The Elizabeth Johnson Affair

June 20, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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As you may know, in April, the committee on doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops published a wide-ranging condemnation of the book Quest for the Living God by the highly regarded US Catholic theologian, Elizabeth A. Johnson. Johnson, a long-time member of Fordham University’s theology faculty, and a Sister of St. Joseph of Brentwood, New York, was also president of the Catholic Theological Society of America from 1995-1996. In particular, according to the bishops, Johnson’s treatment of the Trinity in this book completely undermines the Gospel and the faith of those who believe in the Gospel.”  This is quite an accusation.

I once met with Johnson, in the early 1990s, to see if I might study with her in the Ph.D. program at Fordham. I can’t remember what I said–probably that I wanted to use feminist literary and poststructuralist theory to interpret the Catholic tradition. Johnson said to me, “You need to understand that as a Ph.D. student you will have absolutely nothing to say until you have mastered Aquinas and Rahner.” “Well,” I thought, “I’ll l be dead by then.” (I was 43 years old at the time.) Johnson’s rejoinder was not encouraging, but I was grateful for her candor; choosing the wrong advisor can be fatal in a doctoral program.

This is who the US Catholic bishops have gone after, this “Aquinas and Rahner are mandatory” professor. On June 6, Johnson issued a twenty-seven page response to the bishops’ statement. The rebuttal is based, almost without exception, in orthodox Catholic teaching. If someone else had written it, I might have (cynically) considered their doing so a strategic move– beating the bishops at their own game. With Johnson, this really is the theological world in which she moves.

In my opinion, Elizabeth Johnson is not a particularly original thinker. She is an able synthesizer, with a talent for identifying the right moment for introducing fairly recent theological ideas to the Catholic community.  In point of fact, although Catholic feminists–Mary Daly, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza–did ground-breaking work in the early years of feminist theology, in succeeding generations, Protestant women have done all the cutting edge work. The contributions of Catholic feminists like Johnson have been second rate at best. (I do have some hope  for younger Catholic feminists just beginning their careers, women such as  Susan Abraham, Karen Trimble Alliaume, Jeanine Hill Fletcher, and Elena Procario-Foley–but that’s a subject for another blog).

So why are the bishops beating up on this orthodox, and not terribly original, Catholic feminist theologian? One thought is that they’re mad at her precisely because her work is so accessible. Although she says that Quest for the Living God isn’t designed for college classes, I can well imagine its being used there, to introduce Catholic students to the Christian theological insights of recent decades, for example, the idea that God suffers along with human beings, or that if we’re going to save the planet from destruction (a particular concern of Benedict XVI) we need ways of understanding God’s connection with creation. Or maybe it’s just another instance of the director of the bishops’ office on doctrine, Thomas Weinandy, being a theological bully, as he was in the area of Jewish-Catholic relations last year, and the bishops lacking the courage to rein him in.

Or maybe it’s the very idea of a Catholic Sister being successful and influencing the Catholic theological conversation here in the US that infuriates the bishops. The Vatican has already investigated a number of women’s religious orders, and an investigation of the doctrinal orthodoxy of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the governance organization of the vast majority of US Catholic Sisters, is underway. And we remember Sister Carol Keehan, the head of the Catholic Hospital Association, who had the gall to influence the US health care debate last year. Maybe condemning Elizabeth Johnson’s book is one more way to get these women back into their convents where they belong.

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3 Comments »

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  1. While I don’t agree with Marian’s assessment of Elizabeth Johnson (I think she has extended the work of both Aquinas and Rahner) she certainly has made some strands of contempory theology accessible to the general reading public. And I agree that we should keep an eye on Elena Procario-Foley who is an up and coming theologian.

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  2. It always saddens me when authority is used to silence women. Thanks Marian for this alert. I was unaware of the bishops’ condemnation of her work.

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  3. […] in repose to the bishops’ critique had to do specifically with Sister Johnson’s book. As I said in a previous post, I have never been a great admirer of Sister Johnson’s work. In my estimation, it’s an […]

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