Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Messing with the Wrong Woman: The Bishops and Elizabeth Johnson

UPDATE 7/14/2011: Dr. Johnson's congregation, the Sisters of St. Joseph, who met this week to celebrate the 175th anniversary of their order, issued a statement supporting her and commending "her integrity and dedication to the ecclesial vocation of theologian","her spirit of collaboration, cooperation and mentoring" and "her unselfish and untiring efforts to share her theological reflection and insights with the dear neighbor everywhere."

UPDATE 6/7/2011: In a detailed letter to the USCCB Committee on Doctrine, Dr. Elizabeth Johnson responds to the bishops' criticism of Quest for the Living God and vigorously defends her work.

I usually start these columns by reminding readers that the best defense against the Church's attempts at theological censorship is to buy and read the book in question. This time the book is Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (Continuum, 2007), Fordham University Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ's examination of how God is perceived from a variety of theological and faith perspectives. Through the lenses of liberation theology, feminist theology, various minority theologies (Black, Hispanic, etc...), and ecumenism, she challenges us to broaden our image of God beyond the white, male, patriarchal, omnipotent and distant God of traditional theism. In short, the book is a summary of how different groups of people have explored ways of depicting and naming God to make Him/Her more meaningful to them. The book presents a simplified overview of each theology but Dr. Johnson buttresses each chapter with an ample bibliography for those who want to go further down any particular road.

You would think that a theologian with Dr. Johnson's credentials -- a PhD from Catholic University, more than 20 years of teaching theology, honorary doctorates from 13 universities and schools of theology (most of them Catholic), former head of both the Catholic Theological Society of America and the American Theological Society, numerous publishing credits and many awards for her published works -- would not be a likely target for the Church's doctrinal police. So Catholics in general, and the theology world in particular, were shocked when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Doctrine issued a condemnation of Quest for a Living God, accusing Dr. Johnson of "theological and methodological inaccuracies" and finding that "many of [the book's] conclusions are incompatible with authentic Catholic teaching." The Committee had the temerity to further suggest that Dr. Johnson should have sought an imprimatur from her bishop (who probably has a fraction of her theological expertise) prior to the book's publication, even though they also admitted that she was not required to do so.

One has to wonder why a book that was published in 2007 is suddenly coming under scrutiny in 2011. We are told that "several bishops" -- anonymous, of course -- had expressed concerns to the Committee on Doctrine that the book deviated from authentic Catholic teaching. Why these bishops could not simply bring their issues directly to Dr. Johnson is the first question. The Committee then pursued its investigation into the book in complete secrecy until it issued its public statement of condemnation.

Dr. Johnson was never afforded the opportunity to discuss the issues being raised about her book with the Committee. She was not given a chance to respond to the charges against her and says in her statement in response to the condemnation that she "would have been glad to enter into conversation to clarify critical points." As a result of this failure to dialogue in a respectful, collegial way with her, Dr. Johnson states that "in several key instances [the Committee's] statement radically misinterprets what I think, and what I in fact wrote. The conclusions thus drawn paint an incorrect picture of the fundamental line of thought the book develops."

The Committee has not called for any disciplinary actions against Dr. Johnson such as banning her from teaching or publishing but the mere suggestion of faulty methodology and theological inaccuracy would be enough to tarnish Dr. Johnson's professional reputation and possibly have a chilling effect on sales of her book, especially for use in theology classes in Catholic institutions. And yet Dr. Johnson was never given the courtesy of being allowed to respond before the investigation was concluded and its outcome published. Could it be that the members of the Committee on Doctrine did not feel intellectually up to the task of debating with this extremely competent sister theologian? That it was easier to sucker punch her? Or is it just the typical arrogant attitude of our hierarchy that the non-ordained in general and women in particular are not worthy of being listened to and that they are above having to explain themselves to anyone? Dr. Johnson's response is remarkably professional and restrained, given the level of disrespect she has been shown.

So what's the criticism? First, the Committee on Doctrine alleges that Dr. Johnson is representing a modern theistic notion of a distant, lordly, law-giving male God as the Catholic teaching on God. Having read Quest for a Living God, I beg to differ. I believe the Committee is making assumptions based on their mistrust of a Catholic doing theology from the base rather than the top down theology they might prefer. They are defensive and reading what they think she's saying rather than understanding that she is just reflecting on a very common distorted image of the Divine that has evolved primarily in Christianity and that explains why people have begun to seek other images. At no point does she say that this is specifically Catholic Church teaching.

