The Leadership Conference of Women Religious has been charged by Cardinal Mueller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with failing to submit to oversight from the Vatican about how they should go about organizing their annual conferences. The real issues at stake are much deeper and go to the heart of what Christian theology is and who gets to do it. On Mother’s Day, I want to reflect on the women who have raised their voices and offered their lives as witness to the living God.

Mueller’s remarks are from an April 30 meeting at the Vatican that included leaders of the LCWR and members of the CDF. Mueller expresses particular concern about the LCWR’s choice of speakers (this year, Fordham theologian Elizabeth Johnson will give the keynote address) and the attention given to the concept of Conscious Evolution discussed by Barbara Marx Hubbard, a previous keynote speaker. Mueller claims that 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 says that it “saddens” him to know that “a theologian criticized by the Bishops of the United States because of the gravity of the doctrinal errors in that theologian’s writings” is to be given the conference’s leadership award.

German theologian Walter Kasper tried to downplay Mueller’s critique, saying that he, along with many other theologians in the history of the church, has been criticized, so Johnson “is in good company.” He expressed hope for ongoing dialogue:

“If you have a problem with the leadership of the women’s orders, then you have to have a discussion with them, you have to dialogue with them, an exchange of ideas,” he said. “Perhaps they have to change something. Perhaps also the Congregation (for the Doctrine of the Faith) has a little bit to change its mind. That’s the normal way of doing things in the church. I am for dialogue. Dialogue presupposes different positions. The church is not a monolithic unity.”

But of course, dialogue is difficult when one side has ultimate authority over the other. Emily Baxter at, writes:

. . . the sisters of the LCWR are — whether they call themselves feminist or not, prophetic or not, radical or not — the voice of women struggling for respect and some mote of equality within (arguably) the oldest patriarchal institution in the world. Unlike Cardinal Kasper, they’ve been told that the recognition of their organization and way of life could depend on toeing the line.

The sisters of the LCWR are not theologians, but they are doing theology, and they are doing it prophetically. The average age in the group is “between 73 and 74.” At the time when most of them would have been discerning their vocations, theology was not really open to women. There were a few exceptions (Elizabeth Johnson, Margaret Farley, Anne Patrick, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Rosemary Radford Ruether), but the vast majority of theologians were celibate men. And yet, in lives devoted to Christian faith, community, and service, these women developed ways of looking at the world theologically. The popularity they now enjoy has everything to do with the fact that laypeople see their commitment and the way they look at everything they do with a Christological lens. Most cannot imagine that these women are simply “in error.”

Instead, many find women’s perspectives on theology to be life-giving. In an article about “What Women Theologians Have Done for the Church,” Heather Grennan Gary quotes Notre Dame professor Kathleen Sprows Cummings, who tells about a friend’s reaction to a lecture by Elizabeth Johnson:

“I always had a problem with Mary and I didn’t know what it was,” she told Cummings, referring to the obedient, virginal, domestic lady in blue that had been her image of Mary until that night. Johnson shattered that image, and replaced it with the image of a spirited, scandalous, prophetic, poor, liberated, and joyful refugee: “This is a Mary I can live with.”
This is what Cardinal Mueller and his colleagues in the CDF simply fail to understand. For many women in the church and in the academy, the theology written by women is absolutely life-sustaining. When we read this theology, we can breathe. We can imagine ourselves in the church, in prayer, at worship, serving, teaching, and, yes, writing theology.
Elizabeth Johnson, like most of the first generation of women theologians, studied theology without the privilege of female role models or mentors. “I never had a woman professor, I never read one woman author. There were none to be had. It was a totally male education.” Her work has been questioned from the beginning. When her tenure case came up at CUA, where she was to become the first tenured woman theology professor, her feminist writings made her case controversial:
Toward the end of the questioning, Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law slammed shut his binder of Johnson’s writings and scoffed, “You mostly teach Christology. You’re not going to do anymore of this feminist stuff.” He pushed the files away.
In their interactions with the LCWR, the CDF is trying to push “this feminist stuff” out of the way. In response, I suggest that this Mother’s Day, we remember the women who have been our mentors, role models, and inspirations. As a Catholic moral theologian, I give thanks for Barbara Hilkert Andolson, Christine Gudorf, Lisa Sowle Cahill, and Margaret Farley. They made it possible for me to imagine being a moral theologian.
I also remember women in my life, some religious, some lay, whose faith and theology inspired me: Christine Reilly (my confirmation sponsor); Anne Brennan, Ann Gunderman, Shelia Egan, and Barbara Krumholtz (members of Spes Nova, the small Christian community in which I grew up); Sr. Rose Christina and Sr. Mary Patricia Plumb (sisters at my high school, one a counselor for death row inmates, the other my debate coach); and of course, my mom, Fran Hanlon (Eucharistic minster, DRE, and woman of faith).
Thanks for giving me a faith I can live with.