Bishops Critique Work of Feminist Theologian

Book ‘employs standards from outside the faith,’ the doctrine committee asserts. Publisher expects controversy to generate more sales.

In a detailed critique, the U.S. bishops' Committee on Doctrine has concluded that a 2007 book written by Fordham University theology professor Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson "contains misrepresentations, ambiguities and errors" related to the Catholic faith. Sister Johnson is pictured in an undated photo.
In a detailed critique, the U.S. bishops' Committee on Doctrine has concluded that a 2007 book written by Fordham University theology professor Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson "contains misrepresentations, ambiguities and errors" related to the Catholic faith. Sister Johnson is pictured in an undated photo. (photo: CNS photo/courtesy Fordham University)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed strong objections March 30 to the “doctrine of God” arising from the methodology employed in Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, a popular textbook used in some undergraduate theology classes.

Asserting that its author, Sister Elizabeth Johnson of the Sisters of St. Joseph, a highly regarded Fordham University theologian, “employs standards from outside the faith to criticize and to revise in a radical fashion the conception of God revealed in Scripture and taught by the magisterium,” the 21-page statement issued by the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine defended the rare public notification as a necessity because “the book is directed primarily to an audience of non-specialist readers and is being used as a textbook for study of the doctrine of God.”

The bishops’ action signaled their willingness to confront a popular and respected theologian and author on doctrinal issues, and it created a stir in theological and religious-publishing circles.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the bishops’ conference, presented “the statement to Jesuit Father Joseph McShane, president of Fordham, and Sister Elizabeth prior to its public release,” reported Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the archdiocese, who noted that the archbishop had sought and received the permission of the USCCB administrative board to do so.

Sister Elizabeth told the archbishop “she intended to take it seriously and that she would interpret this as an opportunity for dialogue with the bishops so that she might offer clarification and elaboration,” said Zwilling. And Archbishop Dolan, for his part, “hoped that, as a serious theologian, Sister Elizabeth Johnson acknowledges the role of bishops as the authentic teachers in the life of the Church.”

Publicly, Sister Elizabeth responded with a statement that avoided incendiary language but defended the integrity of her work: “The book itself endeavors to present new insights about God arising from people living out their Catholic faith in different cultures around the world. My hope is that any conversation that may be triggered by this statement will but enrich that faith, encouraging robust relationship to the Holy Mystery of the living God as the Church moves into the future.”

She took issue with the USCCB committee’s decision not to contact her before making its critique and contended that that 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.”

‘She Who Is’

Sister Elizabeth has served as the president of both the Catholic Theological Society of America and the ecumenical American Theological Society. She is a member of the editorial boards of several influential journals, including Theological Studies and Horizons.

The Fordham professor’s academic expertise includes systematic theology, but she has gained prominence as a feminist theologian and the author of a number of books, including She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse.

Quest for the Living God was published in 2007 by Continuum. Kara Zavada, the U.S. marketing manager for the religious-books division of the publishing house, confirmed that the hardback had sold more than 20,000 copies and the paperback edition would be available this July. Zavada said that Continuum had no plans to respond to the U.S. bishops’ critique and that she was more concerned with meeting an expected surge in demand for the book — the inevitable consequence of increased media attention.

Some Internet critics echoed the bishops’ concerns.

Addressing Sister Elizabeth’s assertion that the bishops had “radically misinterpret[ed| her book, Catholic Culture’s Phil Lawler drily observed: “If Catholic bishops cannot grasp Johnson’s points, how can we expect college undergraduates to understand them? … [T]he bishops were right to issue a warning.”

Meanwhile, supporters questioned the need for the USCCB’s critique and suggested the author’s audience was composed of sophisticated readers who could navigate the shoals of speculative theology. However, when the book was first published, reviewers applauded its broad appeal: America Magazine, the Jesuit monthly, predicted that “[p]rofessional theologians, undergraduate students and literate people of faith will enjoy all that this engaging work has to offer.”

Msgr. Stuart Swetland, the Archbishop Flynn Professor of Christian Ethics at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., and a former student of Sister Elizabeth when she was a member of the theology faculty at The Catholic University of America, recalled a gifted teacher who left a lasting impact. But he underscored the bishops’ primary obligation: “The role of the bishops is to point out when a problematic line of reasoning might lead students or readers astray.”

What the Mystery of God Is

Msgr. Swetland challenged Sister Elizabeth’s assertion that the doctrine committee should have met with her before issuing its critique. “Theological works meant for a general audience have to stand on their own. The question is whether the book itself would engender confusion. However, if you were looking at the entirety of someone’s work, it would be appropriate to contact the author,” he said.

Led by Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., the U.S. bishops’ doctrine committee expressed strong objections to the author’s tendency to set aside revelation and the magisterium as the starting point of her theological inquiry, while expanding the role of personal experience and the insights of secular disciplines or other religious traditions. This flawed methodology, the committee charged, might lead readers to conclude that Tradition “has failed to provide an understanding of God.”

“The book argued that God is mysterious, which he is, and therefore whatever language we employ concerning God is all metaphor or symbolic and therefore does not afford us any truth claims about who God is, actually. Thus, we can’t really know who God is because of this mystery that he is,” explained Capuchin Father Thomas Weinandy, executive director of the USCCB Secretariat for Doctrine.

“However, while the Church would say, ‘Yes, God is a mystery,’ we do know, because of revelation, what the mystery of God is. God is a trinity of persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” Father Weinandy added. “Our language is not only symbolic or metaphorical; it gives us a true understanding of the nature of God. The false conclusion is that we can use any metaphor when speaking of God.”

Feminist theologians have emphasized the role of human experience in part because they believe that women have been excluded from the development of doctrine. Mary Shivanandan, professor of theology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, noted that several of Sister Elizabeth’s other books approached “authentic” experience as a source of ongoing revelation.

Shivanandan explained that the Second Vatican Council’s document on the interpretation of Scripture (Dei Verbum) explicitly states that “no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 

Harming the Faith

Theologians that “give equal or more weight to secular disciplines — such as sociology — than to the Tradition and the magisterium of the Church,” she added, “reduce the full glory of revealed truth. Instead of integrating experience with faith, they end up harming both faith and human flourishing.”
The bishops’ statement also took aim at the author’s revisionist account of the historical formulation of doctrine that wrongly characterized tradition as “contaminated” by ideas from Enlightenment thinkers.
“Against the contamination of Christian theology after the Enlightenment by modern theism, Sister Johnson claims to be retrieving fundamental insights from patristic and medieval theology. As we have seen, however, this is misleading, since under the guise of criticizing modern theism she criticizes crucial aspects of patristic and medieval theology, aspects that have become central elements of the Catholic theological tradition confirmed by magisterial teaching,” the committee observed.

While Cardinal Wuerl suggested that these issues of concern might have been fruitfully addressed before the book’s publication, theologians contacted for this story said it has become increasingly rare for scholars to seek an imprimatur for a work of speculative theology.

Father Weinandy acknowledged that he had not obtained an imprimatur for his own works of theology, and that Sister Elizabeth’s book came to the committee’s attention after several bishops raised concerns about its use in classrooms. 

“The doctrine committee has done what it was asked to do,” he stated. “Hopefully it will have some effect.”

Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.