Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., responds to the USCCB

Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, has finally responded, at length, to the public critique of her book Quest for the Living God, by the USCCB's Committee on Doctrine.  It is a wise, learned and gracious response that also demonstrates Sister Johnson's superlative command of the theological questions raised by the Committee.  Reading her lucid response words will help those unfamiliar with her work see why her books are so valued by students, readers and other theologians.  Her introduction reads:

The first observation I would like to make underscores the obvious: Quest for the Living God is a work of theology. It is not a catechism, nor a compendium of doctrine, nor does it intend to set out the full range of church teaching on the doctrine of God. Rather, it presents areas of Christian life and study where the mystery of the living God is being glimpsed anew in contemporary situations. Hence the subtitle, Mapping Frontiers.

Advertisement

To be specific: Listening to theologies emerging within distinct contexts in the church, Quest presents ideas and images of God surfacing, being tested, piritually prayed, and ethically lived out in eight different conversations: in transcendental, political, liberation, feminist/womanist, black, Latino/Latina, interreligious, and ecological theologies. Each of these conversations wrestles with the word of God amid, respectively, the onslaught of atheism; massive public suffering; the oppression of poverty, sexism, racism, and ethnic prejudice; respectful encounter with other religions; and the amazing discoveries of science. The book culminates, quite deliberately, in a chapter on the Christian belief in God as Trinity, to which I suggest all these different discourses have been contributing rich angles of understanding. Quest is offered to readers as an invitation to think about their own idea of the living God in view of this new scholarship.

As a whole, it seems to me, the book illustrates the dynamic process described by the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum): For there is growth in understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and the study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (Lk 2:19, 51), through the intimate understanding of spiritual things they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. (§8) Precisely this type of activity is illuminated in each chapter of Quest; for example, the idea of the liberating God emerging through the experience of struggle, prayer, and study done by the church of the poor in Latin America.

It appears that part of the present difficulty stems from the Statement’s reading my book as if it belonged to a genre other than theology. Theological research does not simply reiterate received doctrinal formulas but probes and interprets them in order to deepen understanding. To do this well, theology
throughout history has articulated faith in different thought forms, images, and linguistic expressions. Its work employs all manner of methods and ideas taken from other disciplines in order to shed light on the meaning of faith.

Her entire letter to the USCCB is on NCR's website here.

James Martin, SJ

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
6 years 6 months ago
As a philosopher one reads the arguments of theologians with great care. It's also useful to ask the pivotal question: can this argument be used just as validly to contradict her conclusions? If Yes, then one should always be willing to step back and review the perhaps unconscious presuppositions behind these "probing" theological analyses and ask whether she is merely acknowledging them and teasing out what may be compatible to Catholicism... or is she using the excuse of "theology" to introduce them as true and right and correct vs. some supposed fault and error of Catholicism (with herself being the judge of course).

If the latter, then this isn't the first time a high-powered intellect thought she or he was smarter than the Church, the Popes, and the people of God. Origen and Tertullian... and Arius come to mind.

If the former - and she is profoundly Catholic and just wanted to highlight opposing viewpoints but goofed in such a way that opponents of the Church thought she was preaching a new Gospel (which chiefly says that the old one is wrong), then one needs to acknowledge that the schools who use her book and the legions of fans who support it as a counter-weight to "male domination" in the Church must be woefully mistaken and so the real problem is a failure of her to communicate her intent. This seems to be how the Bishops are approaching this - giving notice that the book ought not be used as though it speaks for "the Church", and that certain 'conclusions' or suggested conclusions therein are not Catholic and shouldn't be taken as such.

For example, yes, there is a growing modern school of thought that can be termed "feminist" but any casual observer will note that there are dozens of major streams of thought within this category and many are not at all founded on Christianity or Catholic anthropological premises (such as that humanity has 1 nature with 2 sexes which pre-exist any individual human being and any group of human beings from the family to the state inasmuch as Genesis asserts that man was put in a garden - a pre-existing order of things). To claim that humanity does not have a nature is to engage in metaphysics (and perhaps 'science') not "theology". A theologian would note that IF humanity did not have a nature, then huge swaths of Christology would be in doubt....but since we know Christ has a human and divine nature....we shouldn't jettison our belief in human nature for the rest of us!

