Catholic Theological Society of America board on Elizabeth Johnson.
Our intent here is to voice our serious concerns regarding three issues: 1) the fact that, in this matter, the bishops did not follow the procedures set forth in their own document, Doctrinal Responsibilities; 2) a misreading of Professor Johnson’s work in the statement; 3) the troubling implications the statement presents for the exercise of our vocation as theologians.
The CTSA board members are “greatly disturbed” by the bishops’ failure to engage Johnson in conversation about her work, as mandated by the “Doctrinal Responsibilities” document that was overwhelmingly approved by the bishops conference in 1989.
They also note that the Committee on Doctrine unfairly faults Johnson “repeatedly for holding the position that God is ‘unknowable’ on the grounds that she maintains that our human words cannot completely capture the divine reality.” They write:
This is a surprising leap in logic, not warranted by Professor Johnson’s modest, and quite traditionally Catholic, claim that our human words cannot completely capture the divine reality. It is difficult for us to imagine that Professor Johnson, who has written so elegantly and movingly about the divine mystery throughout her career, lacks a heartfelt intention to say something modestly truthful about God based on God’s revelation in Scripture and Tradition.
Finally, CTSA board members take issue with the Committee on Doctrine’s rather cramped view of theology. “To suggest that a theologian who engages in the difficult task of interpreting revelation for present times and cultures is denying the knowability of the very revelation—the Word of God—that theological reflection takes as its authoritative source, strikes us as a fundamental misunderstanding of the ecclesial vocation of the theologian.”
About those “Doctrinal Responsibilities”: As NCR has reported, the bishops of the Committee on Doctrine failed to follow their own guidelines on dealing with disputes between theologians and bishops.
According to guidelines approved by the U.S. bishops in 1989, doctrinal disputes with theologians are to be kept as local as possible and are to follow carefully delineated steps involving dialogue with the theologian to clarify data, meaning and the relationship with Catholic tradition while identifying the implications for the life of the church.
The committee, however, chose not to notify Johnson — viewed as one of the nation’s leading systematic theologians — that it had undertaken a study of her book. It did not engage her in conversation before issuing its findings.
Titled “Doctrinal Responsibilities: Approaches to Promoting Cooperation and Resolving Misunderstandings between Bishops and Theologians,” it included an approving appendix letter written by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.
So, why didn’t the Committee on Doctrine bother to contact Elizabeth Johnson before critiquing her book? Fr. Thomas Weinandy, executive secretary of the committee, explains:
“The bishops felt that, all things being equal, those guidelines should be or can be employed. But when it seems imperative that something needs to be said and said soon, that cannot always be done. The book was out there for three years before it was brought to our attention, so I think the bishops were wanting to clarify the situation as quickly as they could.”
When asked how long the bishops’ committee had been looking at Johnson’s book, the priest said “probably a year or so, from beginning to end.”
Weinandy, who has been the executive director of the Secretariat for Doctrine since 2005, lamented that in past instances dialogue with theologians “came to nothing.”
While the committee “wants to be fair,” he said, its ultimate responsibility is “to ensure that the faithful receive the faith as it is proclaimed and believed by the church. That was very much on their [the committee’s] mind in this particular book.”
Weinandy also urged theologians to seek dialogue before publication of their works either in the form of animprimatur, an official declaration from a bishop that the book is in accord with Catholic teaching, or by meeting personally with a bishop.
“If dialogue is to take place, then dialogue should start prior to publication of the book and not afterwards,” said Weinandy. “Otherwise the bishops are always caught trying to play catch-up. And so they’re always at a disadvantage.”
Never mind that an imprimatur is usually handled locally–and hardly conclusively. Do Weinandy’s explanations add up? Quest for the Living God was published in 2007. What does it mean to be caught off guard by a four-year-old book? Apparently the committee acted in response to complaints from certain bishops. But it took them a year after fielding those complaints to issue their critique. And over the course of that year they could not bring themselves to engage the theologian whose book they accused of undermining the gospel because, according to this report, “in past instances dialogue with theologians ‘came to nothing.’”
That may be the case, but even so, why not try? Does the Committee on Doctrine realize that their document could result in the expulsion of Johnson’s books from the curriculums of Catholic colleges and seminaries?