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James Martin, S.J.April 18, 2011

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


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Jack Barry
12 years 12 months ago
It's plain to see some confusion underlies the problem Card. Wuerl is trying to solve.  
In 2010, the USCCB Committee on Doctrine under then-Abp. Wuerl critiqued the prize-winning Salzman-Lawler book THE SEXUAL PERSON: TOWARD A RENEWED CATHOLIC ANTHROPOLOGY (2008).   They issued a press release and scathing 24-page rebuke on ''Inadequacies In The Theological Methodology And Conclusions''.    
The bishops declared in their conclusion:  
''The issues treated in The Sexual Person are indeed vital matters for the life of the Church in our time. They should be thoroughly studied and discussed by theologians as part of their service to the Church and to society.''  
Immediately following:  
''The efforts of theologians, however, can only bear fruit if they are in fact carried on within a hermeneutic of continuity and in the framework provided by the Catholic theological tradition and the teaching of the Church.''     
It becomes crystal clear that that theologians in their ''thorough study''  are to stay inside the boundaries defined by the hermeneutic of continuity and the framework as these are understood by today's Committee bishops.  With such constraints, it sounds as if there may not be much work left for theologians to do.  
Todd Flowerday
12 years 12 months ago
It's hard to know where to start on this one. Archbishop Wuerl would do better to give us biblical metaphors. Referees and umpires are rarely drawn from the ranks of the athletes they govern. They may know the rules, but they never play the sport on the level of those men and women at the top of their game. Refs and umps are also beholden to league administration. So is Archbishop Wuerl conceding few bishops have theological chops to match up with lay people? That they are mere branch managers in a top-down system?

I'm bothered by his assumption that catechesis suddenly got bad in the 70's. Can he prove it wasn't just as bad before the council? You know: when Catholics-including priests-didn't read Scripture, and knew little to nothing about it?

Not impressed either with the poor dumb laity meme. But on the other hand, if the Doctrine Committee bishops and their consultants so badly misread Professor Johnson's book, maybe everybody's better off reading the catechism instead. I notice that the archbishop, when he quoted the CCC, didn't reference the original document the Catechism quoted, Dei Verbum.
Adam Rasmussen
12 years 12 months ago
Speaking as a Catholic who teaches an introductory theology course at a Catholic university, this document was both interesting and helpful. As Cardinal Wuerl observes, it is not secret that undergraduate students today at Catholic universities and colleges are not well prepared to take theology courses. Like most theology teachers (I think), I consider the highest achievement to be to get students to understand and appreciate two different theological opinions (say, two or more different views on biblical inspiration). Unfortunately, these achievements do not come easily, as a considerable amount of time often must be spent laying the foundations for comprehending those positions, which leaves little time for actually debating the merits.

I do worry sometimes about students being unable to respond properly to viewpoints that could go against the Catholic Christian faith. For instance, just today I presented the view of some scholars (in addition to two other views) that Jesus was a failed prophet, who thought that the world would end immediately after the Temple was destroyed (based on Matthew 24). I added that such a viewpoint would typically include a denial of the Christian belief that Jesus will one day come again, yet I worry about students possibly adopting this view, even though I can't see how it can be reconciled with the Catholic Christian faith. There is a part of me that wants to exclude viewpoints that seem obviously un-Catholic to me, yet this particular issue is important if one wants to interpret Matthew 24 adequately and, more broadly, to speak of the Parousia and the New Testament. Still, I worry that the students are so poorly equipped to deal with problems and difficulties that even to hear such views can become a danger for them.

In light of Cardinal Wuerl's letter, I think that I will want to spend more time in the future considering how best to approach texts and viewpoints that seem to me either to be in some tension with Catholic faith or, worse, in total opposition to it (as the belief that Jesus was a failed prophet). In an ideal world, one would be able confidently to engage such things, but in the real world one always runs the risk of students becoming misled or confused. If nothing else, the letter is a great reminder of the serious responsibility that falls upon theologians (not unlike the responsibility that falls on bishops) to instruct and to engage in a way that will not needlessly and recklessly risk confusion and distress. One must also avoid the silly temptation simply to amuse, tittilate, and entertain, which can sometimes assail theologians. (Of course, when students come with seriously distorted views, sometimes a shock is what they need most, which is why it's good to make students with a somewhat pathetic image of God read the Book of Exodus.)
Vince Killoran
12 years 12 months ago
The Bishops' "clarification" letter makes me wonder if they have ever been in a classroom out of the seminary walls. There are (at least) two things at work here: the abysmal state of pre-collegiate Catholic religious education and the teaching of theology at Catholic colleges & universities. 

