Censure or Critique?

The Bishops & Elizabeth Johnson

In late March, the Committee on Doctrine of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a critique [PDF] of theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson’s 2007 book Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God. The committee wrote that Quest “does not take the faith of the church as its starting point” and concluded that Johnson’s book “does not accord with authentic Catholic teaching on essential points.” In response, on April 9, the board of the Catholic Theological Society of America issued a statement defending Johnson’s work. It said that the Committee on Doctrine had misread Johnson’s book and that it had failed to follow the bishops’ own procedures for how to handle such disputes. In turn, the CTSA said, the committee’s actions had raised troubling issues “for the exercise of our vocation as theologians.” On April 18, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, chair of the doctrine committee, responded to the CTSA with “Bishops as Teachers: A Resource for Bishops” [PDF], in which he stated, “It is the specific competence and responsibility of bishops to teach the faith in its entirety.” Commonweal asked two distinguished theologians to discuss the issues raised by the Johnson case.


Luke Timothy Johnson

How might the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have responded to Sr. Elizabeth A. Johnson of Fordham University if, in the words of Cardinal Donald Wuerl (“Bishops as Teachers”), the committee had truly sought “mutual respect and support” among bishops and theologians? 

The committee might have written a personal letter to the distinguished theologian, thanking her first for her long and devoted service to the church as a religious and as a teacher of theology in a university, where she has made “faith seeking understanding” both intelligible and reasonable in a context of  intellectual, social, political, and religious pluralism, one largely outside the experience of members of the committee who all received their degrees in canon law, Scripture, and theology in Catholic, male, and clerical contexts. It could have acknowledged her decades of work in the classroom and asked about the specific pedagogical challenges that stimulated the writing of her book Quest for the Living God (Continuum, 2007).

The letter might have expressed thanks as well for the exemplary way in which Johnson, in her major systematic work She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (Crossroad, 1993), brought a profoundly irenic spirit to the potentially volatile issue of female language about God. In it she demonstrated how a creative challenge to tradition can proceed on the basis of the deepest respect and engagement with the tradition, and yet how, by critically embracing a wider form of theological discourse, it can enrich the tradition in unexpected ways. Since members of the committee would have known from this earlier book how Johnson actually has gone about doing systematic theology, they would have immediately appreciated that in her more recent book she was not constructing her own position with respect to God, but rather describing important intellectual movements of which the Catholic theological community should be aware, especially since not a few Catholic theologians had already contributed to such movements.

The bishops might, moreover, have expressed gratitude for the extensive research Johnson had carried out in Quest for the Living God, and for bringing to the attention of her students, fellow theologians, and certainly the committee itself a range of opinions and arguments that call out for serious consideration in the present pluralistic context of the church. For these are not just opinions and arguments spun by academics; they are passionately shaped perspectives grounded in specific and undeniable social and political experiences, intellectual challenges, and, yes, the work of the Living God in the lives of Christians in the contemporary world. This, above all, might have stimulated the committee’s appreciation: that Johnson reminded them that the fides that seeks intellectum in Catholic theology is not simply a matter of repeating correct propositions but is above all a matter of a living response to the Living God who continues at every moment to shape the world and therefore at every moment calls humans to trustful obedience. The committee might have expressed its appreciation for the chance to expand its own grasp of theology’s task and possibilities.

Finally, and appropriately, the committee might have asked Johnson to help them understand three elements in her book that they found obscure. Why, at the end of each chapter, was there not a full critical response to each theological development? Yes, hesitations, objections, and problems with each approach had been noted in the chapters, but these needed to be more explicitly and fully stated by the author. Second: Why was there no epilogue in which Johnson assessed the range of voices as a whole, noting in particular how impossible it would be to affirm all the developments simultaneously or with equal wholeheartedness? While the author’s preference to embrace rather than to exclude was admirable, there were tensions among the various voices that required further attention. Finally: Could the author help the committee understand how such a book functions in a college theology class at an American university? Do teachers use books like hers to stimulate critical reading skills among students? If so, does an author’s positive tone and manner serve to invite serious intellectual criticism in the classroom?

