The cage match between the bishops and theologians emerging out of the U.S. bishops Doctrine Committee's treatment of Fordham Professor Sister Beth Johnson grew more crowded this week. The Catholic Theological Society of America has already gone on the record with its critique of the committee's critique of Sister Johnson's “Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God.” The CTSA said the bishops ignored their own procedures by not informally discussing their problems with Johnson before issuing their caution on her work and more to the point flatly misinterpreted what she wrote.
Returning the serve (clashing sports metaphor alert), the bishops issued a "resource" explaining their rationale on the process and decision. In a statement accompanying the release, Washington's Cardinal Donald Wuerl stressed that “it is the specific competence and responsibility of bishops to teach the faith in its entirety” and cited a 1992's "The Teaching Ministry of the Diocesan Bishop," which says that bishops “are to determine authoritatively the correct interpretation of the Scripture and tradition committed to the Church...and they are to judge for the Church the accuracy of the presentation of this revelation by others.”
Over at the Pray/Tell blog, Father Anthony Ruff, O.S.B., comments: "I hope the Cardinal doesn’t mean to say, 'Since we don’t have the arguments, let’s insist on our authority,' but it sort of looks like it."
Now the College Theology Society has jumped into the rhetorical fray, defending Sister Johnson's work and endorsing the CTSA position: "While affirming the distinctive vocations of bishops and theologians, the CTSA statement raises important and widely shared concerns about (1) the bishops’ failure to follow their own procedures as delineated in their 1983 statement on Doctrinal Responsibilities, (2) the misrepresentation of Professor Johnson’s position, and (3) the statement’s restrictive characterization of the nature of theology. The board of the College Theology Society shares each of these concerns."
On Sister Johnson, the society had this to say: "We believe that Elizabeth Johnson’s book 'Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God' exemplifies a compelling style of Catholic theology that engages many different kinds of undergraduate students populating college and university campuses.... This book illustrates what has been a hallmark of all of Johnson’s work: a dedication to exploring the living faith of the Church as it is conveyed in communities in various cultures and contexts in the United States and throughout the world. Her gifts and talents as a highly effective theological educator are clearly displayed in this book."
Father Ruff observes (and I think it worth quoting him at length): "Theologians vs. Bishops: this is depressing. It’s starting to look like a case of compelling arguments on one side, appeal to authority on the other. This is bad, very bad, for the future of theological inquiry in the Church, at the service of the faithful and their leaders. It certainly won’t help the Bishops’ credibility as authoritative teachers.... The Bishops teach that every use of artificial conception is morally wrong. But as we learned this week, some 98% of US Catholic women disagree. Is the Bishops’ long-range plan to keep asserting the teaching on contraception until the laity come around? 'It’s not gonna happen,' I hear some of you saying. I hope, O how I hope, that we’re not heading into a situation where the Bishops condemn books representative of the work of about 98% of theologians, and keep doing so until the theologians come around.
"We’re at an impasse. Frankly, I don’t see a way forward. What needs to happen to move us toward a better future, where our Bishops are our leaders and guides and even heroes? I certainly want that. I want our Bishops to teach authoritatively and credibly."
Time to locate a referee or are more combatants waiting to enter the ring?