Catholic Theological Society on Elizabeth Johnson

The Catholic Theological Society of America's Board of Directors has responded to the USCCB Committee on Doctrine's critique of Elizabeth Johnson's book Quest for the Living God.  (H/t to Grant Gallicho at Dotcommonweal.)  The statement and the list of signatories is on the CTSA website.  Their critique of the critique coheres around three objections: first, official procedures that the board feels the USCCB "did not follow;" second, a "deficient" reading of Professor Johnson's work; and third, a "narrow understanding" of the work of theologians.

We, the undersigned officers and directors of the Catholic Theological Society of America wish to comment on the statement by the USCCB Committee on Doctrine, which was made public on March 31, 2011. Our intent here is to voice our serious concerns regarding three issues: 1) the fact that, in this matter, the bishops did not follow the procedures set forth in their own document, Doctrinal Responsibilities; 2) a misreading of Professor Johnson’s work in the statement; 3) the troubling implications the statement presents for the exercise of our vocation as theologians.

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It is not our intention here to comment in detail on the Doctrine Committee’s statement or on Professor Johnson’s book, since responsible consideration deserves greater time and thought. However, we feel an urgency to respond since her book has received such a wide and favorable reception from so many educated Catholic laity, including from the students many of us teach. In sharing this pastoral concern, we are conscious of the complementary but distinct vocations of the theologian and the Magisterium and are open to further conversation with the Committee on Doctrine regarding the understanding of our theological task.

1. Procedures
In 1983 Doctrinal Responsibilities was unanimously approved by both the Catholic Theological Society of America and the Canon Law Society of America. It was further refined by the Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine and formally approved by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1989. Under the heading “Ecclesial Responsibilities” (which considers the responsibilities and rights of both bishops and theologians) it states: “It is inevitable that misunderstandings about the teaching of the gospel and the ways of expressing it will arise. In such cases, informal conversation ought to be the first step towards resolution.”

Professor Johnson’s response to the Doctrine Committee indicates that no discussion with her took place before the statement was published: “I would have been glad to enter into conversation to clarify critical points but was never invited to do so. This book was discussed and finally assessed by the Committee before I knew any discussion had taken place.”

We are greatly disturbed that the Doctrine Committee did not follow the approved procedures of Doctrinal Responsibilities which advocate that an informal conversation be undertaken as a first step. Despite this procedural lapse, we applaud Professor Johnson’s willingness to begin a dialogue with the bishops.

2. Misreading
We believe that the statement is deficient in the way it presents Professor Johnson’s work. Professor Johnson is faulted repeatedly for holding the position that God is “unknowable” on the grounds that she maintains that our human words cannot completely capture the divine reality. This judgment takes shape in the statement by ascribing to Professor Johnson the view that none of our words about God can be truthful (8). The statement concludes that since God’s divine revelation is found in truthful words, Professor Johnson presents an understanding of God that is incompatible with the Catholic tradition, “for it effectively precludes the possibility of human knowledge of God through divine revelation and reduces all names and concepts of God to human constructions …” (20).

This is a surprising leap in logic, not warranted by Professor Johnson’s modest, and quite traditionally Catholic, claim that our human words cannot completely capture the divine reality. It is difficult for us to imagine that Professor Johnson, who has written so elegantly and movingly about the divine mystery throughout her career, lacks a heartfelt intention to say something modestly truthful about God based on God’s revelation in Scripture and Tradition.

3. The Theological Task
Finally, we are troubled that this criticism of Professor Johnson’s work seems to reflect a very narrow understanding of the theological task. Theologians throughout history have promulgated the riches of the Catholic tradition by venturing new ways to imagine and express the mystery of God and the economy of salvation revealed in Scripture and Tradition. This is a Catholic style of theological reflection that very many Catholic theologians continue to practice today. The teaching of the Second Vatican Council in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) is especially eloquent on this responsibility:

From the beginning of its history [the church] has learned to express Christ’s message in the concepts and languages of various peoples, and it has also tried to throw light on it through the wisdom of philosophers, aiming so far as was proper to suit the gospel to the grasp of everyone as well as to the expectations of the wise. This adaptation in preaching the revealed word should remain the law of all evangelisation.… It is for God’s people as a whole, with the help of the holy Spirit, and especially for pastors and theologians, to listen to the various voices of our day, discerning them and interpreting them, and to evaluate them in the light of the divine word, so that the revealed truth can be increasingly appropriated, better understood and more suitably expressed. (#44)

Such endeavors, which theologians offer in service to and love for the Church, should be encouraged by all in the Church. To suggest that a theologian who engages in the difficult task of interpreting revelation for present times and cultures is denying the knowability of the very revelation—the Word of God—that theological reflection takes as its authoritative source, strikes us as a fundamental misunderstanding of the ecclesial vocation of the theologian.

In conclusion, we wish to affirm that Professor Johnson is a most esteemed member of our Society. She is a person of the highest character, a respected theologian and teacher who pursues her theological vocation as service to the Church

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7 years ago
I don't have a dog in this fight (I find academic theological battles as fruitful as the political culture wars), but I wonder if the CTSA or their members have EVER found the bishops' exercise of their teaching authority appropriate, necessary and useful?

