Catholic Theologians critique USCCB process

Just back from the Catholic Theological Society of America's convention in San Jose, where on the first night, the bishop of the local diocese, Patrick J. McGrath, before the entire membership, noted that in the past all the best theologians were bishops, but "that was a long time ago."  He then praised the book Truly Our Sister, by Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, and received a standing ovation, which was as much for the bishop's words as in heartfelt support of Sister (and Professor) Johnson.  Ironically, given the furor over the USCCB's condemnation of her book Quest for the Living God, the Congress's theme this year ("All the Saints") meant that Johnson's book Friends of God and Prophets, a look at the idea of sanctity and, more specifically, the Communion of Saints, was the focus of one the convention's formal sessions and was mentioned in many others.  The topic of the U.S. bishops' critique and everyone's admiration for "Beth," as her friends call her, was on almost everyone's lips.  Now the CTSA has passed a resolution critical of the process that led to the USCCB's Committee on Doctrine's public critique of Quest.  NCR reports: 

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The Catholic Theological Society of America June 10 overwhelmingly passed a resolution recommending the U.S. bishops establish a committee to evaluate procedures that led to their doctrine committee’s April statement, which severely criticized a book by a noted U.S. theologian.


By a vote of 147 to one, the society approved a statement saying it “deeply regrets” the bishops did not follow procedures they established in 1989 aimed at resolving conflicts between bishops and theologians.

It was the first time since 2006 that the full theological society passed any resolution (that one was in solidarity with the undocumented), an indication of its deep displeasure at the way the bishops’ doctrine committee handled an investigation of Fordham University Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s 2007 book, “Quest for the Living God.”

The resolution was put before the full body of the theological society by Jesuit Father Michael J. Buckley who said the bishops need to know the “theological reputation of a theologian” can be threatened by a mishandling of this kind of investigation.

“The Catholic Theological Society of America regrets deeply that the provisions established by the American bishops in the document ‘Doctrinal Responsibilities: Procedures for Promoting Cooperation and Resolving Disputes Between Bishops and Theologians’ were ignored in passing judgment on ‘Quest for the Living God’ by Professor Elizabeth Johnson,” the resolution reads.

The rest is here.

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Andy Buechel
7 years 7 months ago
The problem with your metaphor is that the Church is not a business (or at least shouldn't be if it's to be itself).  Theologians do not "work for" the bishop.  He is not their boss.  The Church is a communion brought together in the Spirit to form the body of Christ on earth in praise of the Father.  The model of efficiency that you posit is quite fine as a practical matter-any organization needs ways to run smoothly-but when it practically breaks down, there is need for correction and revision.  This is all that's going on, I think.  The bishops are of course authoritative (and no one, from Sr. Johnson to the CTSA has said otherwise), but that does not mean that their procedures are above critique, and since theologians are much closer to co-workers than employees-both engaged in the enterprise of proclaiming the Gospel in their different ways-it is entirely appropriate to bring that to their attention.
Michael Brelsford
7 years 7 months ago
go laity-clergy solidarity!!!
ed gleason
7 years 7 months ago
Let's thank  Bishop PJ McGrath for praising Johnson's other book. this  is a needed first step showing that not all bishops have to join a gauntlet line when just a few want to call a 'line'  to use their tomahawks to order to maintain their idea of 'unity' in the big big family/tribe. . Talking about gauntlet lines, when will the laity get to form one for cover-up bishops.. no hitting, just a few hundred  thousand thumbs pointing to the end of the line.
ed gleason
7 years 7 months ago
David. You wonder what's behind the anti-hierarchy seniment in the air.. why would you care when you say
"Often, we disagree with our bosses, find them wrong-headed, wilfully misinformed, misguided, but we obey them nonetheless'
How glad am I you were not a co-worker of mine.. . .. just saying...
Cody Serra
7 years 7 months ago
Thank you, Andy for your clear explanation of differences between the Church and a business. Sometimes, unfortunately, the business principles are applied to the church when it is convenient to its governance. However, the secular work environment is not of divine origen, and the same principles cannot apply, though the actors are human in both circumstances.

Theologians used to be just ordained males. The Vatican auhority over them was more direct. Times have changed. It maybe difficult for Bishops to respect laity intellectual freedom, and the fact that the Holy Spirit blows wherever HE wants. Pentecost reminded us yesterday that article of our faith. The laity contributions to the understanding of the Mystery of God cannot, and should not be curtailed. Different cultures may use diffferent images of the Creator to understand Him. The Truth can be expressed with different words and images without changing it a bit. Let's remember that theology is not doctrine.
Cody Jorgensen
7 years 7 months ago
C. Serra - regarind intellectual freedom, Sr. Johnson has that.  Her book was published, has been in print for years, and I haven't heard anything about the Bishops moving to remove it from printing.  That is intellectual freedom.

Andy - You're right in terms of it being legitimate to ask that procedures be followed.  To possibly see it in a more nuanced light, I don't think the Bishops are obligated to follow their procedures absolutely.  Their Office of Bishop and role as Shepherd is supreme in these matters, and if they had just cause, and it was important enough, I don't think anyone could claim that they could not do that.

Improving future relationships is definitely important.  After reading the Bishop's document, you can sense that this wasn't easy.  It's incredibly public, and incredibly direct.  That's a bold move, and one can (if you hold a trusting and comprehensive view of the role of the hierarchy) easily see that such a bold move was not done rashly, without thought, or without a heaviness of heart. 

These Bishops all have experience, you know they have advisors, they knew there would be fallout.  They felt really strongly about this, and acted accordingly.  I'm personally glad to see that they're willing to move strongly when it's needed, because the opposite is disappointing.

I think we all need to be resoundly moved to prayer over this issue, for the peace of the Sister, that she could recognize the position the Bishops were in, to learn to heal and move past this, becoming stronger and more understanding of their role in the Church.  I wouldn't want to ever be a Bishop, this is only a glimpse into the decisions and actions they have to do every day.


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