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USCCB helps boost theologian's Amazon ranking.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Doctrine has released a statement criticizing [PDF] Sr. Elizabeth A. Johnson's Quest for the Living God (Continuum) for failing "to accord with authentic Catholic teaching on essential points." The twenty-one-page document claims the book doesn't "take the faith of the church as its starting point," that it 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," and that the book "contaminates the traditional Catholic understanding of God" and "completely undermines the gospel."

Johnson, a highly respected feminist theologian (a former professor of mine, and a friend), told the New York Times that the bishops had radically misinterpreted Quest for the Living God. "The book itself endeavors to present new insights about God arising from people living out their Catholic faith in different cultures around the world," she said. "My hope is that any conversation that may be triggered by this statement will enrich that faith." The bishops did not invite her to discuss the book.

In a statement dated March 30, she offered a longer response to the Committee on Doctrine:

It is heartening to see the Bishops Conference give such serious attention to the subject of the living God. I appreciate how this statement acknowledges the laudable nature of the task of crafting a theology of God, and the number of issues on which the statement judges that I am "entirely correct." The book itself endeavors to present new insights about God arising from people living out their Catholic faith in different cultures around the world. My hope is that any conversation that may be triggered by this statement will but enrich that faith, encouraging robust relationship to the Holy Mystery of the living God as the church moves into the future.I would like to express two serious concerns.

First, I would have been glad to enter into conversation to clarify critical points, but was never invited to do so. This book was discussed and finally assessed by the Committee before I knew any discussion had taken place. Second, one result of this absence of dialogue is that in several key instances this statement radically misinterprets what I think, and what I in fact wrote. The conclusions thus drawn paint an incorrect picture of the fundamental line of thought the book develops. A conversation, which I still hope to have, would have very likely avoided these misrepresentations.

That being said, as a scholar I have always taken criticism as a valuable opportunity to delve more deeply into a subject. The task of theology, classically defined as "faith seeking understanding," calls for theologians to wrestle with mystery. The issues are always complex, especially on frontiers where the churchs living tradition is growing. Committed to the faith of the church, I take this statement as an occasion to ponder yet further the mystery of the living God who is ineffable.

Johnson says she won't make any more public comments on the matter.

According to its statement, the Committee on Doctrine chose to respond to this particular book because it is "directed primarily to an audience of nonspecialist readers." While it's true that in the introduction Johnson says she wrote the book with a "broad audience in view," no one who has ever perused the Continuum catalogue would mistake the company for a trade publishing house. Just a few sentences later, after all, Johnson explains that the book is "about the work of theology." Theologians, she writes, "ply their craft by marshaling reasons, laying out arguments, making a case the way a trial lawyer might do, seeking to present an intelligible and convincing scenario."

Regrettably, the Committee on Doctrine's statement largely fails to meet such standards. Rather, relying on too many apparentlys, the document reads as a series of catechetical assertions that inadequately address the questions that animate the book (which I've only just begun reading).

Take, for example, the statement's section on "The Presence of God in Other Religions." In Chapter 8 of Quest, Johnson asks a classic and vexing theological question: Is the fact of religious pluralism part of God's plan? What role do the religions play in the salvation of individuals? She cites John Paul II's Redemptoris missio: God "does not fail to make himself present in many ways, not only to individuals, but also to entire peoples through their spiritual riches, of which their religions are the main and essential expression." Johnson then writes that the answer to that question, "while not definitive, would appear" to suggest that owing to the "presence of the God's own Spirit, people are saved through the practice of their religion, not despite it." That leads the Committee on Doctrine to conclude that Johnson is "setting the stage to argue that the Spirit of God is at work in other religions in the same manner that the spirit is working within Christianity and these other religions are equally salvific." A bizarre criticism, given that in Chapter 8 Johnson writes, "In truth, the crucified and risen Word of God and the church that proclaims God's mercy in him are normative and constitutive for the salvation of all." The committee quotes that sentence, but follows with another: "Still, [Johnson writes,] 'The manifestation of God's presence and activity in the religions cannot be limited to what has been revealed in Jesus Christ and proclaimed by the church.'" And then an assertion: "Sr. Johnson's position on that matter is not in keeping with the Christian understanding of Jesus as the fullness of truth. For the fullness of 'truth,' according to Sr. Johnson's argument, one needs Jesus + Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc. (see pp. 174-79)." I couldn't find any such argument in those pages, or anywhere else in that chapter.

