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Committee on Doctrine repeats itself.

In June, Fordham theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSJ, responded [.pdf] to the USCCB Committee on Doctrine's critique [.pdf] of her book Quest for the Living God. (Read our coverage of the controversy here.) Today the committee has released its reply [.pdf] to Johnson. It follows a familiar tune.In its original statement about Quest, the Committee on Doctrine accused Johnson of failing to take the faith of the church as its starting point. Instead, the committee claimed, Johnson uses standards from outside the faith to criticize and to revise in a radical fashion the conception of God revealed in Scripture and taught by the magisterium. In her response, Johnson pointed out how badly the committee had misread her. And the latest response from the Committee on Doctrine finally affirms what anyone who had taken the time to read Johnson's book carefully would have already known:

The Committee on Doctrine acknowledges that in the Observations Sr. Elizabeth Johnson agrees that theological investigation should begin and end with the faith of the Church. The Committee commends Sr. Elizabeth Johnson for her stated intention to help the Church progress in her understanding of divine realities as described by the Second Vatican Council in Dei Verbum, no. 8.

The locution is odd--acknowledging her "stated intention" and that "in the Observations" Johnson agrees that theology begins and ends with the faith of the church--because the committee goes on to say that its members still think Quest fails to "sufficiently ground itself in the Catholic theological tradition as its starting point." I suppose one shouldn't be surprised by the committee's refusal to accept Johnson's rebuttal. After all, these are the same bishops who, in their first pass at critiquing Quest, claimed that the book lacked "any sense of the essential centrality of divine relation as the basis of Christian theology [emphasis mine]. Never mind Johnson's repeated citations of Scripture as the basis for any number of avenues she pursues in the book. The committee's response wisely notes that its complaints about Quest are about the book itself, not Johnson's intentions--just before repeating its assertion that "the doctrine of God presented in Quest for the Living God does not accord with authentic Catholic teaching on essential points."


Analogy and metaphor: The Committee of Doctrine believes the argument of Quest inevitably leads to the conclusion that "all names for God are metaphors or the functional equivalent." From the committee's response:

Throughout the book the terms "literal" and "literally" are repeatedly used to describe the way in which our names do not apply to God. The book's rejection of the terms "literal" and "literally" naturally leads the reader to assume that what the author means is "metaphorical" and "metaphorically."


The committee accuses the book of failing to differentiate between analogy, metaphor, and symbol, when it comes to naming God. Of course, Johnson's point is that when we name God we do not contain God. Yet, in that approach, the Committee on Doctrine only sees "the focus on negation with no recognition that some names can be said properly (proprie) of God only reinforces the impression that all names are reducible to metaphor." Johnson does not claim that no names can be said properly (the English suffices) of God.

Rather, in her response to the committee's initial critique, she writes, "God remains in essence conceptually inapprehensible." This confounds the Committee on Doctrine, whose members claim that idea, "without proper qualification," is more reflective of Kant than Aquinas.

Human concepts certainly cannot comprehend the essence of God. To assert without qualification that concepts do not even apprehend the essence of God, however, seems to imply that we have no knowledge at all about God. Here again the focus is only on negation and without the necessary reference to the positive element in analogy.

Seems to imply? No it does not. Johnson's project is about knowing God. She just does not want us to forget that our knowledge of God is never complete. Because God is God. Why doesn't the Committee on Doctrine grasp this part of Johnson's project? Quest's final chapter alone--on various ways of understanding the Trinity--ought to disabuse them of the notion that her "focus is only on negation and without the necessary reference to the positive element in analogy." The committee complains that the book lacks a "salutary acknowledgment" that negation isn't enough when it comes to naming God. I don't know how anyone can get through Quest for the Living God without realizing that acknowledgment is implied and affirmed throughout her work.

