Almost from the moment Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis, he raised the hopes of progressive Catholics for sweeping reform of the church. Moving out of the palatial papal residence in favor of more modest accommodations, striking a seemingly nonjudgmental stance toward homosexuals, emphasizing pastoral care far more than doctrinal purity — in all of these ways and others, Francis' pontificate seemed to mark a break from the style and substance of the previous two popes, and to augur more dramatic, long-lasting changes to come.
From the beginning, I've been a skeptic. While admiring Francis' personal words and deeds, I've expressed repeated doubts about whether this pope is likely to initiate serious doctrinal reforms. In an essay for The New Republic last summer, I argued that institutional limits on the power of any pope to break significantly with the past, combined with this particular pope's broadly nonconfrontational character, indicated that changes were likely to remain mostly rhetorical.
In the intervening months, the progressive interpretation has been endorsed and amplified by the mainstream media. From gushing Rolling Stone cover stories to fawning 60 Minutes profiles, Pope Francis has been the focus of intense and adoring press coverage, most of it explicitly stating, or at least strongly implying, that the pope is on the verge of instituting significant reforms that would liberalize the church in precisely the way that progressives (and secularists) would prefer.
More recently, even level-headed conservatives have begun to buy into the progressive narrative, expressing fear that Francis may be on the cusp of instituting doctrinal changes that would be destabilizing enough to spark a schism in the church.
In light of these trends, I wonder what both Catholic camps — cheerful progressives and anxious conservatives — will make of Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller's recent reprimand of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the largest organization of nuns in the United States. Because I'd say it shows quite clearly that Pope Francis has no intention at all of reforming Catholic doctrine in any significant way, or even of backing off from enforcing it with just as much stringency as Pope Benedict XVI — aka "God's Rottweiler" — ever did.
The Vatican's conflict with the LCWR dates back to December 2008, when then–Pope Benedict responded to signs that the nuns were experimenting with the embrace of unorthodox views by launching an "apostolic visitation" of the organization's member congregations. A few months later, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the Vatican office of doctrinal enforcement, which Benedict ran before becoming pope) announced it would conduct a full "doctrinal assessment" of the LCWR.
The result, in April 2012, was a harshly critical report that laid into the LCWR for endorsing doctrines and moral views that "often contradict or ignore magisterial teaching." The nuns were sanctioned and ordered to undertake significant reform.
In remarks delivered just over a week ago, on April 30, before the group's leaders in Rome, Cardinal Müller (the current head of the CDF) weighed in on how those reforms are going. His verdict? Not well at all. For one thing, the LCWR has decided to give its Outstanding Leadership Award to Sister Elizabeth Johnson, a Fordham University theologian "criticized by the Bishops of the United States because of the gravity of the doctrinal errors in [her] writings."
Because of this "provocation," Müller asserts, all future "speakers and presenters at major programs will be subject to approval" by a delegate appointed by the CDF to oversee implementation of the doctrinal assessment.
Then there's the matter of the LCWR nuns' apparently widespread embrace of the idea of "Conscious Evolution," a concept derived from the writings and public lectures of a woman named Barbara Marx Hubbard. Müller minces no words in describing the idea as growing out of the "Gnostic tradition," standing in profound opposition to "Christian Revelation," and leading "almost necessarily to fundamental errors" of faith and "positive errors of doctrine."
Which is why Müller ends his remarks by imploring the LCWR nuns to reread Pope Francis' May 2013 endorsement of the doctrinal assessment, and to bring themselves back into conformity with orthodox church teaching on a range of issues.
The first thing to be said about these comments, which Müller himself accurately describes as "blunt," is that they demonstrate that on this issue — the need for the (all female) nuns to submit completely to the ruling authority of the (all male) church hierarchy in matters of faith, morals, and doctrine — there is complete continuity between Benedict and Francis. This certainly isn't a case of a rogue cleric doing a rightward end-run around a latitudinarian Pope. While Müller was appointed by Benedict to head the CDF in 2012, Francis kept him in that position — and promoted him to cardinal last February. This was Francis' pontificate speaking.
The second thing to be said about Müller's remarks is that he's largely correct to treat Hubbard's views with suspicion — though I think he overstates their seriousness in associating them with Gnostic heresies. That's unfair to Gnosticism. It would be more accurate to describe Hubbard as a peddler of New Age gobbledygook. (Take a look for yourself.)
But the same cannot be said of Sister Elizabeth Johnson, the feminist theologian the nuns were courageous enough to honor over the strenuous objections of the bishops conference. Yes, she is highly critical of the church, but so what? Only an institution terrified of dissent and a hierarchy all too keenly aware of the fragility of its own authority would lash out so severely at those who dare to question the way the church does business. Especially when those critics possess so little concrete power within the institution and hierarchy.
One reason why so many people all over the world have responded so positively to Pope Francis is that, unlike some previous popes, he often speaks and acts less like an inquisitor than a pastor — like Jesus, preaching love and acceptance and support and affirmation. When on Holy Thursday 2013 he broke from tradition by washing the feet not only of Catholic clerics but also of laypeople — some of them women, some of them Muslims — that reminded people of Jesus. As did his embrace of a badly disfigured man along the roadside in Vatican City.
Now ask yourself who reminds you more of Jesus: A nun in a position of institutional powerlessness who devotes herself to teaching the young or ministering to the poor, the sick, and the dying? Or the head of a powerful Vatican office who devotes himself to imposing doctrinal rules, denouncing error, and reprimanding transgressors? Who looks more like Christ? And who more like a Pharisee?
It's disappointing that in this doctrinal dispute Francis has come down so emphatically on latter side of the divide. But it's hardly surprising.
He is the pope, after all.