I did find that later in Chapter 8 Johnson discusses John Paul II's 1986 World Day for Peace, held in Assisi. At that event,leaders from many religions said their own prayers to their own Ultimates--together. That occasioned a great deal of criticism--to which John Paul responded in an address to the Roman curia. He called the Assisi gathering a "wonderful manifestation of the unity which binds us together beyond the differences and divisions which are known to all." The pope continued: "We can indeed maintain that every authentic prayer is called forth by the Holy Spirit, who is mysteriously present in the heart of every person." Indeed, according to John Paul, this "mystery of unity" of all peoples is "radical, fundamental, and decisive." Johnson approvingly quotes these passages, which emphasize the mystery of the unity of all peoples--not the notion that all peoples are equally saved in the same way no matter their religious tradition.

Fr. Thomas Weinandy, executive director of the USCCB Secretariat for Doctrine, told the Times, "The primary concern was not over feminism or nonfeminism. The bishops are saying that the book does not adequately treat a Catholic understanding of God." Yet, after knocking Johnson for allegedly wanting to "replace" the presumably masculine names of God found in Scripture with more feminine ones (she's always advocated both--and both are in Scripture), the committee statement reads: "The Spirit of God does not simply repeat what 'she' has revealed in Jesus, otherwise these religions would not be different from Christianity." The scare quotes around "she"--taken from Johnson's citation of Michael Amaladoss, SJ--along with the document's view that Johnson seeks to replace traditional names for God make me wonder whether Johnson's feminism didn't feature more largely in the committee's mind than Weinandy lets on.

The document contains several other questionable claims, but do read the whole thing--or at least the press release. And have a look at Dennis O'Brien's review of Quest for the Living God. If I have anything interesting to say after I finish the book, I'll let you know.

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Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.



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These things are helpful in terms of setting reading priorities. I have Quest for the Living God on my bookshelf, but I haven't gotten around to reading it. I also have a copy of Jesus, an Historical Approximationby Jose Antonio Pagola, which hadn't started reading until quite recently, when I learned it was under attack by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. When I finish it, I'll have to start Quest for the Living God.

Once again, I recomend Fr. Martin's coment on the blog at America's "In All Things."

You're not kidding about that rank. Not that I was monitoring it, but I have a feeling it wasn't this high yesterday:Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #179 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)#1 in Books > Religion & Spirituality > Christianity > Theology > GeneralThere are also three one-star "reader" reviews that were posted today, all citing the bishops. New-media evangelization at work.

If Weinandy is the one behind this, we shouldn't be too surprised if it's a misreading. He's a gifted theologian in his own right, but if we recall the kerfuffle a while back over his terrible misreading of Terrence Tilley's work, it's evident that he doesn't always try to be fair to theologians whose views and method differ from his own. Sadly, not many other theologian's get to have the bishops back up their critical reviews. am I being unfair? Do we know who the actual author of this critique is? Are the bishops on the committee themselves theologians, or do they pass it to "safe" people and then follow their recommendations? It seems as secretary and as a professional theologian, he'd probably have far more influence on the conclusions than others.