I happen to think think that the first issue is far more serious; the bishops have spent very little time thinking about it except to put the hammer down on religious education teachers so that what they teach is, in the words of William James, "intolerably bald and chalky and bleak." We are not educating young Catholic thinkers.

I know the issue is considerably complex in higher education context but combing through course reading lists and picking out certain monographs on the grounds that students can't handle contrasting ideas and theological debates seems silly.  Ditto for their rationale, i.e.,  because they need to create a remedial CCD course for college kids. This is a bad idea both from both an intellectual and spiritual perpective.
Crystal Watson
12 years 12 months ago
I  didn't attend a Catholic college, so perhaps that's why I'm kind of horrified at the way the bishop's statement represnts the teaching of theology at  Catholic colleges: it sounds like nothing more than indoctrination.  There's a  difference between teaching people how to think and teaching them what to think - this seems like the latter.  I guess the question I'd ask is "what's the purpose of a Catholic college education?" 
12 years 12 months ago
"I guess the question I'd ask is "what's the purpose of a Catholic college education?""

Crystal - I'm somewhat baffled by your post, culminating with your question above, as it seems to suggest that Catholic colleges should be "neutral" (at best) with respect to the faith claims of the Catholic faith, presenting it as simply "one option among others".  Certainly, however we define the purpose of Catholic theological education, the notion that theologians should exhibit such neutrality cannot be a legitimate option. There is a difference I submit between "indoctrination", which shuns honest analysis, and a convincing exposition of the Catholic faith.

I appreciate Adam Rasmussen's insight; I also find that Card. Wuerl places some of the responsibility for the "dialogue" on the theologians.  I found it odd that the CTSA's letter complained of a lack of dialgoue, yet Sister Johnson herself could have initiated such dialogue with the bishops.  I continue to ask the question I first raised when this story emerged: when has the CTSA every upheld or supported the authority of the bishops, as teachers of the faith, to critique a theolgian's work? 

12 years 12 months ago
THEOLOGICAL OPPRESSION ANEW: Cardinal Weurl now, in effect, indicates bishops should control theologians just as the Vatican controls bishops-completey. This is clearly part of the Vatican's strategic plan to restore the pre- Vatican II absolute monarchy with its inquisitorial procedures and absurd index. It is less about teaching the truth than exercising bishops' intimitating power over competent theologians who dare to address taboo topics like episcopal collegiality, celibacy, womens ordination, sexuality, etc. It is the rebirth of thought control. If the CTSA bends to this intimidation, its members should transfer to unaffiliated univeristies that promote academic freedom. Similarly, students should then enroll in colleges that are not compelled to use theologians as Vatican propagandists. If a bishop or his theologian disagrees with a theologian, the bishop can publicly debate this in person or in academic journals as was commonly done by medieval theologians. American theologians should stand their ground united, as their German speaking theologian colleagues just did with their reform memorandum. The bishops are staggering from the daily revelations of their shameful actions in dealing with child rapists and abusers. We now know these include the confessed criminal abusing bishop in Belgium and also in Norway.  The bishops are in no position to take on a united group of theologians. Soon Hans Kung's new book, ''Can the Church Still Be Saved'' will be available in English. It provides guidance and encouragement from one who survived earlier theological tyranny with his integrity intact. Please follow his example, CTSA members.    
Crystal Watson
12 years 12 months ago