Similarly, a philosopher can ask about gender and sexes. Perhaps a biologist can weigh in. But a Catholic theologian will note that revelation holds that God created the human race as male and female. That the Word became flesh as a man. That to claim therefore that genders exist beyond male and female, or that a woman can act as a father or a male can act as a mother or two women can be husband and wife, is again to do not 'theology' but to practice philosophy.

If one takes a neo-pagan or anti-Catholic approach to anthropology, epistemology and metaphysics....and then asks questions about why the Church does this or that or the other, as though the Church needs to give an accounting for itself and not the new claims..... one isn't really doing "theology" - one is engaging in partisan ideological, philosophical indoctrination under the cover of just musing about "theological ideas" from 'new perspectives'.

But two can play this game. I could pen a "Patriarchical" "theology" that asserts all sorts of insane concepts about men etc., market it to the billions of men on earth who may love to hear such a doctrine and then retreat when challenged to give an accounting of my claims behind the thicket that "oh, I'm just probing the frontiers of theology" and not making truth claims at odds with revealed truth or the patrimony of the saints, martyrs and mystics!

In fact it'd be too easy to do so if the author of such a work is the only judge of what is truth and Catholic and not the Bishops to whom alone Our Lord promised his presence and teaching authority.

Ditto with any "liberation" theology that's based on Marxist economic theory rather than actual economic and historic data (to wit, that people actually do have a need for private property and human rights come from the fact that we are human, not because some party or state generously grants us such rights to property, etc.) And lest I be attacked for not caring for the poor, I'm probably the only one on this site who has been in guerilla held territory in southern Mexico and seen first hand the result of Liberation theology: death, destruction, grinding poverty and a loss of the faith to both atheism and pentecostalism! I'm also close to Detroit which has been ruled by one Party for 50 years and despite the ideology called 'progressive', and individuals claimed to be brilliant and all the support of an entire nation for such a length of time.... with little to no local opposition be it political, media, or civil..... is a ruin and wasteland. Philosophers can assert anything. But if one's ideas are true, good, coherent and beautiful, they won't produce endemic poverty, corruption, chaos, and blight. Similarly, if what passes for Catholic feminism is indeed inspired by God, the result will be evident holiness of life, not anger, rage, contempt and revolution. 

Any erudite, well read "theologian" can certainly approach the Zeitgheist's various schools of thought with wit and elan. But one ought not just know the spirits, one needs to test the spirits based on a firm grounding of what we DO know is true thanks to the Holy Spirit! Sure there are ideas from an ethnic, female, poor person or minority point of view. But are these ideas sane? Are they correct? Are their premises right? Do they jive with phenomenological analysis or must we just take their ideologues word for it? Anyone can SAY that the genders are caused by social engineering. But to prove it.... Anyone can SAY that poverty is caused by capitalism (an economic theory) and will infallibly be solved by socialism (a theory of government) but to prove it..... this is the fruststrating thing about so many theologians who confuse their assertions for settled, evidence or argument based fact.

For the same reason, there is a difference between knowing what schools of thought exist and where they converge and diverge from Catholicism vs. what Sr. Johnson has penned which tours many of the current schools of thought in and out of the Church as though the Church has no firm foundation of truth and so we must be willing to jettison the old in favor of the 'new' based on....what criteria again? That it's new?

Adam Rasmussen
6 years 6 months ago
It will take a very serious and careful response from the Committee on Doctrine, one in which I think they will have to give some ground (preferably by admitting as much). In several places she specifically says that they assert that she has said things that she hasn't. In general, I found her words persuasive and was left with some doubts about at least some of the Committee's critiques.