Dan Horan, OFM, of Sienna College has two very interesting discussions of the USCCB's critique up on his blog. They are well worth a read:'m also on a blog with several other theology students, and we're working on getting up a multi-part analysis of the bishops' statement within the next 24 hours:

The American bishops confirm the view that they are part of the worst appointees to the episcopacy. We have John Paul II to blame for them. Forget their shameful lack of theology. What is worse is that this is a public relations disaster. Hear are the seven points of the criticism offered by our incompetent bishops. A False Alternative: Modern Theism or Radical Reconstruction of the Idea of GodA False Presumption: All Names for God are MetaphorsA God who SuffersNew Names for the Unknown GodThe Presence of God in All the ReligionsCreator Spirit in the Evolving WorldTrinity: The Living God of LoveLet's just take new names for the unknown God. Sophia, Wisdom and the Spirit are clearly found in the scriptures. We know there is no gender in God. So God can be called She as well as he. Patriarchy again by a discredited bunch. Sure the RCC is an advocate for woman since they exalt Mary. Exalt her so much as a Lady dressed in blue who is more untouchable than real. The bishops can learn much from Johnson on Mary, when Johnson wrote "Truly our Sister."As pointed out above the bishops made a book they would rather not see published a best seller.

Sr. Elizabeth Johnson is a most impressive scholar. I had the privilege of hearing her once at Boston College, and then I bought her, "Truly Our Sister." I am grateful to the USCCB for drawing my attention to her latest effort. The patently biased process the bishops used in evaluating her new book is of course unsurprising. The bishops' credibility is so self-destructed, that their word is simply irrelevant.I think of Richard McBrien's statement about the quality of episcopal appointments in recent decades: "the worst in U.S. Catholic history." Men had been appointed bishops who knew how to follow orders and even to anticipate orders not yet given, but who lacked the necessary creativity to think outside the box, as it were, and to speak truth to power, even if that power happened to be the Vatican itself. Mediocrity comes to mind. As we in NH await the appointment of a new bishop to replace the disgraced and shameless John McCormack, I think of a quip by McBrien about common reactions to new appointments: either "Who's he?" or "Oh no, not him"Johnson's work is deeply appreciated. For a special treat, see Johnson deliver a talk at Boston College in one of their webcasts:"Envisioning the Church Women Want" April 2004

Can there be any defense for the bishops to have issued the statement without actually speaking to Sr. Elizabeth Johnson? There is a great deal of speculation in the statement about what Sr. Johnson meant in various parts of the book, leading to some unsupported leaps in logic. At one point the bishops speculate on what Sr. Johnson "might" respond to one of their criticisms, and then proceed to answer her imagined response. They'd never make it as journalists.

That Johnson's project would make defenders of orthodoxy a bit nervous does not surprise me. What does surprise me is the tone of this critique. It's awfully aggressive. And it doesn't hesitate to put words in Johnson's mouth. I would expect something signed by a committee of bishops to be a little more impersonal and careful.If the intent, as stated at the beginning, is a pastoral desire to clarify "misrepresentations, ambiguity, and errors" for the sake of the "general audience" who might be led astray, why say things like: "Sr. Johnson wishes to limit our understanding of God to the economy of salvation"? Why not choose a less tendentious phrasing -- something like "We are concerned that a reader might get the impression from Johnson's argument that a meaningful understanding of God must be limited to the economy of salvation"? When I read something like the above -- or, to choose another example, "For Sr. Johnson, metaphors for God are to be evaluated not on the basis of their accuracy with regard to the nature of God, but primarily in terms of how they function in human society" -- I immediately wonder, Is that true? Did she really say that? And if that is clearly what she says, why not quote it directly? For the record, when I referred to the book, I found that the bishops' critique distorts what Johnson wrote in those cases and in several others. She doesn't, so far as I can see, argue for the "replacement" of traditional language and concepts for God with new ones. She doesn't actually conflate "modern theism" with "traditional Christian theology." She doesn't argue that "other religions are equally salvific." I really don't recognize the book Johnson wrote in this characterization.P.S. Paul -- Yes, and then, in his "introductory remarks" accompanying the statement, Archbishop Wuerl says this: The Bishops Committee on Doctrine is always open to dialogue with theologians and would welcome an opportunity to discuss Sister Elizabeths writings with her. How generous!

There are few more inspiring and/or uplifting speeches which Johnson gave to the conference of women religious.

Lovely to consider that this blunder on the part of our continually blundering bishops could simply help to see Sister Johnson's books. She is a dedicated theologian whose praxis has always included thinking with the Church.

Make that "help to sell Sister Elizabeth Johnson's books."