The Committee's statement is another chapter in the ongoing debate about the balance between God's transcendance/immanence and Jesus' divinity/humanity which has been raging for decades between the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the more progressive theologians. The hierarchy has a vested interest in a transcendant God and a (mostly) divine Jesus for whom it can be the intermediary and which doesn't demand real involvement in the material lives and needs of the faithful. Progressive theologians, who are doing theology starting from the people and their actual relationship to the Divine, tend to posit a God/Christ who is near, who walks and suffers with the people, especially the poorest. Dr. Johnson is faulted by the Committee for detracting from God's transcendance.

Dr. Johnson's suggestion that it is time for some female images of God and names for the Divine as well as more inclusive language is again taken negatively and the Committee summarily rebukes her, accusing her of substituting her own insights for "divine revelation" (presumably the exclusive prerogative of the Magisterium) and asserting that "the names of God found in the Scriptures are not mere human creations that can be replaced by others that we may find more suitable according to our own human judgment." The patronizing tone is unmistakable.

The Committee and Dr. Johnson also differ significantly on Dominus Iesus. Dr. Johnson gives an accurate summary of what this declaration from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith says and then explains why people of other faiths find it so offensive and why it is even, in some places, illogical. Where Dr. Johnson is merely pointing out the problems with Dominus Iesus, the Committee levels the startling criticism that "Sr. Johnson undermines the uniqueness of Biblical revelation and even denies the uniqueness of Jesus as the Incarnate Word." Again, a careful reading of Dr. Johnson's words doesn't support this extreme conclusion.

Speaking of "undermining", Dr. Johnson's assertion that "the intent of this trinitarian symbol is not to give literal information but to acclaim the God who saves and to lead us into this mystery" provokes the Committee to assert that her position "completely undermines the Gospel and the faith of those who believe in that Gospel, for it supposes that the Church does not proclaim what is actually true, but only the symbolic expression of what ultimately cannot be known..."

Maybe I'm broader minded than the members of the Bishops' Committee on Doctrine, but my faith in the Gospel is not "undermined" by being exposed to other theological perspectives on God via Quest for the Living God. On the other hand, my faith in the Church IS undermined by these clumsy, patronizing attempts to censor and control freedom of theological investigation. The first question that should come to any believer's mind is: "Why doesn't the Church want me to read this? What is it afraid that I'll discover? What is it hiding from me?"

In the end, while Dr. Johnson has not chosen to engage in a public battle with the bishops over her book, her colleagues have been springing to her defense. Rev. Joseph M. McShane, SJ, the president of Fordham University called Dr. Johnson a “revered member of the Fordham community,” and 186 of her fellow faculty members at the university signed a statement echoing those sentiments. The board of the Catholic Theological Society of America issued a statement criticizing the bishops' failure to follow their own procedures in this matter as set forth in a document called "Doctrinal Responsibilities" which calls on bishops and theologians to attempt to settle disputes privately before going public, and affirming that "Professor Johnson is a most esteemed member of our Society. She is a person of the highest character, a respected theologian and teacher who pursues her theological vocation as service to the Church." The College Theology Society seconded CTSA's procedural concerns and described Quest for a Living God as exemplifying "a compelling style of Catholic theology that engages many different kinds of undergraduate students...[Dr. Johnson's] theology is credited with plumbing the depths of the received Catholic tradition as found in diverse scriptural and historical witnesses of faith while investigating pressing issues and searching for ever deeper understanding. This book illustrates what has been a hallmark of all of Johnson’s work: a dedication to exploring the living faith of the Church as it is conveyed in communities in various cultures and contexts in the United States and throughout the world. Her gifts and talents as a highly effective theological educator are clearly displayed in this book."

Having picked on one of the nation's most respected Catholic theologians, the Committee is now being forced to backtrack. First, its chairman, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, put together a hasty defense of his Committee's decision to scrutinize Quest for a Living God and denied that the Committee wanted to "stifle legitimate theological reflection." Now, the Committee's executive director, Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy, has written a letter to the Department of Theology at Fordham assuring the faculty that the committee never intended to tarnish Dr. Johnson’s reputation or impugn her honor or dedication to the church. He stated the doctrine committee “in no way calls into question the dedication, honor, creativity, or service” of Johnson. To put it in the vernacular: the bishops messed with the wrong woman.


  1. God in a bottle, corked, labeled and sold only in the authorized franchises.
    That’s is how some think about their flavor of deity. ♦

  2. Jesus' divinity and humanity are equal. Neither aspect should be overemphasized for he is both fully God and fully human. Detracting from either nature would be an incorrect description of Christ. Secondly, what the committee says is true that the names for God are not mere human creations but rather get their origens from scripture. Did not jesus christ himself call for "abba " on the cross, not mama. We would do well to take as our example that of Jesus Christ and his relationship, to yes, the father. We should not change God to our image and likeness, rather we were made in His!