CDF prefect tells U.S. nuns they were wrong to honor Elizabeth Johnson.

Last week, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, rebuked representatives of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, for giving an Outstanding Leadership Award to Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, "a theologian criticized by the Bishops of the United States because of the gravity of the doctrinal errors in that theologian’s writings." He called that decision "a rather open provocation against the Holy See and the Doctrinal Assessment"--that would be the one that looked like little more than investigation by Google.

Mueller couldn't bring himself to actually use Johnson's name, but everyone in the room knew that he was referring to a 2011 "critique" of her book Quest for the Living God that was published by the doctrinal committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Committee on Doctrine really disliked the book. You can tell because they claimed it "completely undermines the Gospel." But the committee's case was rather weak. It seemed to rest on false assumptions about Johnson's intent--especially on issues related to feminism, which led me to wonder whether committee members had actually read the book. They didn't even invite her to discuss their concerns before publishing their broadside. And when Johnson responded at length to the critique, the bishops on the committee replied by repeating themselves. All in all, not the finest hour for the USCCB Committee on Doctrine--and it probably would have been better for all involved if the entire episode was forgotten.

But here comes Cardinal Mueller, prefect of the CDF, to remind the LCWR that they should have known better than to provoke his criticism by daring to honor one of the most honored theologians working today. He refers to the alleged "gravity" of the "doctrinal errors" of Johnson's "writings"--which makes it sound like her entire body of work is suspect--but he doesn't name them. And neither, really, did the Committee on Doctrine. Their statement vaguely mentions "errors," but mainly it's concerned with "ambiguities." The only "error" it identifies is methodological. But as Johnson herself noted, the committee misunderstood the nature of the book, which is a work of theology, not catechesis.

Mueller knows he's tough-loving: "I apologize if this seems blunt, but what I must say is too important to dress up in flowery language." Best not to mince words. For the head of the CDF to repeat the canard that Johnsons "writings" suffer from grave doctrinal errors does a great disservice to a great theologian. Mueller is in charge of the CDF now. He's not a professor delivering a critique at a conference. If he's going to claim that a theologian's writings are doctrinally deficient--he ought to show his work, not sloppily dismiss them in an aside.

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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