The spike in ranking reminds me of when as teenagers we used to pick what movies to see based on what the diocesan paper had warned "good Catholics" NOT to see.

Sr. Johnson no doubt takes much pleasure in Benedict XVI's comment in the "Church, Faith and Society" chapter of his recent LIGHT OF THE WORLD: "But as I have already said, religiosity has to regenerate itself anew in this large context--and in doing so also find new forms for its expression and comprehension. People today no longer have an immediate intuitive grasp of the fact that Christ's blood on the Cross is expiation for their sins. Formulas like these are great and true, but they no longer have a place in our overall system of thought and world view: they stand in need of new translation and comprehension" (pp. 136-7)

Sorry: pp. 135-6. (And I could add Benedict's marvelous project -- the "Court of the Gentiles.")

It would be too kind to the bishops' document to see it as the 4th century's response to the 21st. The fourth century is far subtler than that.

And which of the eight bishop signers of the statement has made a serious contribution to theological scholarship? Recently? In the past?And as initiatives such as this unfold in the household of Faith, are we supposed to be cheered by The Court of the Gentiles Initiative? As I have said before, John Carroll dining alone in his modest residence in Baltimore in 1790 had a greater pastoral vision than the vast majority of the present US episcopate. Two hundred twenty-two years after the establishment of the hierarchy in this country, we seem to have reached the nadir, or, at the least, are well on the way there. It pains me to say this, but as a longtime student of US Catholic history, I find it hard to say otherwise.

I think they should ask Sr. Johnson to serve as a consultant on the Committee on Doctrine. I noticed there was only one woman listed on the Committee (as a consultant). If the Committee also included women's voices, its conclusions might have been different or at least more credible).What is the objective of this kind of public criticism? Is it meant to get the author to change her book or to urge the rest of us not to read it?

John: I meant that the Court of the Gentiles is the sort of thing that Sr. Johnson could take a certain pleasure in, along with what I quoted from LIGHT OF THE WORLD.

Irene: I think the main point (based on what Wuerl says in his letter -- PDF here) is to warn college professors not to use the book in their classes. I don't see this statement convincing the professors themselves (who presumably are very familiar with what the book says and doesn't say, and what context they're using it in), but bishops and college administrators might be spooked.

It seems quite hypocritical of the authoress to complain about a lack of dialog when she failed to seek an imprimatur in the first place.

What does the use of "authoress" in the post above reveal about the world view of its poster?

@J.A.M.There was no failure, as she was under no obligation to seek an imprimatur. Further, she doesn't complain, she merely notes that--given what she considers to be unfortunate misunderstandings of her work by the bishops--they could have avoided confusion if they'd bothered to contact her for clarification and dialogue. That's what people genuinely interested in an intellectual discussion do. PS: Unless the first two initials stand for Jane Austen, the use of "authoress" is unfortunate, since I'm sure you wouldn't want people to dismiss your commentary as grounded in sexist assumptions.

Yesterday I declined to comment on this issue when contacted by a journalist because I have not read the book and only glanced at the USCCB document. What I would like to know from any who have read the book: is the critique fair on theological grounds or is the reading and critique unfair?

Kudos to Professor Johnson for her response to the bishops' statement! This statement is a textbook example of the power of taking one's critics at their word, and then responding from a position of one's own power. In this case, everything in Sr. Johnson's statement assumes good faith on the part of the bishops, and also assumes her own faithfulness to her vocation as a theologian in and with the church.Regardless of what either party "really thinks", her statement makes it more difficult for any opponents she has in the church to attack her, to marginalize her, or to force her out.

"There was no failure, as she was under no obligation to seek an imprimatur."But, as Cardinal Wuerls letter explained:Although an imprimatur is not required for all books that treat Sacred Scripture and theology, it is still a recommended practice (see c. 827 3). By seeking an imprimatur, the author has the opportunity to engage in dialogue with the bishop concerning the Catholic teaching expressed in the book. Thus, clarifications concerning the text can be made prior to its publication. It would have been helpful if Sister Elizabeth had taken advantage of this opportunity.

