Last February, Sister Miriam MacGillis OP, an American Dominican nun, undertook a nationwide lecture tour of New Zealand on the "New Cosmology and Eco-Spirituality." These offer a radical reinterpretation of the Holy Trinity, Genesis and the Catholic Faith generally. Despite many concerns expressed about the orthodoxy of Sister's subject material, the local bishops declined to intervene.
Sister MacGillis hails from Genesis Farm - a "learning centre for reinhabiting the earth" - located in Blairstown, New Jersey. The Farm is a project of the Dominican Congregation, affiliated with Global Education Associates, itself linked with Call To Action. In 1995, Sister MacGillis contributed "Hope and Healing for the Earth, An Action Plan" to a Call To Action publication and later that year was a featured speaker, along with Matthew Fox, Charles Curran and a number of radical feminist nuns, at a Call To Action National Conference in the US.
Sister MacGillis was invited to New Zealand by the Major Superiors of five religious orders - a significant move in itself, indicating a powerful support network for the transmission of her new religion. Likewise intriguing was the sanguine attitude of the New Zealand bishops, fresh from the Synod of Oceania in Rome and their ad limina visits to Pope John Paul II.
The Statement of Conclusions drawn up by a group of Australian bishops and senior Vatican cardinals could just as easily have been directed at the New Zealand bishops when it stated that bishops have "a grave responsibility, clearly and unambiguously to proclaim the Church's teaching and to do all that they can to preserve the faithful from error." The Statement added: "The bishop may not tolerate error in matters of doctrine and morals, or Church discipline ...".
Sister Miriam's New Cosmology seemed to call for close scrutiny from Catholic bishops in New Zealand or wherever else she lectured.
Sister's mentor since 1984 has been Fr Thomas Berry who, along with Matthew Fox, is one of the gurus of the New Cosmology, author of the United Nations charter for Nature and currently based at the Centre for Earth Studies in New York. Fr Berry was acknowledged by Fr Paul Collins as a major influence in his book God's Earth: Religion as if Matter Really Mattered, which radically questions key Church teachings (see August 1995, AD2000, p. 5).
Fr Berry acknowledges the influence of Teilhard de Chardin's claim that humans emerge from the earth in the totality of their being, souls as well as bodies - in an evolutionary context. Official Church teaching, however, as indicated in the new Catechism (366), makes clear that "every spiritual soul is created immediately by God" and not "'produced' by the parents."
Fr Berry argues that traditional Catholic "redemptive theology" contributes to a "homocentric view of the earth," obscuring St Paul's idea that in Christ all things hold together. "It is a way of thinking of the universe as a cosmic person."
In 1992, Sister Miriam set out her New Cosmology in a taped university lecture, during which she referred to "all the lights we turned off by our fear of nature, by our fear of animism, by our fear of the feminine, by our fear of all those images by which the Divine had been revealed, and which was subverted in our attempt to create only one transcendent idol ...".
She then explained: "In this process of creating an earth literacy centre at Genesis Farm, I feel we are in a graced moment to be able to put tremendous energy and creative energy into what I would call sacred agriculture. It's becoming clearer and clearer to me that a sacred agriculture must become the basis of any sacramental understanding of Eucharist, of any sacramental understanding of deep communion. To know we eat stardust, to know we literally eat the stars, to know we literally eat the revelation of the Divine, has to come out of this abstraction into concrete."
Sister MacGillis's 1999 New Zealand lecture was entitled "Who shall inherit the earth?" Here she outlined her experience gained from collaboration with Fr Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, "discoverers" of the New Cosmology. She often referred to the Catholic Church as representing the "Old Story." Catholic schools needed to be reshaped, so that children could be educated in the "the new way of thinking - the new story of creation."
It was precisely the prospect of this New Cosmology being fed into "reshaped" Catholic religious education (via supportive religious) that prompted Fr George Duggan SM, a theologian, author and retired seminary professor, to send a memorandum one month before Sister MacGillis's visit to each New Zealand bishop, detailing how her views constituted pantheism (equating God with his creation) and that Catholics attending her lectures could be endangering their faith. Fr Duggan told the bishops that they were under a serious obligation to warn the faithful.
In response, Wellington's Cardinal Thomas Williams and Bishop Patrick Dunn of Auckland referred Fr Duggan to Bishop Peter Cullinane of Palmerston North, President of the New Zealand Catholic Bishops' Conference. Asked by the Wellington Evening Post about a possible reaction, Bishop Cullinane said he did not believe further comment was needed.
The Congregational Leader of Religious Orders president, Sister Judith McGinley OP, later told the Evening Post that Sister MacGillis was not teaching "controversial doctrine".
This writer recently spoke to a Provincial who had just attended a meeting of other Provincials. "I couldn't get over it," she said. "All they could talk about was this New Cosmology! You would think it was the greatest discovery since sliced bread!"
Bernard Moran is a New Zealand Catholic journalist.