"Canonical status and ecclesial vision go hand in hand," Mueller said, "and at this phase … we are looking for a clearer expression of that ecclesial vision and more substantive signs of collaboration."
Mueller's talk was dated April 30, apparently at the opening of talks with the four LCWR leaders; it was published Monday by the Vatican.
The cardinal twice acknowledged that his talk was "blunt," and indeed his remarks were the toughest since the Vatican takeover of LCWR was announced in 2012. "What I must say is too important to dress up in flowery language."
While his comments seemed to reverse expectations that the crisis was on the way toward a resolution, the LCWR leaders who met with Mueller appeared to downplay the impact of the cardinal's criticisms.
"As articulated in the cardinal's statement, these remarks were meant to set a context for the discussion that followed," the sisters said Monday from Rome, where they are holding talks with Vatican officials.
"The actual interaction with Cardinal Mueller and his staff was an experience of dialogue that was respectful and engaging," they added.
LCWR leaders Sisters Carol Zinn, Florence Deacon, Sharon Holland and Janet Mock declined all interview requests.
When the Vatican censure was announced, both Rome and American bishops took a lot of heat from Catholics and the wider public, who embraced the nuns and bristled at the takeover.
Rome justified the move as necessary to ensure the group's orthodoxy. The Vatican accused the sisters of being too focused on social-justice work and said they did not sufficiently promote church orthodoxy, especially on issues such as gay marriage and abortion.
The Vatican appointed three U.S. bishops, led by Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain, to have final say on speakers at the LCWR's annual meeting and approval over other matters.
As some U.S. bishops worked behind the scenes to ease the tensions with the sisters, Pope Francis' election last year also seemed to signal a detente. As a Jesuit, Francis is a member of a religious order himself and has often expressed solidarity with other religious orders of men and women.
Last June, he told a group of priests and sisters from Latin America not to worry too much if they get a critical letter from Mueller's office, but to deal with it and move on. The pope also retained officials at Vatican congregations who are seen as more sympathetic to the LCWR.
But Francis also kept on Mueller, who was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI soon after the action against the LCWR was unveiled. The cardinal told the nuns that he was particularly upset by two developments:
One was the LCWR's ongoing focus on a topic called "conscious evolution," which was the subject of the LCWR's annual conference two years ago. In Rome, it's seen as a nebulous, New Age-sounding concept of spiritual development that critics say is unmoored from traditional Christian doctrine.
"The fundamental theses of Conscious Evolution are opposed to Christian Revelation and, when taken unreflectively, lead almost necessarily to fundamental errors," Mueller said, warning that the American nuns were straying from the basics of the faith and from the Catholic Church itself.
A second point of contention, Mueller said, is that the LCWR is honoring a prominent Catholic theologian, Sister Elizabeth Johnson of Fordham University, at this year's conference in August despite the fact that one of Johnson's recent books was challenged by the U.S. bishops as straying from accepted doctrine.
Johnson vigorously rejected those charges and was supported by a broad swath of the Catholic theological guild as she sought to engage the bishops in discussions. But the overture was rejected.
The choice to honor Johnson without Sartain's approval, Mueller said, "will be seen as a rather open provocation against the Holy See. … Not only that, but it further alienates the LCWR from the bishops as well."
Mueller said that if Sartain had been informed, Johnson may not have been chosen. He said he would not attempt to undo the invitation to Johnson but added that Sartain must have final say over next year's LCWR convention, adding that the Vatican mandate is now "fully in force."