This isn't surprising. Ddn't the sale of the Da Vinci Code go higher when some Catholics got their knickers in a twist about it?

The point is that her not seeking an imprimatur (which as noted elsewhere, most authors don't) is not only not a violation of some expectation or rule it in no way affected the Bishops' ability to initiate contact with her if they had questions about her arguments. That they chose not to reflects on them, not the author.

The stuff about the imprimatur sounds to me like an implication that she was trying to pull a fast one (she wasn't being "helpful") -- by not giving the bishops a heads-up beforehand she forced them to surprise her with a condemnation four years later. If you believe Johnson set out to publish a book full of doctrinal errors that undermine the faith, then yes, her not seeking an imprimatur could be a gotcha. But I see no reason to believe she thought her book needed episcopal vetting. In fact, I've read the whole critique and I'm still not convinced she gave them no choice but to condemn. (Also, if such vetting typically takes this long, I can see why few theologians submit to it!)

It would take some effort at this point to convince me otherwise that this is a "hatchet job" of a condemnation. This is a book people will actually read and understand. This makes it dangerous.

"The stuff about the imprimatur sounds to me like an implication that she was trying to pull a fast one (she wasnt being helpful) by not giving the bishops a heads-up beforehand she forced them to surprise her with a condemnation four years later. If you believe Johnson set out to publish a book full of doctrinal errors that undermine the faith, then yes, her not seeking an imprimatur could be a gotcha. But I see no reason to believe she thought her book needed episcopal vetting. In fact, Ive read the whole critique and Im still not convinced she gave them no choice but to condemn. (Also, if such vetting typically takes this long, I can see why few theologians submit to it!)"I did ask the question, I believe under one of the other posts on Sr. Johnson. For the record, I don't think she was trying to pull a fast one. I've never read any of her books, but I don't perceive her as some sort of rogue or revolutionary. (For what it's worth, the response that she has issued paints the picture of someone of remarkable grace.) The processes of the nihil obstat and imprimatur implies a real relationship, even a bond, between bishop and theologian. I take it that one of the things we're decrying here (at least I am) is that close bond doesn't seem to be there right now - that rather than talking to one another, they're issuing dueling public statements. I would like to see some bridges built. Even a casual observer like me has picked up on the common thread of the topic that gets theologians in trouble with the official church over the past 20 years at least: attempts to harmonize Christian doctrine with other great religious traditions. That seems to be one of the points of view that Sr. Elizabeth presents in her book (I haven't read it, so I'm basing that supposition on what I've read here). While that isn't the whole of what the bishops are questioning, it is part of it. I'd be very surprised if she didn't fully expect that the book would ruffle a few ecclesiastical feathers on that basis alone.Perhaps there are good and practical reasons that theologians don't seek nihil obstat and imprimatur anymore - as you suggest, maybe it takes a long time, or maybe there are other good reasons that would make a theologian decide that it's not worth the hassle. No doubt I'm being naive in imagining a world in which theologians and bishops converse in a friendly and substantive fashion, but I'd like to think it would be possible to improve the status quo.

I have just sent the following email to the USCCB:"Whatever the substantive merits of the USCCB committee on doctrine's critique of Sr. Elizabeth Johnson's "Quest for the Living God," its decision to issue a public, official denunciation of this work without affording her an opportunity to defend it is, by any reasonable standard, a major act of procedural injustice, one that deserves unequivocal condemnation."For what it's worth the email address that I was given by a secretary at USCCB is:

John P. ==Perhaps i'm too optimistic about the Courts of the Gentiles, but I'm hoping that the events might at least indirectly provide some objective feed back for our bishops about how those outside the Church see the bishops and why so often bishops turn off both believers and non-believers. Not many bishops are scheduled to attend apparently, but I'm sure word will get around. Surrounded as most bishops seem to be by yes-men, I doubt that the hierarchy truly understands how offensive -- and why -- most people find their arbitrariness and their suppression of honest thought. Oh would to God the giftie gie usTo see ourselves as ithers see us. Robert Burns

I certainly don't fault bishops for criticizing books they find objectionable. That's part of their job. I fault them for the the ignorance of their criticisms and their failure to give authors a chance to defend what they wrote. Very unfair, to both the authors and the faithful.