We aren't talking about a seminary, right, but a college?  I don't see how Catholic college students can compete with students from other colleges on the intellectual plane if they're only allowed to learn about Catholic doctrine rather than being taught (and trusted) to learn of  all that's out there and make critical jusdgements about same.
Crystal Watson
12 years 12 months ago
Oops -  that should  be the intellectual "plain" - ouch  :)
Tom Maher
12 years 12 months ago
Well good for Cardinal Wuerl's letter insisting that only true interpreations of the Catholic faith will be called authentic Catholic teachings.  We need things repreesented as church teachings to have integrity that can be depended on.   Thank goodness the Bishops will act when all else fails to disapprove of any writings that are not built on the foundation of authentic Catholic teachings.  When the book in question by Sister Elozabeth Johnson  was found wanting the Bishops will say so publicly. .No one should be surprised   The authentic, sacred message of the church must be preserved and taught.  This is a very serious obligation of the Bishops.    Thie Bishop's  job and duty ia ro aww that only authentic Catholic teachings approved by the Bishops are  preserved ant taught as Catholic.   This is doctrinal integrity that we all want and seek.
Crystal Watson
12 years 12 months ago
Or "plane" - I guess I've completely undercut my argument by now  :)
Devon Zenu
12 years 12 months ago
Cardinal Wuerl reminds us 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.” I find it disheartening but predictable that the bishops would take concerns about how accurately they have performed the latter responsibility as an attack on their right to do the former. The fundamental question is not whether the bishops have the right to teach the faith (they do) or whether they have the right to critique those who purport to teach the faith (they do), but whether it is right for them to belatedly critique the writing of a respected Catholic theologian without even contacting her first to make sure they weren't misinterpreting her. It has been shown that at numerous points the bishops badly misread Sr. Johnson and attributed to her motivations and ideas that simply are not part of her work. And when the CTSA pointed this out and noted that this could have been avoided had the bishops followed standard procedure (and common decency) by actually talking to Sr. Johnson, their response is to act as if their authority to teach the faith has been questioned and to offer a legalistic defense of why they didn't have to talk to Sr. Johnson before officially and publicly critiquing her work. 
Andy Buechel
12 years 12 months ago
I actually agree with you that the bishops should stand up to defend Catholic dogma.  That's part of their task.  But in order to carry that out effectively, they must not only teach, but teach well.  Poor teaching is worse than no teaching at all.  According to Prof. Johnson, the CTSA, the College Theology Society, and most who have read both Johnson's book and the bishops' statement, they get the book utterly wrong.  If the bishops cannot be trusted to give an accurate and honest account of a text that, by their own statement, is aimed at undergraduates and the non-specialist, how are we supposed to trust them on more important matters?  Statements as poorly done as this (and frankly patently ideological) do far more to prevent the bishops from doing effectively what you seek they do.  After all, what's the use of issuing a statement if no one but the already convinced are going to take you seriously?
12 years 12 months ago
"The fundamental question is not whether the bishops have the right to teach the faith (they do) or whether they have the right to critique those who purport to teach the faith (they do), but whether it is right for them to belatedly critique the writing of a respected Catholic theologian without even contacting her first to make sure they weren't misinterpreting her."

