Petitioners ask Francis to drop call for U.S. sisters’ reform

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A coalition of progressive Catholic organizations has delivered nearly 18,000 petitions to Pope Francis, asking him to remove the orders for the largest leadership group of American women religious to reform.

Nun Justice Project, a coalition of 15 progressive Catholic organizations in the United States, hand delivered more than 17,500 petitions to the pontiff via the Swiss Guard. Also in the package were Spanish translations of Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s books, Consider Jesus and Quest for the Living God.

The petitions were also delivered to Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, Prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, the Vatican office that oversees religious life.

Deborah Rose-Milavec, executive director of FutureChurch and spokesperson for the Nun Justice Project, said it is hoped that by appealing directly to Francis, the show of support and information will bypass filtering or distortion from the bureaucracy. FutureChurch is a Nun Justice coalition partner based in Cleveland.

“[Francis] has kind of dispensed with the gatekeepers. That’s why we delivered it to the Swiss Guard, so it could go directly to him – he seems open to that kind of outreach,” Rose-Milavec said. “We hope he’ll see the level of support sisters have and take that seriously, and then pick up the books and take a look at them.”

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, made up of Catholic sisters who are elected leaders of their communities in the United States, has been undergoing a Vatican-ordered doctrinal assessment since 2009. Following the investigation, in 2012, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ordered LCWR to reform its statutes and appointed Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain to oversee changes.

LCWR’s 1,400 members represent about 80 percent of the 51,600 women religious in the United States.

Of particular concern for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was LCWR’s decision to award Johnson its Outstanding Leadership Award at its annual assembly in August, leading to orders that Sartain approve speakers at the group's future events.

Johnson, a St. Joseph sister and noted theologian widely considered one of the architects of feminist theology, was criticized in 2011 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Doctrine, saying her 2007 book, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, is not in accordance with official Catholic teaching and “completely undermines the Gospel and the faith of those who believe in that Gospel.”

Johnson responded by saying the book does not say the things the panel claims it does and that she does not believe the things the panel claims she wrote.

Nun Justice representative Kate McElwee personally delivered the petitions to the Vatican on Sept. 12.

“Catholics all over the world support LCWR in their commitment to stay at the table with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and address the unjust mandate it issued in 2012,” McElwee said.

Rose-Milavec said the sisters must be supported.

“It wasn’t just an exercise, it was an attempt to take advantage of Pope Francis’ openness. If we ever have a chance to be heard, it’s under this pope,” she said. “These committed, faithful women are serving the most disenfranchised among us. Women are making the radical dream of Jesus real in today’s world. It is outrageous that their work and ministry are even being called into question.”

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report.]