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Kevin ClarkeApril 21, 2011

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?

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Juan Lino
12 years 5 months ago
I finally received my copy of the book and from the little I've read, I'm not impressed. Especially since I am engaged in Faith Formation with my fellow young adults. Perhaps it's because I don't accept her premises and/or what I perceive as her bias.  Regarding the sources you cite ...well, they've given the standard "circle the wagons" response, which, quite frankly, is getting old.

Regarding this quote: "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?" 

I see, if 98% of US Catholic women/men felt that X was wrong is that really a reason to trim the Truth to fit today's ideological fashion?  Give me a break!
Anne Chapman
12 years 5 months ago
Enjoy the book, Juan, and try to keep an open mind, if possible, even if you have already prejudged it based on reading only a "little."

 I suspect that few who have read your posts are surprised by your "review."   What would have been surprising is if you had said that while you do not agree with her in all that she writes, she has some interesting perceptions and insights. 

I have not gotten my copy yet.  I imagine I will be quite intrigued by her views.  And if that's the case, that would not be a surprise to anyone either, including me.

The point about women and contraception is that women represent the sensus fidelium, while the bishops represent male celibates who are not women, are not married, who have never given birth, and who have never raised even one child to adulthood much less several.  Cardinal Newman understood that the Holy Spirit speaks through the WHOLE church (even women!), but unfortunately, Rome has ignored his understanding - to its detriment and even to its shame.  It seems that this teaching is not "Truth"  and that is why it has not been accepted. Newman also pointed out that persistent lack of acceptance of a teaching by the church (meaning all of its members, not a handful of men in Rome and chanceries) is a strong indicator that the teaching is in error and should be reexamined.
Katherine Nielsen
12 years 5 months ago
They've gotta do their little Kabuki dance.  The bishops have to make their point about protecting the ignorant from viewpoints which are off the beaten path.  The theologians have to make their point about academic freedom. Neither side is  interested in actually communicating with the other; or they would have done so by now.
It has been discussed in previous posts about this subject that the level of catechesis of the average college student is so abysmal that they would be incapable of digesting and forming a mature judgement about possibly heterodox ideas. I'm not going to argue pro or con about that, though I'm sure some young men and women would find that insulting. I'm going to suggest that the problem is a broader one, that many students have gone through school not learning to think critically. About anything. Maybe college is a good place to start learning this skill, and maybe a controversial theology book is good practice. One thing is certain; this won't be their first exposure to ideas which don't have an Imprimatur.
Anne Chapman
12 years 5 months ago

Do you accept Newman's concept (consensus fidelium)?  Newman was talking about the church, not civil governments.

 Do you acknowledge that there have been times when church teachings were wrong?

 Is hanging on to ''authority'' and dogma at the possible expense of Truth the best course?  And if theology matters, why misuse the authority of bishops to force theologians to stop searching for better understanding, to stop seeking to clarify truth?  It would seem that there would be no reason to even have theologians if it is up to the bishops to define ''truth''.
Bill Mazzella
12 years 5 months ago
I give  you credit, David, for at least acknowledging that there is a problem here. 
No one questions the right of bishops to exercise authority. But as St Paul showed, authority must always go with pesusasion and charity. Paul corrected Peter, the pope, which means the pope can be wrong. Surely Urban II was wrong when he said that a soldiers sin would be forgiven if he goes to war against the Muslims. No question the bishops of Philadelphia are wrong when they still intimidate priests in the diocese from doing the right thing for victims. The popes were wrong about no salvation outside the church as they are surely wrong about birth control. There are too many examples. We have to realize that just agreeing with a bishop/s order will not excuse us before God.

Authority is holy and right when it is exercized within the community in a spirit of service and love. These bishops have no resemblance to Paul. They need to set more of an example and get away from doctrinal intimidation and get more into service and humility. 
Tom Maher
12 years 5 months ago
Juan (#1)

Thank you Juan for your straight forward analysis where asw useual you get right to the heart of the matter.  Authenticating what church's teachings are is not a popularity contest.   Have your read some of these thoological essays published in America magazine?  Are they  ever peer reviewed?  I hope not because the theological ideas expressed are often instantly recongized as false for being so subjective and impractical.   This stuff should not be published
Too many theological ideas are not being effectively and critically reviewed consistant with reality.   