And poor Cardinal Wuerl (the chair of the Committee); he's "damned if you do and damned if you don't" on both "sides".
Jean-Francois Garneau
7 years ago
I agree with Jeff Landry that poor Cardinal Wuerl (the chair of the Committee) is now "damned if he does and damned if he does not", but perhaps he should have thought about this before acting.

It's difficult for people to see this episode in the light of the sex abuse scandal because people rightly focus a lot of their anger on the perverts rather than on the leadership. But there is also demonstration time and again that acting bishops seem to be lacking basic leadership skills.

Far from me the idea that Bishop need to have MBAs (I am far from a fan of this degree as qualification for leadership duty), but there is such a thing as minimum skills and virtues to exercise such offices, and so many bishops, right now, see themselves way too much as prophets or party leaders, and not enough as managers, whose primary responsibility is towards the spirit of their team, the negociation of compromises, the softly working behind the scenes rather than the stumping in front of everybody to please the party crowd, the making sure everybody understands the other side's point of view as fairly as possible, etc.

I like to remember this old saying that a political organizer friend of the family used to tell, and which should apply to the church just as much as to political campaigning: "In politics, you don't add by substracting. You add by adding." May more of this wisdom come back to everybody here.
7 years ago
Thank you, Fr.Martin, for posting the response of the CTSA.  I hope those of us on the side lines would quietly listen with open hearts to both sides, the CTSA and the USCCB. Taking sides publicly seems to always deteriorate into tit for tat and to unnecessary controversy.  Truth is so big to be expressed in only one dimension.  During this season of Lent, I think the best place to take ourselves is at the desert where Jesus was tempted three times.  There He had to prove his humanity to the Evil One and he won because he accepted his vulnerability as a human being and just totally  relied on God.  He demonstrated his vulnerability again in the garden where he felt completely alone and abandoned.  Maybe we should also accept our vulnerability....... that none of us has the total right answer...that the theologians and the church leaders are only showing us glimpses of the Truth... I think we need both.....faith seeking understanding, as we learned from catechism.   
Cody Maynus
7 years ago
Thank God for the Catholic Theological Society. 

As a "theologian-in-training", it is good to know that there is a body of scholars defending the vocation of the theologian. If the Church is to continue to make sense in the world, it needs the "thinking arm" of the theologians to to continue pushing the boundaries of faith in order to make it relevant (without water it down) for those who could just as well leave the Church and join the growing number of "churchlessed" individuals. 

Thanks, Fr. James, for bringing to light this issue in America.  
Frank Gibbons
7 years ago
Cody,

I wish you success in your theological training.  But please realize that the Catholic Theological Society is hardly a group of impartial thinkers.  They have their biases.  And please realize that the flock is starving for Jesus - not new modalities of imagining God or grids of metaphors.  Just look at Central and South America over the past forty years.  How may souls did Liberation Theology reach?  Yet the Pentacostals and conservative Evangelicals won tens of millions of converts by preaching about the Crucified Christ.  And for every Catholic who joins the Episcopal church because of women's ordination, a hundred join a conservative ("bible believing") church because they don't hear Jesus proclaimed boldly enough in the Catholic church.  Peace.
Cody Serra
7 years ago
Thank you, Fr. Jim and America for keeping us current of the Church developments.

Theologians have helped the Church through the centuries, in spite of their diversity and humanity, in undenstanding the mystery of God.  Perhaps the diversity of thought challenges us all to think and accept the variety of views of God across the world cultures. God is the One unchangeable, but I'm sure Jesus today would not use most of the same parables HE used at his time. The Truth is the same, but to communicate it, it is necessary now to find words that we can understand in technological advanced societies and in the less advanced, in a globalized, secular and multi-everyting world of today.  
The total understanding of God, in my opinion, will never be complete. We don't have the human mental capacity to explain WHO God is, but theologians continue trying to show us Him with images and words so we can continue our understanding of the Mystery in our days.
I think many of us have had different images of God along our life journey. He is always the same, but we change, suffer, mature, fail, renew our faith, (some loose it) and then, may discover sometimes a different image of Him in our hearts.  I don't belive we are changing God or the Truth. Theologians serve us in our quest to know God. Let's be glad they can imagine new ways of presenting HIM to us.
Jim McCrea
7 years ago
Frank Gibbons said:  “ - a hundred join a conservative ("bible believing") church because they don't hear Jesus proclaimed boldly enough in the Catholic church.”
 
Or maybe they are of a temperament that they need to have all questions answered, all “I’s” dotted and all “T’s” crossed for them.  That was the attraction of the church I was raised in to many people.  Not need to think.  No need to study scriptures.  (In fact, doing just that was actively discouraged, even to the point of denying the right to do so.)  No need to question.  Just ask the church – it had all the answers.  The Baltimore Catechism was the end all and be all of whatever any Catholic had to know.  Buy the entire package or risk the eternal damnation of your immortal soul.  Making your Easter duty was as important as believing in the divinity of Jesus.
 
Well, guess what?  As the song from Porgy and Bess says:  “It ain’t necessarily so.”  People who want to be spoon-fed pablum aren’t as comfortable in today’s church.  People who look for a “once saved, always saved” assurance won’t be comfortable here, either.    People who aren’t comfortable with a life-long journey as opposed to a one-time event that punches your ticked for all eternity will look elsewhere.

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