Who Needs Theologians?

November 17, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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As you may know, at the end of October the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a document that confirmed its March critique of Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s book, Quest for the Living God.  According to the National Catholic Reporterthe document “restated that on several critical points the book is seriously inadequate as a presentation of the Catholic understanding of God.‘ Myself, I was astounded to hear this; I fully expected that the bishops would retract their earlier statement and issue a profound apology to Sister Johnson.  (  :

Several things popped into my head as I read the bishops’ statement. One was  Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s assertion, after he was elected president of the USCCB, that the bishops are “THE teachers.” Now given the figures on US Catholics published recently in the National Catholic Reporter–that 40% of US Catholics do not believe that bread and wine really becomes the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, for example–it’s not hard to understand why the bishops might want to ramp up their authority.

But the survey also reports the growing level of education among US Catholics, compared even to a few decades ago–the number of college graduates, for example, has increased by 50% since 1987. Bishops as THE teachers harks back to time when immigrant Catholics were grateful to learn to read and write in their parish school. In fact, it goes back even farther,to the Middle Ages, when clerics were the only literate members of the community (the archaic meaning of the word clerk, from which clerical and clergy are derived, is precisely a person able to read, or to read and write).  For many of us, in the North and West at least, those days are no more.

My second thought 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 (admittedly effective) representation of the work of much more original thinkers. It’s also astonishingly middle of the road. Let’s me be clear here:  Johnson came up through the ranks in a theology department in which Avery Dulles was one of the senior members. I was so intrigued by the idea of such a moderate thinker being called out by the US Catholic bishops that I actually got a copy of the book and read it.

In some ways, my previous estimation of Johnson’s work was confirmed–Quest for the Living God is fundamentally a synthesis of various theologies of God from the second half of the twentieth century–something Johnson herself would be quick to acknowledge in this case, I suspect, since the book is clearly geared to the general public.

But I had not anticipated that I would be as deeply moved by Quest as I was. At a time when I (and many others, I’ll warrant) are deeply discouraged by and about the institutional church (as well as the US government, and many other institutions), Sister Johnson reminds us, almost lyrically at times, that there is a God beyond all of this, one who also, paradoxically, suffers with us, and is connected to us in creation. As I read the book, it came to me that originality isn’t everything.

It’s possible, of course, that some aspects of Quest aren’t entirely up to snuff. An also moderate Catholic theologian friend of mine finds Johnson’s presentation of the relationship between God and nature problematic; maybe it is.

But at a time when fewer and fewer US Catholics are receiving a Catholic education, and are increasingly less open to institutional doctrinal pronouncements, what do the bishops do? They speak out abrasively against a book that has the capacity to strengthen the faith of a wide range of US Catholics. If the bishops had any sense, they’d have thanked Sister Johnson for her invaluable contribution to the “new evangelism,” while adding a P.S. about a few changes they’d recommend for the second edition.

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