When it comes to credibility the Bishops win hands down over the theological speculators and essayists.  The problem is it is the the college theologians who lack  authority and credibility with the laity and the rest of the church not the Bishops.   Very fortuneatley most Catholics do not go to Cahtolic colleges so they are not exposed to the theoplogical fads of the last several decades from people who have no appointed or elected standing with the laity or the church. 

What credibility does the Catholic Theological Society have?  

Juan Lino
12 years 5 months ago
Hi Anne - I always enjoy reading your comments and I really appreciate the good chuckle you gave me when you called my comment a "review."  I will finish the book because, as you intimated, most things are a mixture of good and bad although not generally as a 50/50 split.

Regarding sensus fidelium - which is defined as "the instinctive sensitivity in matters of faith exercised by the whole body of believers whose appreciation and discernment of revelation are guided by the Holy Spirit" in the A Concise Dictionary of Theology by Gerald O'Collins, S.J. and Edward G. Farrugia, S.J.

Now, they cite two documents from Vat 2 - LG and DV - and when I read the context that phrase does not seem to support a "Lay Magisterium" as some seem to advocate.


David - thank you for your kind words.


I wish all a Blessed Triduum!  Viva Christo Rey! 

Craig McKee
12 years 5 months ago
As I recently confided to a monk friend of mine, if forced to choose between theologians and bishops, I'll vote for NEITHER and go straight to the MYSTICS, a much more reliable SOURCE!
I mean, get real! Whom would you rather be reading during Holy Week?
Johnson and Wuerl, the CTSA and CTS or Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross?

Even the dumb ox himself, Thomas Aquinas was smart enough to conclude:
all that I have written seems like STRAW compared to what I have seen!

And so far, all or most of what has been written on this theological ''tempest in a teapot'' is beginning to look like straw to me!

Memo to Dr. Johnson:
When I experienced a few ''headwinds'' in my own research in Paris (caught in the crossfire of dueling dissertation directors' egos at La Catho and the Sorbonne!) regarding infant communion and first confession of children in the Medieval church because it wasn't politically correct to reveal primary sources that did not agree with Santo Subito's pastoral policy, I confided my plight to Pere Congar. His advice: ''PEU IMPORTE. FAITES LE TRAVAIL!

12 years 5 months ago
Anne writes: "The point about women and contraception is that women represent the sensus fidelium, while the bishops represent male celibates who are not women, are not married, who have never given birth, and who have never raised even one child to adulthood much less several."

Anne, I know you like to question authority; yet, just out of curiosity, do you ever think that the liberal Catholic dogma that you put forward - women priests, contraception etc. etc. - could be terribly wrong and the Church right?

One does not have to be a women or a theologian to see the negative effects of contraception on the society at large or the negative effects of separating the unitive and procreative aspects of human sexuality. 

Being from "Gen X," I have witnessed the effects of the pill on sexual habits and morals and can say without doubt that the Church was prescient in its opposition to a strictly biological or material view of human sexuality.  Simply look at the environment effects (high hormone levels in drinking water) or social effects (sky-rocketing std rates among teens, 1-4 teen girls carries hpv, divorce rate, sexualization of children via marketing etc. etc. 

Of course there are other factors involved; however, a holistic view of sex, rather than the feminist dogma of liberation and a materialistic view of sexuality, is what we need.  This is not a matter of doctrine, but common sense.

So, do you think that you and fellow liberal Catholics could be wrong here?
12 years 5 months ago
PS - I stand by the content of my post, but I apologize for the edgy tone.

Crystal Watson
12 years 5 months ago
I agree with Anne on the contraception issue, and along with us in our opinion were most of the guys at Vatican II, the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control, and hundreds of theologians.  If not for the pope ignoring the recommendations of his own commission, the church would have flipped its stance on birth control. 

 Environmental pollution from birth control pills is minimal compared to the contamination from the use of hormones in the  raising of animals (cattle) for food - is the church going to come out  against factory farming? 

12 years 5 months ago
Crystal, I think Caritas en Veritate comes out for humane economics and sustainable farming - not to mention this quote from Benedict:

"The farmer is not a fatalist, but is the model of a mentality that unites faith and reason in a balanced way because, on one hand, he knows the laws of nature and does his work well, and, on the other hand, he tr...usts in Providence, because certain basic things are not in his hands but in God's hands. Patience and constancy are precisely the synthesis between human effort and trust in God."

