ROME, May 6, 2014 ( – The American Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which was placed under a mandate of reform by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith last year, must drop its New Age ideas and return to the central teachings of the Catholic religion on Jesus Christ, the Trinity, and the nature of the Church, or risk being expelled as a recognized Catholic institution.

In an address to LCWR officials in Rome on April 30, Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), and Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle, the Holy See’s delegate to the LCWR, said that the Holy See “believes that the charismatic vitality of religious life can only flourish within the ecclesial faith of the Church.”

“The LCWR, as a canonical entity dependent on the Holy See, has a profound obligation to the promotion of that faith as the essential foundation of religious life. Canonical status and ecclesial vision go hand-in-hand, and at this phase of the implementation of the Doctrinal Assessment, we are looking for a clearer expression of that ecclesial vision and more substantive signs of collaboration,” they said.


Müller warned LCWR that the concepts introduced by a New Age speaker two years ago, and increasingly adopted by LCWR members, constitute a radical break with the most foundational theological concepts of Catholicism.

Müller apologized repeatedly if his language seemed “blunt” or “harsh,” but the issue, he said is “too important to dress up in flowery language.” The CDF’s concerns were aroused by claims by past LCWR speakers that the sisters should “move beyond the Church or even beyond Jesus.” This movement has been described as “Conscious Evolution” by its supporters, but the CDF said in reality it constitutes nothing less than “a movement away from the ecclesial center of faith in Christ Jesus the Lord.”

The remarks are the latest in an ongoing clash between the Vatican’s doctrinal office and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) that has openly defied a mandate of reform intended to bring their organization into line with basic Catholic doctrine on the nature of God, the Church and sexual morality. One of the first public statements of Pope Francis’ pontificate was an affirmation that the investigation and reform of LCWR must continue.

Müller said the CDF has been watching with alarm since New Age speaker Barbara Marx Hubbard addressed LCWR’s Annual Assembly two years ago, “every issue of your newsletter has discussed Conscious Evolution in some way,” and “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 regarding the omnipotence of God, the Incarnation of Christ, the reality of Original Sin, the necessity of salvation and the definitive nature of the salvific action of Christ in the Paschal Mystery,” he said.

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Müller expressed his “concern” that “such an intense focus on new ideas” may have “robbed religious of the ability truly to ‘sentire cum Ecclesia’ [think with the Church],” and that the divergence from basic Catholic doctrine had already occurred among the religious of LCWR. “To phrase it as a question, do the many religious listening to addresses on this topic or reading expositions of it even hear the divergences from the Christian faith present?”

The concepts proposed by Conscious Evolution, he added, “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.” These ideas, he warned, will “not offer anything which will nourish religious life.”

Among the CDF’s directives, to which LCWR has strenuously objected, is the requirement that “speakers and presenters at major programs” be approved by the Vatican’s delegate, Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain. This, Müller said, was decided in order to “avoid difficult and embarrassing situations wherein speakers use an LCWR forum to advance positions at odds with the teaching of the Church.”

Instead of honoring this mandate, however, Müller said he was “saddened” to learn that LCWR has chosen at this year’s Annual Assembly to honour Elizabeth A. Johnson CSJ, a theologian who has been criticized by the U.S. bishops for her opposition to Catholic teaching.

This decision, Müller said, “will be seen as a rather open provocation against the Holy See and the Doctrinal Assessment.” Müller said, “There is no other interpretive lens, within and outside the Church, through which the decision to confer this honor will be viewed.”

He also noted that the decision to award Johnson has been made without consultation with Archbishop Sartain.

LCWR’s choice, he said, was also being taken as further proof of the need for the reform mandate. Nevertheless, he added that he understood the plans for this year’s Annual Assembly were already “at an advanced stage” and that he saw no need “to interrupt them.”

Johnson is a professor of theology at Fordham University and a former head of the Catholic Theological Society of America, known for her feminist approach to theology. Her 2007 book Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, was censured in 2011 by the USCCB Committee on Doctrine as failing to “recognize divine revelation as the standard for Catholic theology.”

The USCCB critique said Johnson’s doctrine of God “does not accord with authentic Catholic teaching on essential points.”

LCWR’s newsletter said Johnson’s “leadership in her field has grounded, inspired and challenged people of faith throughout the world.”

Although still politically powerful, particularly as a voice of the far-Left of the U.S. Catholic Church in secular politics, LCWR, together with its vision of the Catholic religious life, is dying out. While LCWR represents about 80 percent of the 57,000 religious sisters in the U.S., the average age of its members is about 74 with very few new recruits.

A smaller and newer organization, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR) is made up of religious communities that have largely retained the traditional view of the religious life and Catholic theology, and many of its member communities are growing and flourishing.