William FG and Mary --True, the 'ess words (e.g., authoress, actress) have unfortunate connotations in their usage by many men. But the feminine forms have a great advantage -- they eliminate the need to identify a woman with a male form, as if the male practioners of those artists were the only really competent artists.. I say use the -ess forms. Like the word "Gothic", which was originally intended as a highly disparaging term but now in architecture signifies one of the greatest styles, the -ess words identify something valuable, often in a different way, and the usage tells men "Hey, buddy, I don't need to conform to your specific standards to be valuable".Yay, authoresses, Yay, actresses!

Only someone willfully dismissive of women would use the term authoress in this day and age, methinks. Likewise, the use of "priestess" to suggest a radical difference between male and female clerics. Pagans have priestesses.

Quite right Ann, if only that Yay! was perceptible every time the -ess appeared. Like you, I don't have a problem with language that is correctly intended to call attention to specific difference, where that difference makes a difference. I also appreciate efforts by poets/writers to shift the valence of terms (reclaiming Queer as positive, for example). Obviously, context of the usage is key: When one suspects a writer would have preferred "theologianette" but settled for "authoress" it's hard not to want to call linguistic shenanigans. Cheers!

Mary ==Points well taken. I was teaching in a black university when the "Black is Beautiful" movement took hold. It was wonderful to see how thoe kids' self-evaluation changed when they had the courage to shout in the faces of the bigots "Yes, I'm black and I'm beautiful!" It was only when they appropriated the term as their own that they took the sting from it.True, use of the -ess words is just weird in today's contexts, and I don't always use them for that reason. But there are really two sides to this story, and I tend to see the feminists abandonment of the feminine words as a cop-out, but maybe it wasn't, at least not for some of them. I do know that when women started getting jobs in business that we used not to get, the fashion became for women to wear ties -- actual ties that had to be knotted like men's. I felt that was a betrayal, like joining the enemy not opposing him. Fortunately that day is over now, I think.

"Poetess," no matter how you slice it, is always disparaging, just a few letters removed from "poetaster." "Aviatrix," on the other hand, I rather like. I am old enough to remember when "Banned in Boston" was a tag that budding authors (of both sexes) sought, because it elevated sales. And I remember well when the Episcopal Church school that I attended in the mid-1940s forbade the reading of Kathleen Windsor's "Forever Amber" -- though I was too lazy ever to poke my nose in it and see what all the fuss was about (I wish I could say I was too busy reading Marx, to get ready for Terry Eagleton, but that wouldn't be true).

Ugh, the ties! The giant shoulder pads! A favorite memory is running a diversity workshop for engineers and having one tell me (with no sense of irony) that he couldn't take me seriously because my suit was "provocative" (since it was red, not blue or black). What a Hoot!

I've just discovered that the email I sent to the USCCB has not gotten through. something about the server rejecting it. I hope I haven't inconvenienced any of you.

No, Nicholas Clifford, "poetess" is NOT ALWAYS disparaging. It is NOT disparaging to women my age. You assume that there is ONE meaning, the meaning males -- and ignorant young feminists -- give it. But that is one of my points -- the meanings of words are not always the meanings that males give them, disparaging or not.Thanks for taking up for us, but you still have a way to go.

"You assume that there is ONE meaning, the meaning males and ignorant young feminists give it. But that is one of my points the meanings of words are not always the meanings that males give them, disparaging or not."Does a word mean what the speaker/writer thinks it means? What the listener/reader thinks it means? What the dictionary says it means?I suppose that a communicator concerned with clarity would do her best to use words in the way her listeners/readers would understand. But of course there is still a lot of room for ambiguity and misunderstanding.It's also possible, and maybe even common, to be objectively mistaken about the meaning of words. I have a friend who always says "exasperate" when he clearly means to say "exacerbate." It's the wrong word, but I know what he means. If I use a word in a way that is different from its generally-accepted meaning, but the context in which it was misused makes it clear what I meant to say, does my intention and the context of usage -and the listener's/reader's comprehension despite the misuse - change the actual meaning of the word? Could "exasperate" become a synonym of "exacerbate" some day?