Does not sound like factory farming to me.

As for the debate above, we can talk about the abstractions of theological disputes all day; however, the evidence is certainly against the liberal materialistic and unnatural forms of birth control and the predatory ideologies that reduce sexuality as one more attribute to be exploited in commerical or personal arenas. 

Also, declining populations (completly below replacement levels in W. Europe, Japan and Russia - the same in the US we were not assisted by Mexican immigration who still have a healthy view of the family) are further proof that something is wrong with modern approach to life and sexuality...only if we would like to take off our ideological blinders and abstractions to see clearly.

PJ Johnston
12 years 5 months ago
The essay by John Henry Newman that's being invoked in this discussion is "On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine".  It's relatively short and is available here:


It argues that bishops are not the only teaching authorities in the Church, and it is probably the most direct theological influence on the development of the sensus fidelium idea at Vatican II.  This is a principle that (on paper, anyway) is officially accepted by the magisterium.

By this principle, it is a problem for the prima facie authority of a doctrine of the magisterium if 98% of Catholics dissent from it.  Truth isn't a popularity contest, but the Holy Spirit preserves the indefectibility of the Church, so overwhelming percentages of Catholics dissenting from some doctrine does give reasonable basis for doubting whether or not the suspect teaching was really inspired by the Holy Spirit or whether it is one of the teachings which will develop and change over time - (ex hypothesi) if it really were the inspired teaching, the Holy Spirit which preserves the Church indefectibly would have seen to it that the vast majority of ordinary Catholics believed it.
12 years 5 months ago
Considering that it has been only 50+/- years since the advent of chemical contraception commercially in the US, and considering the ill-effects on society and individual human dignity are just being considered, I would say the Holy Spirit is still working...that the minds of the faithful are rapidly changing.
PJ Johnston
12 years 5 months ago
I've got no dog in the contraception fight.  I'm just trying to describe how the idea of sensus fidelium is supposed to work and used that example because someone brought it up.

It does seem reasonable (as you do) to point to the newness of the practice as a basis for continued listening and discernment on the topic rather than rushing to quick conclusions.  Such caution would be advisable on all sides.
Bill Mazzella
12 years 5 months ago
I must give credit to the editors at America for this blog. They tolerate insults from a few bloggers here who not only insult the editors of America but rarely give a reason for their conclusions other than absolute adherence to the authority of the hierarchy. They fail to acknowledge that the hierarchy has made many errors and given much scandal. In particular, Brett, Juan and David. Now all of you are going to call this ad hominem. If so, please tell me what is your continuous insulting of the editors?
Juan Lino
12 years 5 months ago
Ha, ha, ha, ha ...sweet, I love verbal jousting - especially with someone who believes they are the Bishop of Behavior.  Were you formally appointed or did you appoint yourself?  
Jack Barry
12 years 5 months ago
Learn to Joust
...men often fail to score a hit for lack of sight, poor control of their lance or horses, or lack of determination. As for sight, some close their eyes when they are about to hit, and yet they do not realize this because they are concentrating so hard. Others realize that they close their eyes but cannot stop themselves from doing so...It is important to have someone whom you can ask...
Duarte, King of Portugal, c.1434
Anne Chapman
12 years 5 months ago
Thank you, PJ.  I was going to post the information about Newman, but you were faster. The backstory about Newman being fired by the bishops, and his rebuttal through that issue of The Rambler is also very interesting, as was the reaction of Rome following it.

Brett, many people equate ''birth control'' with ''the pill.''  The most popular form of birth control in the US is sterilization, followed by barrier methods. According to the CDC, fewer than .5% use NFP. NFP is a misnomer, as it imposes a very unnatural way of living on married couples, denies the importance of the natural hormonal cycle of women, and its un-naturalness is one reason so few stick with it when they try it.  Fewer than 20% of women use the pill at any time. The primary health problem from hormones is the one mentioned by Crystal - the hormones that are given to animals.  Unless you are a vegan or carefully buy only organic, you are ingesting hormones in your food. Hormones in the water are almost negligible compared to the concentrations of all drugs - anti-depressants, etc - because so many people flush unused medications of all types down the toilet or dispose of them in the trash, which ends up in landfills, and eventually in the water tables.