Whether we personally like it or not, theologians always teach, write and operate under the authority of the magisterium and their local bishop.  Some of the comments indicate a disappointment with this fact and seem to use "procedure" as a proxy.  Why didn't Sr. Johnson initiate the dialogue with the bishops?  Seems like it should be a 2 way street, as Card. Wuerl correctly points out.
Robert Killoren
12 years 12 months ago
Well, as usual, I am confused. Our understanding of God and creation is always evolving, right? Theology is our study of God and such study will always be deficient because we cannot know God. Often our theological misunderstandings are not necessarily caused by what we say but because of how we say it. Take, for example, the theology that was the essence of the conflict which kicked off the Reformation. Are we justified by faith alone (sola fide) or by works? The Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church now share a single understanding of this important theology. (quote) The understanding of the doctrine of justification set forth in this Declaration shows that a consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification exists between Lutherans and Catholics. In light of this consensus the remaining differences of language, theological elaboration, and emphasis in the understanding of justification are acceptable. (end quote)  It seems to me this means that we have been talking past each other for the past several hundred years. Look also at the number of theologians who are now renowned and their teachings part of Catholic belief who were questioned or even condemned by their bishops in their own time. Again the cause was usually a misinterpretation of what the theologian said, or an evolution in belief that led to a new understanding that is eventually adopted by the Church. It seems to me that bishops should be careful in making assertions as to what is and isn't Catholic belief, as should all theologians as well, based on their past performance. (For example, Thomas Aquinas was considered dangerous by the bishop of Paris.) The Western Church has always relied almost exclusively on a rational, didactic approach to theology, whereas the Eastern Church believes that orthodox theology has to originate from an urging of the Holy Spirit upon a theologian. The Roman Church has, since Vatican II, been much more open to the workings of the Holy Spirit in developing our understanding of God, yet it has not yet fully adopted that spiritual approach to theology (and many bishops are now questioning it) and I would hypothosize that this is a key underlying issue in many disagreements between the bishops and theologians which they criticize. Many bishops tend to still view theology systematically; belief must be based on the principles they were taught in scholastic theology and if something doesn't fit it must be in error. It is only later when a particular teaching has stood the test of time and has been accepted as true by the vox populi that a rational reconstruction is developed to make it true, and the Church finally concludes that it is official doctrine. But what do I know, I'm only a deacon.
sarah gregory
12 years 12 months ago
I'm reminded of Justice Brandeis' famous admonition that the remedy for offensive speech is not enforced silence, but more speech. The bishops are concerned about the lack of formation that young Catholics experienced prior to college, and whether they have the proper foundation to tackle more complex theological concepts. Therefore, they say, the answer is to cut off access to that work for that group of students. If they've not heard doctrine, for Christ's sake (no pun intended), don't let them explore other ideas. 

By criticizing Johnson's book, especially without proposing a substantive and equally well-reasoned and considered critique - just saying ''NO'' - the bishops are not fulfilling their teaching authority, but have frankly abdicated that authority. It is not ''teaching'' to put walls around ideas and declare them ''wrong'' without exploring the ideas and submitting them to the scrutiny of the light of day. That's precisely what college is about, after all.

As the mother of an adolescent son, I know quite well that the quickest way to get him to read something is to forbid him to explore it without sound justification. If I want to destroy his trust and lose my authority, I add ''because I have power over you, and I insist''. If I want to shut down all lines of communication, I'll note that I don't think he's mature enough to handle what's there, and that I'm using my power to keep him from seeing it. On the other hand, if I want him to learn, to discern, and to develop strong critical thinking skills and a solid faith, we'll go through a text together and discuss it. Ultimately, of course, his conscience is his own, but part of its formation includes being exposed to ideas that are disagreeable, and having to struggle with them. That goes for the bishops as well.

William Atkinson
12 years 12 months ago
I find it Ironic that the teaching Magisterium, rarely teaches, and when they do, they misquote and misspeak in almost every subject they approach.  Archbishop Wuerl and Archbishop Sheehan constantly using bad bibical references, speaking and writing with little knowledge of some of Christologies most important concerns.  Its as if last time they did research on historical bibical and religious anthropology and archeology concerns was when they were back in minor seminaries.   It sometimes becomes very apparent that they do not know they are amoungst some of the most learned communities, lay folks who know their religions and know their bibical history and are intense with their spiritual relationship with Christ and His church.   I fear they are way to defensive of their Roman supreme culture and in some cases have forgotten they are here to serve Christ and shephard His flocks toward His kingdom.   It is so true that power corrups, maybe if they shed their royal robes and walked amoungst their peoples they could imitate the Christ in a lifestyle more adaptable to His Image and Likeness.  In our modern times we are way over due for a Council (dosn't have to be a Vatican Council) to bring christian issues to a forfront and call on theologian, magisterium, community leaders to collegically and collectively give truth to so many vital concerns of christian, catholic, religious, communities of our 21st century world and hopefully lay a neuance foundation for everyone to aspire toward a greater life in following Christ into the ages to come, beyond all the end times and future as the peoples of the world grow and develop for centuries to come.  Old becomes history the New go forth wiser and stronger to lead a new church and a new age.
12 years 12 months ago
Well, the Cardinal has convinced his supporters her, bu tcertainly not others.
I'd be bemused by the whole(continuing) incident - CTSA has replied, if it wren't so sad: I thought of Thomas Reese's article today that the Church in the US is hemorraghing members and little id one to confront the problem!.
It sounds to me  like two beauracracies crying out that you've stepped on my prerogatives - a cry often heard in ineffectual beauracries that lack listening and colaborative skills - which, in my judgement, are sorely lacking in the Church here and beyond.
12 years 12 months ago
Cath!olic theologians are not free-lancers. They don't get to make it up as they go, and they're not empowered with teaching authority from God but delegated authority from the Magisterium.