I think my contextualized reading of "authoress" by poster j.a.m. was on the money given the snark that surrounded its use. It was akin to saying "little lady" who thinks she can write her feminist thealogy that no real Catholic needs to take seriously. It wasn't the use of -ess but the spirit in which it was delivered. These things are contextual, not textual.

Imprimatur = Latin for "Daddy says I can have the car tonight, but I have to have it back home by midnight."

" --- the meanings of words are not always the meanings that (males) give them, disparaging or not."Hence the popularity of "Queer Theology" in many circles. Oh, don't worry, I'm sure no REPUTABLE Catholic theologian worth "his" starch would use it.

"But I see no reason to believe she thought her book needed episcopal vetting."I'm sure it is more likely that Sr. Elizabeth believes the bishops have no authority to review or critique her books under any circumstances, and that is why she has never sought imprimatur for them.

P. Flanagan,Unless one is writing a religion TEXT book---any text book, from those for young children in kindergarten to books for doctoral candidates----one does need an imprimatur. But if one is writing a theology book for exposition----the imprimatur is not needed. Theologians have not done so for decades. The same is true of books on spirituality---imprimatur. If the book of reflection is based on scripture----securing an imprimatur is wise.

My thought is that an imprimatur might represent in broader academic circles a kind of narrowing of audience, perspective, and context of use.

"Im sure it is more likely that Sr. Elizabeth believes the bishops have no authority to review or critique her books under any circumstances." That's an unwarranted bad-faith assumption, P. Only an extremist would believe bishops have no authority to review theological books under any circumstances. Still, after reading the committee's limping critique--coming four years after the publication date of the book--is anyone surprised that more theologians don't seek the imprimatur?

Ann Olivier,Though I appreciate your remarks about "poetess," in the academic world in which I move, if I were to refer to Robert Browning as a poet, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning as a poetess, I would be flayed alive, or at least ridden out of town on a rail. So you see because I'm a cautious type, I try to keep myself covered. Some years ago, in a meeting, I referred to a brilliant student of mine as a girl I was pushing for the Rhodes competition. "Please, remember that she's a woman" said one of my woman colleagues, and a couple of weeks later when said colleague referred to some of the "boys" in her class, I bit my tongue and gazed out the window. Irenic, what?

I agree with several comments here and on other sites that a central point of difference between Johnson's work and the committee's critique concerns the role of figurative language in Christian theology. On this issue, I was surprised that the committee seems not to have considered the rich history of figurative language for God in the Old Testament (with literally hundreds of different images); the parables of Jesus (e.g., Luke 15, a paradigmatic chapter that juxtaposes a shepherd, a female householder, and a male householder as divine figures); the teachings of Paul; the writings of early Christian theologians, and so on. Even classic Christian theologians that might be thought of as doctrinally conservative -- archetypal defenders of orthodoxy -- would not pass the theological tests administered by this committee on doctrine. I think Athanasius, for example, champion of Nicene orthodoxy par excellence, would be in danger of receiving a letter such as Beth received. His writings are filled with innovative attempts to capture the reality of the Triune God within the limitations of human language. Some work so well that they have been carried through the centuries (e.g., parts of the Creed). Some failed so seriously that they were not even taken up by his own contemporaries (e.g., favorably comparing the Father-Son relationship to that between the emperor and his statues; Athanasius, Orations against the Arians. 3.5). The whole scenario makes me think of a line from Athanasius's defense of someone that was under suspicion for his teachings about Christology. About the mysterious theological idea of the Father-Son relation of the Triune God, Athanasius wrote: "concerning subjects that are obscure, and which require advancement toward understanding, often not only different but even contradictory demonstrations can become clarifications of the things sought for." (my trans. from Athanasius, De Sententia Dionysii 18 [79]; PG 25b: 508) This sounds to me exactly like the main premise of Johnson's Quest for the Living God. Would Athanasius (or most other classic Christian theologians, for that matter) pass the doctrinal tests of this committee regarding the use of figurative language?

