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.


Beyond Identity Politics

November 11, 2009 at 1:57 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Lift and Separate,” a review essay in this week’s New Yorker, revisits the question of why feminism is unpopular (at least here in the US). Levy’s article examines Gail Collins’s When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present  and Leslie Sanchez’s You’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe: Sarah, Michelle, Hilary, and the Shaping of the New American Woman. Collins, we learn, writes of Lindsay van Gelder’s apprehension that  she be remembered only for the invention of bra-burning–although feminist bra burning was in fact mythical. “It’s as if feminism were plagued by a kind of false memory syndrome, ” Levy observes. While feminists were actually dealing with issues like child care and equality in employment, we were portrayed as anarchist incendiaries. As a result, feminism is (ostensibly) over, replaced by a sort of universalized women’s identity politics.

Sanchez’s book, according to Levy, is an articulation of such an identity politics, with Sarah Palin as its standard-bearer:

“‘Most of us are Sarah Palins to one degree or another,’ Sanchez asserts. Palin ‘so very clearly reflected the lifestyle choices, the hard work ethic, and traditional values that so many women admire.'”

Never mind the utter laughability of describing the governor of a state as “traditional,” Levy adds. Younger women of the contentless  identity politics persuasion are happy to benefit from the hard-won equality of women, but they don’t want be associated with the movement that struggled to achieve it.

I wondered if this acceptance of the benefits of feminism while rejecting feminism itself might have spread to younger women scholars of religion as well. A friend, at last weekend’s annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion–the biggest gathering of religion scholars in the world–was worrying about decreasing numbers attending presentations by the Feminist Theory and Religious Reflection section, one of the AAR ‘s leading sponsors of feminist religious studies scholarship. 

My experience of the meeting, however, was quite the contrary. At practically every session I attended, smart young female scholars of religion used feminist scholarship and theory (as well as postcolonial, queer, critical race, and a wide range of other theories) in their insightful and highly ethical presentations.

I was especially happy to attend fine presentations by a number of  impressive younger Catholic women scholars across a range of subjects and disciplines. Particularly impressive, for me, was a presentation by a Catholic feminist theologian from India, Susan Abraham, now at Harvard Divinity School.

Abraham’s paper was part of a panel on “Rethinking Identity Politics,” a topic that overlaps Ariel Levy’s article quite nicely. Drawing on Alberto Moravia’s The Politics of Difference and Ananda Abeysekara’s The Politics of Postsecular Religion: Mourning Secular Futures,  Abraham addressed the disturbing tendency of “difference” to become commodified, that is, to be swallowed up into more universal and comfortable categories, even by the black and yellow and brown subjects of difference themselves. 

The way to think outside this commodified identity-difference frame, Abraham argues, is to mourn the dead bodies that are disappeared within it. And by this she means not a theoretical, discursive mourning, but an actual, performed mourning.   The voices of the dead are messianic and counter-hegemonic, Abraham tells us. Mourning the dead is the way beyond spurious multiculturalism.

This brings us back to the achievements of the feminist movement–suffrage, equality in employment,and so forth. Ariel admits, at the end of her article, that one of the failures of the women’s movement is that it never secured decent care for the pre-school children of US women. And of course, if such child-care were available, it would have made things better for millions of us.

But there was never any consideration of care for the children of the undocumented women harvesting the food we were eating then (and now) just as there will be no health care for undocumented women and their families forthcoming from the current Democratic administration (with its equally-employed female cabinet secretaries and consultants). The urgent task, young Catholic feminist theologian Susan Abraham tells us, is identifying and mourning the bodies.

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