The committee's response doubles down on its complaint that Quest seeks to replace masculine names for God with feminine ones. That was a particularly embarrassing criticism, because Johnson has never argued for any such thing. Now the committee says, "It is true that the book does not assert that male metaphors should never be used." Which is good. But then is goes on to say that when the book talks of male names for God it's to denounce them as patriarchal tools. Not quite. But never mind. Johnson is guilty of arguing that using exclusively male names for God can lead to taking them literally--and following that argument with a discussion of biblically sourced female names for God. Apparently that is enough to force the bishops to ask, "Is it unreasonable for the reader to find in these pages a call to replace inadequate, though traditional, language for God with feminine language?" (The answer to that question, by the way, is yes.) And then, rather amazingly, the committee says:

The Observations [of Johnson] ask whether the Committee believes it is permissible to use female imagery for God. In its statement, the Committee does not exclude all possibility of using feminine imagery. The concern of the Committee was not the use of female or feminine imagery but the insinuation that traditional language based on divine revelation, such as "Father," obscures the truth about God. Certain language belongs to the deposit of divine revelation and may not be replaced, even if human reason might find some indications that to do so might be socially useful.

Good to know that the committee is on board with scripturally sourced feminine imagery of God--or at least that it doesn't exclude the idea. But Quest contains no insinuation--except in the minds of the most sensitive, hermeneutically suspicious readers--that traditional language based on divine revelation (are we supposed to forget that Johnson's examples are taken from divinely inspired Scripture?) obscures the truth about God. If you take one image of God and use it exclusively, Johnson argues, you risk obscuring the fuller reality of God. That goes for both masculine and feminine names for God.

And to conclude, the committee claims: "The reader is given no indication that certain names cannot be replaced in critical contexts because of their origin in divine revelation." Throughout this section, the Committee on Doctrine simply assumes Johnson argues for replacing masculine names for God with female ones. She denies this. The book does not support that reading. Nor does it support the insinuation of the committee that Johnson may want to ditch "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit"--maybe even at Mass. Nothing in her book, nothing in anything she has ever written, recommends such a thing. It's irresponsible of the Committee on Doctrine to suggest otherwise.

The rest of the committee's response continues in this vein--restating its original critique, drawing damning conclusions from certain lacunae, even offering a mini-discourse on the inability of science to explain self-consciousness. And in the end, we're right back where we started:

After studying these Observations, however, the Committee has found that they have not in fact demonstrated that the Committee has misunderstood or misrepresented the book. Rather, the Committee on Doctrine finds itself confirmed in its judgment about the book.

We often hear about teachable moments in the church. But there are learnable moments too. What a shame that the Committee on Doctrine let this one pass.


Here is Johnson's response to the Committee on Doctrine's latest missive:

It is with sadness that I read the October statement of the Committee on Doctrine about my book, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers of the Theology of God (Continuum, 2007). My disappointment focuses on three issues: process, content and result.First, process. In April the committee invited me to submit observations on their original statement (dated March 24, 2011), which had been composed without any discussion or foreknowledge on my part. My response was entitled Observations (printed in Origins 7/7/11). In it I posed important questions about the nature of faith, revelation, biblical language and theology itself, figuring that discussion on these fundamental matters might clarify the content of the book and where it had been misrepresented. Both publicly and privately I made clear my willingness to meet with Cardinal Wuerl and the committee to discuss these matters at any time.The committee did not engage these questions. No invitation was forthcoming to meet and discuss with the committee in person. Moreover, in its new document the committee addresses none of these issues not a single one. The opportunity to dialogue was bypassed. Despite the protocol Doctrinal Responsibilities (1989) approved by an overwhelming majority of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops after consultation with theHoly See, this committee for a second time has shown a lack of willingness to dialogue about such an important matter as the living God in whom we believe. It could have been so interesting and beneficial for the church.

Second, content. As a result of the lack of process, the October statement mainly reiterates the points made in the committees original statement. I appreciate that the new statement distinguishes between its criticism of the book and the intent of the author. It does correct some errors made in the committees original reading of my book, and the vituperative rhetoric has been toned down. Yet there is little movement in understanding.For example, pointing to Jesus parable of the woman searching for her lost coin (Lk 15:8-10) , my Observations ask: Is the church not allowed to use the language of Jesus, who casts God the Redeemer in this female image? While admitting the possibility, the October statement draws from this question the insinuation that calling God Father obscures the truth about God, something the book never says. It further criticizes Quest for not making the trinitarian language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit more central, noting how necessary this is in the formula of baptism. What is so baffling here is that Quest agrees with the validity of trinitarian language. It spends a whole chapter describing how this language came about, exploring its meaning, and affirming its use in liturgical ritual. True, Quest also points out that Scripture offers a multitude of other ways to speak of God, such as the above parable. For some reason, this is not acceptable.