Sticky issues that remain, at least in my mind, regard the impassibility of God (she says that God is not impassible insofar as he can freely choose to suffer, and she cites Cardinal Walter Kasper in her defense), the immediate creation of the human soul by God (she believes that science can explain how consciousness and human self-consciousness emerge through natural evolution without any reference to God creating the soul - here she cites Karl Rahner, SJ, in her defense), and the omnipotence of God. This latter point she does not mention in her defense, which to me indicates that it may represent a serious breach between her theology and the doctrine of the Catholic Church (which is clearly based on Scripture's many references to God being able to do whatever he wills, as in, for example, "Whatever God wills is done" [Ps. 115:3]), and not just a misunderstanding of what she wrote.
david power
6 years 6 months ago
John Lyons,

Very interesting your commments but it must be remembered that Origen was pre-orthodoxy and so never considered himself smarter than the Church.He was never made a Saint because he was not politically expedient.He was a great influence in theology ,perhaps only second to St Paul.Legend has it that he died a martyr. His crime from  the christian perspective is that he was an original thinker and never once quoted St Thomas Aquinas.The Trinity itself comes from the mind of Tertullian.
These are a rare breed of heretics..... 
6 years 6 months ago
Norman, I'm a philosopher. So words and their definitions matter. Much of what passes for 'brilliant' theology is just opinion.

Take the phrase "perspectives of theology". What is a perspective if not just an opinion? Opinions may be informed or uninformed. They may be inspired by God or by the devil or by illness (as insanity) or by natural intellectual capacity more or less developed. When a priest or nun with a Ph.D or ST.D talks one may presume they ought to know at least the bed rock foundation of Catholic theology. But one still needs to read carefully and take notes about what their explicit or implicit definitions of words and key concepts happens to be.

In previous blogs I have defended sister and the bishops from instant condemnation based more on personal ad hominems than on what they actually say and do.

Too much of our intra and extra ecclesial "dialogue" devolves quickly into personal tit for tats, when it's vitally important that we focus on the argument, on the claims, on the logic - because those are things all people (men and women, rich and poor, young and old) can access.... Say "Sarah Palin" and you get an instant negative reaction from half the readership of America - quite apart from any evidence based decision making. They don't like her, so any 'argument' about her worth is entirely pointless. It's taste, not reasoned conclusion. Say "Thomas Aquinas" in some faculties of theology and the reaction is similar.

The danger is to assume the Magisterium (or other fellow Catholics) react always and only the same way with everyone - like women, minorities, the poor.... and react to a perceived 'slight' (i.e. the Bishops statement) not with reasoned reflection but with tribal/partisan rush to the rescue of some social ally.... rather than just read what both sides have to say, and carefully check their premises and definitions.

The crucial, pivotal question is not who has these ideas, but are the ideas RIGHT?

Do they reflect the genuine reality of things or not? That some women have "feminist" ideas is undeniable. But are their ideas correct? That's something you need to first check from orthodox Catholicism and from Catholicism appropriate those ideas that are congruent and coherent to the whole of our faith. To adopt "perspectives" merely because some nun or woman thought of them and therefore must be smarter, better, wiser, holier ipso facto over dead white males.... is ridiculous.

Those dead white european males were the ones who promoted Theresa to Doctor of the faith - because her writings were true, not because she was a gal and they needed to fill a pigeon hole. They also believed and taught Mary to be the Mother of God - not because it was useful PR to win over the crucial voting bloc of women...but because based on scripture, she must be considered the Mother of God inasmuch as she was Jesus' mother and Jesus is God and man.....

It matters whether sister or her allies know what nature is - yes, using the old fashioned Greek and Aquinas' terminology - for precisions' sake. It matters whether you believe Jesus has both a divine nature and a human nature. It matters whether you understand what a person is and how animals - as intelligent as they may appear, are not persons (and thus have no rights). It's vital to make distinctions (like the distinction between not having rights, and it being OK to maltreat or abuse something without rights....)

Sure there are emerging schools of theology. A philosopher will immediately ask for clarification: Catholic or not? And if the theologians are Catholic, are their ideas reflective or even organically connected to bona fide saints and councils, or the outgrowth of other nominal Catholics of less sure thinking? 