So to make this a power struggle (big bad Bishops, nice, wonderful cool lay or religious theologians) is to miss the fundamental Isness of the Church which is hierarchical and authoritative. After all, the point of the Church is to save our souls, not to make us feel good about ourselves. Jesus didn't say "go ahead and feel good about yourselves, figure out my evolving reality in your own words and if the bishops rein you in, declare yourself cool and a martyr for 'evolving truth'!

But that's how it always plays out with theologians. Boo hoo, I'm persecuted (after spending decades rebelling from orthodoxy and teaching as 'a valid catholic theory' something that is either a complete novelty or an old heresy. Fidelity to the deposit of faith? Sense of responsibility for a truth more important than your feelings? Integrity to not pass off as Catholic something you know is not really what the Church has always taught? From Curran to dear Sister, there's always a bit of edge and attitude when there should be basic integrity and honesty to admit that their theories are just that.... their theories. Not divinely inspired, not certain, not something people ought to jettison the Magisterium for....

Then there's the politics of this give and take that's appalling. It shouldn't matter whether someone is Left, right or center provided their argument is cogent and good. But too much of our present "theological" debates seems to revolve around what theory will buttress a pre-ordained position or moral conclusions we've staked our lifestyles on.... so women who want to abort their children (and the useless boyfriends who make them) will naturally seek theologians who can dull their consciences.... then there are those who simultaneously get in high dungeon over mistreatment at the hands of 'evil conservatives' while also declaring that their moral compass ought to be exclusively their own 'conscience' that discovers truth not as revealed and declared by the Church but what pops into their heads or they read in their pop culture magazines..... (OK, so if that's so, and God's cool with YOU having an untethered conscience, why can't those 'evil conservatives' likewise have unthethered consciences and we all go about living saintly lives of mutual hatred and persecution of one another?)

In short.... too many folk jump to theology without first studying philosophy and logic. Or even pausing to ponder what constitutes evidence or proof. Is something truer because a Ph.D claims it is? If a Pope or bishop has no authority for being a bishop, does Sister Johnson "PHD" have authority because she has a degree?

If the Church is untrustworthy for being run by white men....why ought we trust white women any more?
Eric Stoltz
12 years 12 months ago
Todd said: "I notice that the archbishop, when he quoted the CCC, didn't reference the original document the Catechism quoted, Dei Verbum."

Certainly you are aware of how our bishops quote things They quote the pope quoting the Catechism quoting Scripture. God forbid they should just quote scripture directly. Same thing goes for the Council. 
Kay Satterfield
12 years 12 months ago
I read Prof Johnson's book Quest for the Living God several years ago.  Her deep love of God shines through in this book.  

The red flag may be because she questions gender roles and traditional patriarchal understanding of God.  This goes against the current 'teaching' that women are one thing and men are another.  A recent podcast by America about feminism asked for more of a dialogue between the newer "John Paul II" feminists and the more established feminists like Dr. Johnson.  


Young adult women really struggle to be a part of a church that has such traditional views about women.  At least Prof Johnson gives them some voice.  She is someone who loves the church and asks for more.  Instead of fear maybe there should be realization that her voice may be what keeps a new generation hanging in there.  

At the end of this book Johnson speaks of God's love and desire for relationship.  Some quotes from her book are "God lives as the mystery of love.  Human beings are created in the image of this God.  Therefore, a life of integrity is impossible unless we also enter into the dynamic of love and communion with others...the living God is an overflowing communion of self-giving love...the church is to be a living symbol of divine communion turned towards the world in inclusive and compassionate love.  Only in a community of equal persons related in profound mutuality, pouring out praise to God and care for the world in need, only such a church corresponds to the triune God it purports to serve."

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