Remaining with what is apparently a propositional notion of revelation and faith, the statement reaffirms its earlier judgment. But as Scripture itself demonstrates and my simple Observations try to make clear, there is so much more richness to the picture. The content of the statement disappoints insofar as it ignores the breadth and depth of Gods self-gift in history (revelation) and the peoples living response (faith).

Third, result. This statement, like the first, continues to misrepresent the genre of the book, and in key instances misinterprets what it says. It faults Quest for what it does not say, as if the book were a catechetical text aiming to present the full range of Christian doctrine. It takes sentences and, despite my written clarifications to the contrary, makes them conclude to positions that I have not taken and would never take. The committee's reading projects meanings, discovers insinuations and otherwise distorts the text so that in some instances I do not recognize the book I wrote. This October statement paints an incorrect picture of the fundamental line of thought the book develops.

I am responsible for what I have said and written, and stand open to correction if this contradicts the faith. But I am not willing to take responsibility for what Quest does not say and I do not think. To restate what I have maintained all along: The aim of this book is to explore many ways to think about the living God. Like the householder who brings out of the storeroom things new and old (Matt 13:52), theologians over the centuries have labored to seek understanding of faith that keeps pace with history. In that tradition, Quest for the Living God presents contemporary theologies from around the world which, listening to the belief and practice of people of the church, try to connect the truth of the living God with the thought forms and critical issues of our day. The books chapters clarify the new avenues of insight, rooted in Scripture: God as gracious mystery who is ever greater, ever nearer; the crucified God of compassion; the liberating God of life; God who acts womanish; who breaks chains of slavery; who accompanies the people in fiesta; the generous God of the religions; the Creator Spirit indwelling the evolving world; and Trinity, the living God of love.

I respectfully suggest that mapping these frontiers is a legitimate theological undertaking. Far from being contrary to the faith of the church, it is an exercise of that faith. I want to make it absolutely clear that nothing in this book dissents from the churchs faith about God revealed in Jesus Christ through the Spirit. The many new avenues of reflection signal, I think, the presence of the Spirit, alive and active, nourishing people in their hunger for God in our day. Of the thousands of messages I have received, one of the most poignant is from an elderly Catholic man who read it as part of a parish book club. The result? "Now I am no longer afraid to meet my Maker," he said, a stunning testimony to the nonviolent appeal of the truth of the theologies presented in Quest.

To conclude: This book affirms that the living God is the holy mystery of Love who cannot be comprehensively expressed or contained in any words, no matter how beautiful, sacred, official or true. There is always more to discover, in prayer and in service with and for the suffering world. It would have been a blessing if the Committee on Doctrine and I could have found common ground for dialogue on at least this point.I lament that this is not the case.

At this time I will make no further statements nor give any interviews.


Commenting Guidelines

Dear Mr. Gibbons,My point isn't to be sarcastic. It is to call attention to the fact that the evaluators of Sr. Johnson's book lose credibility when they judge her book deficient. They seem to think her book is bad theology because it is not the Catechism. I love the Catechism. It's a great book. To say the Catechism is not a good work of theology because it doesn't break new theological ground would be ridiculous. To judge Sr. Johnson's book deficient because it doesn't do what the catechism does is ridiculous. She wasn't offering the church another catechism. Her's is another kind of theological task.To judge Ryan Howard a bad baseball player because he doesn't strike anyone out is dumb. Ryan Howard is a home run hitter, not a pitcher. The catechism is a home run hitter. Sr. Johnson is a good pitcher. Both are needed to form a good team.

Could there be a more exemplary theologian, by the Bishops' own standards, than Johnson? She does not have an anti-authority attitude but wants to work constructively with the Church's pastors. The vast majority of theologians would have not patience with the episcopal demonstrations of authority and apparent tone-deafness to any theology since Athanasius.From the outside many people will see this as a bunch of men ganging up on a woman. Not a sexist perception, but a perception of sexism -- and potentially of scandal.

