Beliefs Ethics Institutions

US nuns to honor feminist theologian while keeping politics at bay

Sister Elizabeth Johnson photo by Tom Stoelker, courtesy of Fordham University.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) The nation’s largest leadership group for Catholic nuns will bestow its top award Friday (Aug. 15) on a theologian who has been condemned by the U.S. Catholic bishops for her book examining the nature of God.

Sister Elizabeth Johnson photo by Tom Stoelker, courtesy of Fordham University.

Sister Elizabeth Johnson, author of “Quest for the Living God” and longtime Fordham University professor. Photo by Tom Stoelker, courtesy of Fordham University.

But a top Vatican official warned the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in April that honoring Sister Elizabeth Johnson, author of “Quest for the Living God” and longtime Fordham University professor, would be considered provoking the Holy See and U.S. bishops.

Meeting for their annual four-day conference in Nashville this week, the group’s leaders are publicly discussing spirituality and doctrine while taking up church politics in closed sessions. Their appointed overseer, Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, said he’s promised the sisters not to talk about their conflict with the media, and the LCWR’s spokeswoman said interviews with nuns were contingent on agreements not to mention it.

The LCWR represents 80 percent of the 51,600 women religious in the United States. The organization has been under fire since 2012, when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Catholic church’s top orthodoxy enforcement group, ordered the nuns to revise their statutes and move away from “radical feminism.”

After this conference, Sartain will approve all speakers.

Despite the public display of unity, signs of the dispute emerged.

The nuns launched their assembly with interpretive dance and happy songs about justice. But after Vatican-based Rev. Hank Lemoncelli took the stage to read a letter that included hard questions about whether the orders were following the rules of Jesus, reporters rushed to ask if those were related to attempts to bring the nuns into line.

Lemoncelli insisted the letter’s questions were the same as those read to priests.

Sister Nancy Schreck, a former LCWR president who delivered the keynote address, said anyone who knows the Vatican II document about religious life shouldn’t find the questions unusual.

At the same time, she quietly reiterated Johnson’s book’s stance that there’s more than one way to look at God and said that while the church is a vehicle for mission, the LCWR’s focus is the life of Jesus.

“Look at the four Gospels — they all have nuances in who Jesus is,” she said. “We need to figure out how we translate the message of Jesus to the world where we live. We will be richer for looking at a variety of interpretations.”

The group’s new president, who took leadership today avoided discussing the conflict but scoffed at a newspaper headline in her native Michigan titled: “Sister Soldier.” It topped an article about Sister Sharon Holland’s ascension to leadership in LCWR after 21 years of experience as a Vatican-based legal expert in church law.

“They must not know how we feel about military conflict,” she joked.

It’s unlikely the sides can come to a solution, said Bruce Morrill, a Vanderbilt University professor of theological studies and a Jesuit priest.

At the conflict’s heart is a difference in approach to hierarchical chain of command: the top-down, morals-emphasizing Vatican versus the collegial, social-justice oriented nuns.

“As far as the U.S. bishops and Vatican officials are concerned, this is not a debate,” Morrill said. “The hierarchy expects the women religious to obey their directives, such as their having now to submit the agendas and speakers for future annual meetings to the archbishop.”


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Heidi Hall


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  • Jesus gave the Way, the Truth and a promise of Everlasting Life by practicing: Right relationship with others, with all life, all matter, all creation, leading to cosmic fulfillment through the Law of Love, NOT FEAR.

    · LCWR (and others struggling for peace and justice) have a dynamic interpretation of the message of the gospel not a static one. They have embraced the Way of Love, serving others, teaching by example, listening and learning and not exercising control over others. They spiral outward in an embrace of Love…Growing and giving new life. They use conscience as a guide and dance with diversity seeing it as the beauty of creation in progress.

    · The Hierarchy of the Catholic Church (and other religions as well) have embraced the static interpretation of scripture and continue to impose it on others by power over, using treats and denigrating, and finally excluding. Diversity is seen as aberration and intelligence and independence as threat. They, like an abusive spouse would choose to kill the so-called beloved rather than loose control over them. They teach salvation comes to those who submit to the safety of a locked box, where no one thinks, questions, chooses, or loves without censure. They are willing to kill the Church to achieve this goal. They spiral inward like a black hole taking all with them into darkness… and death.
    I endorse the non hierarchical, collaborative approach of the sisters!

  • …and Jesus was a radical feminist who started the entire movement by refusing to allow the high priests to dictate to him on issues of Justice for the under served. An apt role model for us all!

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