USCCB Committee Posts Rationale for Johnson Critique
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, DC, and chairman of the USCCB's Committee on Doctrine, issued today a further explanation for the bishops' critique of Sister Elizabeth Johnson's book Quest for the Living God, and responded in particular to a statement published by the Catholic Theological Society of America that criticized the bishops's stance. The document issued today by Cardinal Wuerl, called "Bishops as Teachers: A Resource for Bishops" offers a detailed explanation of one of the traditional roles of bishops (to teach, to govern, to sanctify). Regarding Sister Johnson's book, the USCCB's statement (summarizing the document) wrote:
“The book in question is an already published work not primarily directed to professional theologians for theological speculation, but rather one used as a teaching instrument for undergraduate students, many of whom are looking for grounding in their Catholic faith,” Cardinal Wuerl says. “The background against which the bishops must exercise their teaching responsibility today is the generally recognized catechetical deficiencies of past decades beginning with the 1970s. The result is a generation or more of Catholics, including young adults today, who have little solid intellectual formation in their faith. It is in this context that books used in religious studies/theology courses at Catholic colleges and universities must be seen as de facto catechetical and formational texts. While the content of a book may be highly speculative and of interest for trained theologians, when it is used in a classroom with students often ill-prepared to deal with speculative theology the results can be spiritually harmful. The bishops are rightly concerned about the spiritual welfare of those students using this book who may be led to assume that its content is authentic Catholic teaching. The Committee on Doctrine expresses serious concern about the pastoral implications of the teaching in this book.”
The statement adds that “the circumstances involving the teaching of theology within Catholic universities and colleges have significantly changed. Undergraduates are now offered a variety of texts within introductory theology/religion courses. While many of the texts can be quite helpful in presenting the faith and teaching of the Catholic Church, there are others that cause confusion and raise doubt among students. Some texts can even be understood as offering an alternative pastoral and spiritual guidance to students in contrast to the teaching magisterium. This is especially a concern given the current diminished level of catechetical preparation of so many young students. In the light of this changed academic situation special attention must now be given as to how to address theological works that are aimed at students and yet do not meet criteria for authentic Catholic teaching.”
The statement also addresses concerns that the committee criticized Quest for the Living God without addressing concerns with the author first and had not followed the bishops’ own 1989 document Doctrinal Responsibilities, which was intended to promote cooperation in resolving misunderstandings between individual diocesan bishops and theologians.
“Doctrinal Responsibilities did not address the special responsibilities of the Committee on Doctrine of our national Episcopal conference,” the statement says. “In addition the document is presented for consideration as one way of proceeding but not as obligatory.” Cardinal Wuerl also said that the 1989 statement makes it clear that these suggested guidelines “can only serve if they are adapted to the particular conditions, of a diocese, its history and its special needs.”
The resource adds that “the Doctrine Committee does not wish to stifle legitimate theological reflection or to preclude further dialogue, but it does want to ensure that the authentic teaching of the Church, concerning doctrine and morals, is clearly stated and affirmed. While dialogue between theologians and bishops is very important it should work along side of the bishops’ primary teaching and sanctifying mission.”
The statement can be found here.
James Martin, SJ