Quote some Jesuit theologian to me and I couldn't care less if he was a priest, brother, seminarian or even a Jesuit. I care about his argument. It's perhaps nice to know if someone has some lived experience, some practical knowledge - phenomenological reflection is always done (implicitly) and it's always helpful to do it explicitly as a reality check on some prudential decisions. But lived experience, personal opinions ought not take pride of place when the topic is Catholic theological concepts that are crucial to our entire salvation - such as the nature of God, the nature of mankind.

The huge issues of our day - marriage, divorce, contraception, abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, sex outside of marriage.... all revolve around crucial definitions, distinctions and like it or not the patrimony of Catholic thought that includes baptised forms of Greek terminology. Jettison the orthodox words and concepts for hip, cool, new "perspectives" and you risk losing precision and failing to catch crucial distinctions.

America, NCR, commonweal and others have regular articles about "women priests" - and it's all about rights, dignity, emerging perspectives, different theologies.... and at most a cursory historical review of extra-ecclesial communities' practices (and then of course the obligatory opinion polls - because the Pope's opinion is just one vote whereas the NYT is much weighter a constituency). A Philosopher shakes her or his head and asks "but what IS a priest?" And "based on all we know of Jewish and Christian revelation...what IS a priest?" If we are called a priestly people, a kingdom of priests....what does that mean? And if there is a hierarchy of doctrinal and sacramental leadership, what does this mean? If Logos became a man to repair Adam's fall....if His Mother is an analogue to Eve....what does this mean for the purpose of the question about ordained priests? Such questions are routinely pooh poohed in the literature of "theologians" who go long on sociological surveys and opinion polls and short on brass tack metaphysics and phenomenology.

So the above is both a response to Sister and a general statement about the sorry state of modern "theology" which skips crucial philosophical steps and plows ahead into equivocal statements, shades of meaning, and confusion. 


6 years 6 months ago
Oops, forgot to add this...

Sister writes the following in defense of her book:

"Listening to theologies emerging within distinct contexts in the church, Quest presents ideas and images of God surfacing, being tested, piritually prayed, and ethically lived out in eight different conversations: in transcendental, political, liberation, feminist/womanist, black, Latino/Latina, interreligious, and ecological theologies."

Calling an opinion "an emerging theology" does not make it a) true, b) Catholic and c) a theology.

I'm sure all sorts of "ideas and images of God" are out there in the world constantly "surfacing, being tested (by whom? The Magisterium? Sr. Johnson?) spiritually prayed (fine, but again, by whom?) and 'ethically lived" (according to what criteria - Catholicism or sui generis 'ethics' whereby so long as I'm cool with my idea and it doesn't adversely affect my moods and feeling, I'm good to go?).

Again, she lists 8 categories of people from whom these emerging ideas spring - in juxaposition against "Catholicism" that's somehow handicapped? This is to again fail to spot the glaring distinction between opinion and fact. Between an inspiration and merely an idea.

The bishops obviously as teachers of Catholicism would care alot if their magisterium is being challenged and put on parity with ideas under the assumption that a new idea that pops into the head of a woman, ethnic minority, or poor person somehow has value apart from its intrinsic truth-claim.


Vince Killoran
6 years 6 months ago
One of the many important contributions Sr. Johnson makes in her statment is the reminder that the university is not just a place to transmit knowledge; the work of college and university communities is to interrogate that knowledge and the creation of new knowledge.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Homeless people are seen in Washington June 22. Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Fla., chair of the U.S. bishops' domestic policy committee, released a statement Nov. 17 proclaiming that the House of Representatives "ignored impacts to the poor and families" in passing the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act the previous day. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
The United States is thwarting the advancement of millions of its citizens, a UN rapporteur says.
Kevin ClarkeDecember 16, 2017
Why not tax individuals for what they take out of society instead of what they contribute?
Paul D. McNelis, S.J.December 15, 2017
Pope Francis will renew the mandate of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors for another three years, informed sources told America this week.
Gerard O’ConnellDecember 15, 2017
Worshippers recite the Lord's Prayer during Mass at Corpus Christi Church in Mineola, N.Y., on Oct. 13. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic)
Making ancient Scripture sensible in contemporary languages will always prove a hazard-heavy challenge.
Kevin ClarkeDecember 15, 2017