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer on topics of justice, peace, human rights, women's issues and contemporary spirituality and a columnist for ncronline.org. The current situation dooms both sides to repeating contrarian statements, she said.

“From the church: ‘This is not misogyny;’ From the sisters: ‘We are not heretics,’” Chittister said of the arguments. “Or better yet: This is for your own good versus this is damaging the mission of the sisterhood.”

Chittister said women religious have tried to have a genuine dialogue, but only one side is listening.

“Is this really a ‘dialogue’ or an attempt at some kind of control, designed to turn adult women disciples of Jesus into the incompetent female children of the church?” she asked. “Just sitting in a room talking to one another is not dialogue. Real dialogue seeks understanding. Investigation seeks control. It’s that simple.”

Social Service Sr. Simone Campbell said the comments show Müller is feeling pushback.

“It’s clear he’s getting some negative pressure. And I know from my own spiritual life, if I have to say I’m not something, it’s kind of a defensive stance. I wonder if he thinks he is a misogynist?” Campbell said. “I don’t think he hates women, I think he’s frightened of us, and that makes him want to put us back into a very narrow perspective.”

Campbell is executive director of the lobbying group NETWORK and author of A Nun on the Bus: How All of Us Can Create Hope, Change, and Community.

Campbell repeated what several speakers at LCWR’s annual assembly in Nashville, Tenn., last month said: The tension between the church and its missionaries is nothing new.

“We did what Vatican II called us to do, which is to renew and recognize that the work of the Holy Spirit among us can’t be limited by bureaucrats. And that’s the challenge,” she said. “The Vatican is by definition a bureaucracy. But we’re not about bureaucracy, we’re about responding to the needs of the world.”

Ann Carey, a Catholic journalist and author of the 1997 book Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women's Religious Communities, and its 2013 update, Sisters in Crisis, Revisited: From Unraveling to Reform and Renewal, also said Müller seems to be responding to critics.

“I have not been able to find the original article that appeared in L’Osservatore Romano, but from what I have read, it seems that Cardinal Müller was trying to respond to the criticism swirling around about the CDF mandate of reform for LCWR,” Carey said. “Much of that anger about the mandate has resulted in ad hominem attacks focused on Cardinal Müller himself, as if he has gone rogue and is single-handedly taking it upon himself to reform LCWR.”

Instead, Carey said, Müller is acting in concert with those above him.

“I don’t see any of these critics reporting that Pope Francis has at least twice reaffirmed that the reform of LCWR should go forward; he also reappointed then-Archbishop Müller as CDF prefect and raised him to the office of cardinal,” Carey said.

Jo Piazza, author of If Nuns Ruled the World: Ten Sisters on a Mission, published this month, said Müller’s comments didn’t make sense.

“In fact I don’t think the two parts of that sentence actually make much sense when you put them together,” Piazza said. “I won’t go as far as to say that I think the Vatican hates women. So in the strictest sense of the word I don’t think they are misogynists. I just don’t think that they have their priorities straight when it comes to which members of their flock to focus on admonishing and correcting.”

Müller also told L’Osservatore Romano that LCWR’s sisters “do not represent all U.S. nuns, but just a group of North American nuns who form part of an association,” and that, “We have received many letters of distress from other nuns belonging to the same congregations who are suffering a great deal because of the direction in which [members of the LCWR] are steering their mission.”

LCWR is made up of the leaders of religious orders and congregations, who are elected. The organization’s board only acts on consensus of the members. LCWR officials say the nation’s sisters steer LCWR, not the other way around.

“LCWR represents 80 percent of American congregations of women religious. That's four out of five, Cardinal Müller, not ‘just a group,’” wrote Sr. Maureen Fiedler in a blog entry at ncronline.org. Fiedler, a Sister of Loretto, is the host of the public radio show Interfaith Voices.

“The problem with LCWR is not LCWR – its Cardinal Müller,” Fiedler wrote. “The time has come for a concerted grassroots campaign to urge Pope Francis to replace him, and the sooner, the better.”

But Carey said there's more at stake than politics.

“The critics also seem to ignore what Francis told 800 sisters who are members of the International Union of Superiors General in May of last year: ‘Your vocation is a fundamental charism for the Church's journey and it isn't possible that a consecrated woman or man might “feel” themselves not to be with the Church,’” Carey said. “I think the prefect’s remarks were aimed at trying to get past the hyperbole and propaganda to re-focus the discussion on the actual point of the mandate, which is to help LCWR sisters recover that sense of being ‘with the Church.’”

Though from another perspective, Chittister also said the issues in the dispute are critical.

“What is being weighed in the balance are the very charisms of religious life that have over the centuries always brought women into conflict with disapproving bishops while the Holy Spirit was doing a great new work in the church,” she said. “The important thing here is not the keeping of old rules and gender roles. It is about not suppressing the radical influence of the Holy Spirit in the development of religious life this time, either.”

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. Dawn Cherie Araujo, GSR staff reporter, contributed to this story.]