Nicholas C. --Ah, yes, the demands of political correctness. Some people are so irrational that there really isn't any possibility of getting them to open their minds. But this political correctness is one more sign of the corruption of the idea of a university as a locus of informed disagreement. Actually, I think the old universities is dead as an institution and needs to be re-invented. But that's another thread.To me the most ridiculous "improvement" of language is the change from "chairman" to "chair". The ultra-feminists got their way about that one too, but in the process lost their humanity completely, turning chairman, including the female variety, into inanimate, wooden objects. Silly, silly, silly.

Like everyone who has studied Christianity in a Catholic University over the past thirty years, I was assigned She Who Is in a number of classes. I really liked it and used it in teaching my own classes. I haven't read Quest for the Living God, but I just ordered it, and I am looking forward to reading it. I have always found Johnson to be thoughtful and responsible in her writings. In short, I dont believe her to be a radical feminist: her work has assisted and not hurt the Churchs view on who God really is...A few reflections:1)The tone of the USCCB response is quite derisive, using words like radical over and over, and I agree with Grant, there seems to be some underlying suspicion that this work is a thinly veiled attempt to promote women's ordination. Me thinks thou protests too much, comes to mind. I cannot understand any other reason for such an disrespectful attitude towards such a prominent theologian in the church. At the very least, Johnson should have been given the opportunity to respond.2)Johnsons promotion of a Moltmann like passibility of God is nothing new, so I dont really see why this is unworthy of academic or even popular discussion, or particularly dangerous for the faithful.3)I still dont know why the USCCB had a problem with her claim that all names for God are metaphors. Mustnt he be a metaphor for someone who is spirit? I think this goes back to a fear of womens ordination again. Theologically it seems weak.4)The response also attacks Johnsons view of universal salvation, but it doesnt seem that her views go any farther than Rahners anonymous Christian, or even JPIIs response on salvation of non- Christians in Crossing the Threshold of Hope.5)Perhaps the most worrisome area of the response deals with how Johnsons panentheism reverts into pantheism. This could be a problem in confusing the creator/created dichotomy. Another area at issue may be Johnsons Christology and interpretation of the person of Jesus and the Trinity at Nicea. Ill have to read the book to see if I agree with the USCCBs take on this. But here again it seems that a reflection on anthropological terms in Trinitarian theology could be helpful as well.

Wow. I had not heard of this book until all this hoopla, although I have read and respected Dr. Johnson's previous work. Now I definitely want to get this. As an academic with a book coming out in a year or so, I wish I could hope to offend the bishops so much and generate such great sales. (Not likely, due to the topic.)I must admit to mixed feelings about all the discussion generated by the bishops' statement. More and more, it seems that very little that comes out of the USCCB or the Vatican is life-giving, constructive, insightful, etc. If this were any other body (Congress, some foundation, a university...) no one would consider it credible to speak anymore due to all the obvious signs of lack of wisdom or a moral compass in how the bishops, as a whole, have handled things. So part of me says that the best thing to do is to ignore such statements. Paying attention to them and publicizing them just perpetuates the illusion that somehow they're important. If we would all just ignore them, we could spend our energies contemplating (and doing) life-giving things instead.On the other hand, if we ignore them, we are complicit with the wrong done to people like Dr. Johnson and to the general climate of theological discussion. (I would add to anyone steered away from her book, too, but the numbers reading it in response to this seem to outweigh that concern!) And plus, I have found many of the comments here thoughtful and profound, and it cheers me to sit here in my living room grading and know that there are people out there who think clearly and carefully. So I guess I can, with a sigh, accept that even if my fantasy that we could just ignore bishops' statements does not transpire, some good can still come of them.

Where can a good explanation of social evolution and its perceived clash with church doctrine be found? Much of the language I have parsed through is way over my head.

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