Thanks Grant for this detailed and informative post and thanks to all the commenters for an interesting thread. I haven't read Sr. Johnson's book (though now I'm intrigued!), so I won't comment on the theological, or the doctrinal, or the procedural issues raised by the Committee and by its method of proceeding.I will observe that---as she did with her statement earlier this year---Sr. Johnson provides a model for how faithful Catholics who find themselves in disagreement with bishops and/or priests. She chooses her words carefully and thoughtfully. She speaks with what seems to be the true humility of one who recognizes herself, as the old spiritual says, as "a child of God". She explicitly recognizes the role of the bishops in and for the Church. She's clear about when she's expressing her feelings and reactions, and equally clear about her thoughts and views---and very good about not conflating the two.I'm going to try to keep her example in mind next time I find myself in disagreement with a church leader.

Luke - I agree.

My observations are going to be a bit different from other observations posted here thus far, so I will frame them as questions.Here are my questions:(1) What significant differences, if any, are there between the USCCB Committee on Doctrine's critique of Salzman and Lawler's book and their critique of Sister Johnson's book?(2) I noted that the NYTimes published a news story about the bishops' critique of Sister Johnson's book, in which the author of the news story mentioned that Sister Johnson is a feminist theologian. But did the NYTimes publish a news story about the bishops' critique of the book by Salzman and Lawler? If it did, I missed it. But if the NYTimes did not publish a news story about the bishops' critique of the book by Salzman and Lawler, why didn't it? Could it be the case that the NYTimes failed to publish a news story about the book by Salzman and Lawler because they are NOT feminist theologians? In other words, did the NYTimes publish a sensationalist story about a book by a feminist theologian because the NYTimes likes to publish sensationalist stories about feminists and critiques of feminists by an all-male group of Catholic bishops?

In the spirit of pro-and-con debate, let me raise some further questions regarding the USCCB Committee on Doctrine's critiques of Sister Johnson's book and of Salzman and Lawler's book.In terms of pro-and-con debate, what are the arguments that could be advanced AGAINST the practice of having Catholic theologians request and obtain an Imprimatur from their respective local bishops and having the local bishop's Imprimatur published on the reverse of the title page?As I understand the process of how a bishop grants an Imprimatur, the bishop delegates the reading and assessment of the book manuscript to somebody who has the expertise to read and assess works in theology.But how many Catholic theologians ever write an entire book without asking any other theologians to read chapters of the book or the entire manuscript?If this kind of reading is already a common practice among Catholic theologians, then what possible objections can there be to adding another expert reader to the loop?Next, I want to turn my attention to the practice of printing the Imprimatur on the reverse of the title page.In the spirit of pro-and-con debate, I want to advance an argument for this practice.The printed Imprimatur should serve to ward off and deter other bishops from filing complaints with the USCCB Committee on Doctrine.I hasten to add that the practice of having theologians obtain a bishop's Imprimatur for their books is probably not foolproof.

A short summary of the Salzman-Lawler story, apparently more complete than versions issued by various dioceses (see Google), is at: The associated USCCB news release is identified at but the embedded link to release goes astray.September 2010 News Release Bishops Doctrine Committee Says Book By Creighton University Professors Conflicts With Catholic Teaching On Sexuality (10-165) September 22, 2010

Thomas , your suggestion that bishops will have neutral theologians evaluate theological submissions for imprimaturs overlooks incontrovertible and extensive evidence to the contrary. The puppet bishops and their Roman puppet masters have an unmistakeable ideology that the want theologians to propagate. Your failure to acknowlege that is puzzingly.

I haven't read the book. But I read the bishops' statement. It seems some of their contentions would be easy to check. For example, the business with the sponge and whether Augustine said what Johnson said he did, or whether she misrepresented him. Has anyone who had read the book checked on this? If so, what did you find?I know the commenters here are 100% behind Johnson, unless they assume the bishops are always on the side of the angels. I have no problem believing that the bishops have condemned too soon or unnecessarily. But if the book contains gaffes of this order, it's not a very good book, is it? Anyone want to take up the specifics of the points the bishops raise, such as this one?