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.

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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