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Nuns 1, Cardinal Müller 0

The head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith pulls in his horns.

Cardinal Gerhard Müller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
Cardinal Gerhard Müller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

Cardinal Gerhard Müller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

“Yes, it looks like they backed down,” said a learned nun I know. “But some of us had better not be caught saying so!” So much for the huffing and puffing the Vatican has directed at her and her sisters over the past few years.

In December, an “apostolic visitation” of 350 communities of religious women, undertaken amid charges that they were beset by secularism and feminism, ended with a buss on the cheek for a job well done. And yesterday, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) gave its approval to an anodyne “Joint Final Report on the Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religion (LCWR).

The LCWR, the nuns’ main umbrella body, had come under repeated attack for embracing ideas at odds with fundamentals of the faith. After the roll-out of the “Joint Final Report,” a four-woman delegation from the LCWR spent fifty minutes chatting with Pope Francis.

Over at the Boston Globe‘s Crux, John Allen characteristically minimized the widespread sense that all this was a big deal. “Both the more sweeping investigation of women’s orders and the LCWR investigation were orphans almost as soon as they were born,” he wrote. They’d been pushed “by a handful of well-placed American cardinals in Rome coming to the end of their careers” who “persuaded friends in the right Vatican departments to set the wheels in motion.”

Well, if the LCWR investigation was an orphan, the head of the CDF was running the orphanage.

Less than a year ago, Cardinal Gerhard Müller unloaded a broadside against the LCWR that convinced a lot of people that the investigation was serious indeed. The organization, he said, had ignored the Doctrinal Assessment’s mandate to get the approval of the three bishops charged with oversight for its speakers and presenters, and had given its Outstanding Leadership Award “to a theologian criticized by the Bishops of the United States because of the gravity of the doctrinal errors in that theologian’s writings.” And he went on to assert that “the issues raised in the Assessment are so central and so foundational, there is no other way of discussing them except as constituting a movement away from the ecclesial center of faith in Christ Jesus the Lord.”

In the “Joint Final Report,” which was signed by the three overseeing bishops and the four LCWR leaders, the LCWR agreed to choose speakers “in a prayerful, thoughtful and discerning manner” and expressed the expectation that speakers and presenters would “have due regard for the Church’s faith and to pose questions for further reflection in a manner that suggests how faith might shed light on such issues.” In yesterday’s press release, Müller purred his approval: “At the conclusion of this process, the Congregation is confident that LCWR has made clear its mission to support its member Institutes by fostering a vision of religious life that is centered on the Person of Jesus Christ and is rooted in the Tradition of the Church.”

Last month, Sandro Magister, chief Vatican correspondent for L’Espresso and a persistent critic of Pope Francis, claimed to see the pope shifting in the direction of his hard-line CDF head. As of yesterday, I’d say it was the other way around.