I have to admit that I've been somewhat amused by the reactions of progressive American Catholics to the news that at the meeting between Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and the leaders of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Müller stated that he had discussed LCWR's doctrinal assessment by the CDF wih Pope Francis and that the latter "reaffirmed the findings of the Assessment and the program of reform for this Conference of Major Superiors."
Müller did express "his gratitude for the great contribution of women religious to the Church in the United States as seen particularly in the many schools, hospitals, and institutions of support for the poor", but any hopes that the new pope would see the errors of the ways of his predecessor were summarily dashed.
LCWR simply issued one of its usual polite but terse statements, confirming that the meeting had taken place in the presence of Archbishop Peter Sartain, who has the misfortune of having been appointed the enforcer of the Vatican's program for LCWR. They said that LCWR officers reviewed the activities of the organization since receiving the doctrinal assessment a year ago, concluding that "conversation was open and frank" and adding that they "pray that these conversations may bear fruit for the good of the Church."
Progressive Catholics and Catholic Church reform groups immediately flooded the social media with responses calling the news "disappointing", saying they had lost hope in Pope Francis, that the "honeymoon is over". Roman Catholic woman bishop Bridget Mary Meehan characterized the move as "a big disappointment and a setback for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious." And it was amazing how quickly the bad news became fodder for another round of fundraising by these organizations. The ink was barely dry on LCWR's statement when our inboxes were deluged with electronic appeals, both for money and for more letters -- to the editor, to the papal nuncio, even to Pope Francis himself.
In my view, there was no "honeymoon" to begin with on issues of gender justice. Progressive Catholics saw Pope Francis wash the feet of two women (out of 12 people -- hardly a blow for gender equality) on Holy Thursday and concluded that our salvation had come. They would have done better to look at the composition of the leadership of the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires under Bergoglio. We are assuming that the new archbishop who just took office on March 28th hasn't just fired a bunch of women so, if you look at the Autoridades and the Areas de Pastoral pages of the Archdiocesan web site, you will see that, except for the Archdiocesan Archives (librarian/archivist is a traditionally female profession), all offices and pastoral departments are headed by men and virtually all by priests. Promoting women wasn't a priority for Pope Francis when he was Cardinal Archbishop Bergoglio of Buenos Aires; it won't be now.
Progressive Catholics also need to learn to listen more carefully to the new pontiff. They got so excited about the pope's remarks during the April 3rd audience when he said that "in the profession of faith in the New Testament only men are recorded as witnesses of the Resurrection, the Apostles, but not the women. This is because, according to the Judaic Law of that time, women and children could not bear a trustworthy, credible witness. Instead in the Gospels women play a fundamental lead role. Here we can grasp an element in favour of the historicity of the Resurrection: if it was an invented event, in the context of that time it would not have been linked with the evidence of women. Instead the Evangelists simply recounted what happened: women were the first witnesses. This implies that God does not choose in accordance with human criteria: the first witnesses of the birth of Jesus were shepherds, simple, humble people; the first witnesses of the Resurrection were women." Finally, some feminist Biblical exegesis coming out of the Vatican!
But having gone that far out on a limb, Pope Francis then retreated when it came to praxis: "This is part of the mission of women; of mothers, of women! Witnessing to their children, to their grandchildren, that Jesus is alive, is living, is risen. Mothers and women, carry on witnessing to this!" Pope Francis' shout out to women is limited to calling them back to their traditional roles in the "domestic Church." We should not be tempted to read into this any hint that the Pope is open to women priests, or even women deacons, as the conservatives seem to fear.
Progressive Catholics need to understand that Bergoglio is a political creature. He did not get to where he is today by reacting to every tendency in the Church. He has his own priorities for the Church and he's not going to waste political capital on problems he doesn't care about. Furthermore, he comes from a country and a culture where nuns are submissive and, for the most part, still wear the veil, so the idea of dialoguing on an equal footing with the superiors of women's religious congregations when there's disagreement would be utterly foreign to him. This pope's style is to listen respectfully to others but then he makes the decision that appears best to him and doesn't feel he has to discuss or explain that decision to anyone. It's a far cry from what American Catholics in general, and women in particular, mean by "dialogue".
Maureen Fiedler has written that she doesn't think the Pope got full information about the LCWR mandate, that perhaps "it could be a case of the 'good 'ole boys' in the Curia wanting everything to remain the same and trying to make the new pope go along on an issue about which he knows little." I beg to disagree. I find it fully believable that Pope Francis read the assessment and agreed with enough of it sufficiently not to want to take the highly controversial step of contradicting his predecessor.
So, by all means, go to the Nun Justice Project and write, pray, pledge, share, vigil, and petition for Pope Francis to disavow the doctrinal assessment of LCWR and enter into dialogue with America's women religious. Just don't hold your breath waiting for an answer...