The problems related to irresponsible sex did not begin with the invention of the pill but are as old as the ages. There is no logic in telling married couples they should not use whatever form of family planning is best for them and their marriage because some people abuse modern birth control - this is like telling all people that they shouldn't eat food because some people are gluttons, or they shouldn't take prescription painkillers because some people abuse them or they shouldn't have a glass of wine with dinner because some people are alcoholics.

The population of the world will grow to 8 billion in the next few decades (more than twice as many are born each year than die). The arguments  about low birthrates in some nations are about economics - and thus about the immigration of those who are not white (and not Christian) into nations that have always been white and Christian. If men are truly concerned about this, they should begin to reflect a lot on how their attitudes about women (John Paul II thought of women as childbearers primarily) and also how 21st century women want to live.  Until men change their thinking a bit and their actions in the home and society as well, the birth rates in countries where women have real choices (for the first time in history) will remain low.  Benedict wants to take the church back to earlier centuries - he mistakenly thinks that will make it ''safe''. But, there is no going back. Women aren't going to go back either.

My apologies for the length of this post and others I have made.  It is hard to respond to "throw-away" statements that are false or misleading without  providing some clarification.
Juan Lino
12 years 5 months ago
Great quote Jack B! 
Anne Chapman
12 years 5 months ago

Thanks for your post - you are "where" I am on my own personal spiritual journey.  My interest in what either the academics (theologians) or the bishops (the cops?) say is mostly "academic" - so to speak (sorry!).  However, like Juan, I enjoy some verbal jousting.

I too am a former student of la Catho, but did not study theology. I was there for only a year, to study French. However, my life and thinking as a Catholic were permanently impacted by my theology professor there.  Thanks for the memories!
Juan Lino
12 years 5 months ago
I agree with Craig (and Anne) that "the MYSTICS are a much more reliable SOURCE! And who's a greater mystic than the incarnate Lord Himself?
For that reason, I read the Diary of St. Faustina again during this great period in the Church precisely for that reason and because I am a firm beleiver in Divine Mercy.  In the past, I've read the writings of St. Catherine of Siena , which I also love.

Anne - what you wrote in #24 is very interesting and I have some questions about it but since it's not the topic of the post I will send an e-mail after Easter since I am going to stop posting soon.

Craig - what does "ABD to this day" mean? 

Jack - this part of your quote - It is important to have someone whom you can ask...
- highlights the point of disagreement that often comes up!

Today is the great feast of Love, let's have a party! We may all see things differently but we've all been embraced by that Love.  Ciao.
Anne Chapman
12 years 5 months ago

I would be happy to discuss the specifics of #24 offline after Easter.  Since Craig seems to have signed off (If he's in Hong Kong it's the middle of the night), and Easter is soon, I will answer your question - All But Dissertation (I have even seen ABD on resumes!).  Reading between the lines, I would assume (Craig, correct me if I have made wrong conclusions/assumptions), that Craig studied for a doctorate at the Institut Catholique de Paris (la Catho), most likely in some aspect of theology, but never completed his dissertation and thus never was awarded the PhD. La Catho has been an intellectual home for many influential theologians.

Happy Easter to all, especially the editors of America who provide such an interesting forum for those who do enjoy discussing matters of importance to the church.
12 years 5 months ago
Anne, I still believe you are not correct and are minimizing the impact of this pharmaceutical innovation (esp. when combined with the cultural/sexual revolution) - something has changed in a very negative manner for the way that our culture views sexuality and I think know as well as I do that artificial contraception has played a major part in this change.

Again, if one turns from a holistic view of humanity, to a technical/biological one then even with great intentions, very bad things tend to happen.  To separate unitive and procreative is really the gensis of not only "freedom" or control for women, but objectification/commercialization on a major scale and a utilitarian view of the human body. 

As Dostoevsky said through his materialist character in the Demons:  "...my conclusions directly contradicts the original idea I start from. Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism. I will add, however, that apart from my solution to the formula, there is no other."

Sorry for the jousting...and Happy Easter to all!
12 years 5 months ago
Yes, but when you destroy all natural limits in the name of human freedom, this desire quickly becomes much more powerful and widespread than it was before.

I agree that the fallen state of humans as an issue before such technology; however, such things are terrible accelerants which fan the flames, so to speak, and the Church is right to oppose them in the name of a more natural and holistic approach to society and human sexuality.

This is consistent with Church teachings on the economy, which also seeks to control individual/institutional human license (often enabled by advances in technology) for the common good.
12 years 5 months ago

I have spent much of the week exploring Elizabeth Johnson’s theological insights expressed in her book, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (Continuum 2007). Cardinal Wuerl’s Committee on Doctrine prompted the exploration. And I thank the Cardinal and his Committee for the prompting. I can sum up my conclusions this way: Women scare the hell out of the Cardinal and his Committee! It must be remembered that since 1994 authentic Catholic theology is the domain of an all male magisterium — thanks to Ordinatio Sacredotalis (which reflected papal views as far back in history as 1975). Chapter 5 of Johnson’s Quest, God Acting Womanish, gets the full condemnation of the Cardinal and his Committee. Their Statement, pages12-14, condemns Johnson’s Chapter 5 thusly:
“What is lacking in the whole of this discussion is any sense of the essential centrality of divine revelation as the basis of Christian theology. The names of God found in the Scriptures are not mere human creations that can be replaced by others that we may find more suitable according to our own human judgment. The standard by which all theological assertions must be judged is that provided by divine revelation, not by unaided human understanding.” 
Sr. Johnson offers more that ''unaided human understanding'' in support of her views. I find them convincing. Happy Easter!
Jerry Slevin
12 years 5 months ago
PAPAL STRATEGY AND THEOLOGIANS- Most of the comments so far treat Cardinal Wuerl's approach to Elizabeth Johnson as a relatively isolated case. Can that be? Neither Wuerl nor his master, Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), commonly act so piecemeal. This case appears clearly to be part of the larger Papal Strategy. This Papal Strategy, including its application to this case, is described in detail in my 10 comments to John Allen's April 21 National Catholic Reporter entitled, ''Laicizing bishops, a movie flap, Ireland and America and Vatican II''. My comments are a single commentary broken down into 10 parts to fit into NCR's posting mechanics. My comments are entitled, ''Papal Strategy & Child Abuse 1-10''. Why some of you may not like my heading, as you will see from my comments, the papacy has a current overall strategy-everything is interrelated. I have invested much time and research into the comments which, hopefully, also benefit from my 16 years of Catholic education, three years at Harvard Law School, 30 + years of Wall Street law practice and 50 years of reading in Catholic theology, history, etc. I may be wrong in places and, if I am, I will gladly take constructive fraternal and sororial correction. The Church is in trouble and we need honest solutions and analysis. I am waiving my usual fees for these comments in the spirit of Holy Week.  LOL Please have a blessed Easter.
Bill Mazzella
12 years 5 months ago
"Today is the great feast of Love, let's have a party! We may all see things differently but we've all been embraced by that Love.  Ciao."

Agree. Let's enter into a post Augustinian world where we work more on unity than polemics.
Anne Chapman
12 years 5 months ago

If you want to discuss all this offline, send me an email after Easter.  I am thoroughly familiar with all the points you have made (including the water pollution from birth control pills half-truths), having heard them repeatedly for years now.  This thread really should be centered on how to find balance in the church - between theologians and bishops, and between the whole church and the "teaching authorities."  Newman did not deny the teaching role of the church - however, as his title clearly shows, he believed that the teaching authorities must "consult the faithful on matters of doctrine."  And generally they fail to do that, leading at times to teachings that are not accepted by the faithful, who have a lived wisdom of their own.

Happy Easter!
12 years 5 months ago
Hi Anne,

No one seems to want to address the larger issues of evidence for a holistic view of human sexuality and, indeed, that the Church teaching and Theology of the Body are correct despite the fact that modern marketing and drug store conveniences seem to have prevailed in the short term. 

I do find it strange how people have similar positions to ones they criticise; often times it is not so much that they oppose authority, but desire it for themselves or their set of ideas.

In any case, I am sure we will pick up this issue at a later point and a Happy Holy Saturday to you!
12 years 5 months ago

This new birth control commercial is a perfect example of the solipsism and hubristic desire for total control associated with the materialistic view of sexuality.
12 years 5 months ago
Hey Norman, I posted the ad not to single out women but, to highlight this trend in the culture towards placing choice (often enabled by technology) above submiting to God and to the natural, limited state of being a human.

Men are more often guilty of such  pride...but things are becoming more "equal" as all are becoming atomized beings, enabled by new technology and driven only by individual desire.

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