No such letter was written, nor was Elizabeth Johnson contacted by the Committee on Doctrine before it issued its March 24 “Statement on Quest for the Living God.” Such personal communication, it appears, was not considered necessary for the ministry of bishops and theologians to have “mutual respect and support” in this instance. Instead, the committee issued the most impersonal sort of statement possible, stating in the second sentence, and then repeating twice in the first two paragraphs, that “this book contains misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors” that render “many of its conclusions theologically unacceptable.” Then, after citing specific examples for nineteen pages, the committee concluded by stating that although Johnson claims to engage tradition, “the basic problem...is that the book does not take the faith of the church as its starting point” and that it “departs from that tradition at a number of crucial junctures.” The Committee on Doctrine therefore “finds itself obligated to state publicly that the doctrine of God presented in Quest for the Living God does not accord with authentic Catholic teaching on essential points.” 

The tone of the statement is anything but collegial and makes clear that the last thing the committee wanted to do was to hear from Johnson, much less learn from her. What it wanted above all was that she be effectively silenced. The statement, therefore, represents another stage in the progressive stifling of theological creativity in the church, and it presents to the world the spectacle of a once-glorious intellectual tradition committing self-strangulation in public.

The New York Times of April 11 quotes Terrence W. Tilley, chair of the Fordham Theology Department: “What the bishops have done is to reject fifty years of contemporary theology.” Fordham president Joseph M. McShane, SJ, quickly issued a statement in support of the distinguished professor, and the Catholic Theological Society of America responded to the bishops’ statement with three pertinent objections. First, the Committee on Doctrine had failed to observe its own procedural guidelines. Second, it had misread Johnson’s book. And finally, it had misconstrued the role of the theologian in the church. The objections are valid, and could be stated even more forcefully: The bishops committee not only mischaracterized Johnson’s position concerning the inadequacy of human language to comprehend God, it failed utterly to grasp even the character of her book.

Apparently stung by the negative response to the committee’s statement, less than a month later its chairman, Cardinal Wuerl, issued his own commentary, “Bishops as Teachers.” It explicitly replies to the statement of the Catholic Theological Society of America, but does so with a pastoral and theological obtuseness that only makes clearer that the bishops remain interested above all in protection of episcopal control. Wuerl defends the committee’s failure to follow its formal procedures by shifting blame (Johnson, he says, should have sought an imprimatur), and by appealing to circumstances that demanded immediate action: (a) effective peer review by fellow theologians is no longer effective; (b) because it was used in a class, Johnson’s book could be assumed by students to contain “authentic Catholic teaching”; and (c) such students are naive and vulnerable because of the “catechetical deficiencies of the past decades beginning with the 1970s.” 

This line is entirely disingenuous, for nowhere does Johnson’s book purport to present “authentic Catholic teaching,” nor would its use in an ordinary theology class bear with it the implication that “its content is authentic Catholic teaching.” For truly scrupulous students, precisely the lack of the imprimatur would signal the book’s nonofficial character. More significant, the catechetical deficiencies of contemporary college-age Catholics are totally the responsibility of the bishops, not members of the theology department at Fordham or other Catholic universities. The theology students in Catholic universities should have been taught their catechism a dozen years earlier. The responsibility for such learning belongs to the bishops themselves, who have been running diocesan educational programs for the past forty years. It is a craven denial of such responsibility to shunt it onto college theology classes, claiming that “books used in religious studies/theology courses at Catholic colleges and universities must be seen as de facto catechetical and formational texts.” Such a position, moreover, reveals a grotesque misunderstanding of the distinctive social function of the university. It is impossible to imagine St. Thomas Aquinas at the University of Paris shielding his students from contact with Maimonides and Averroës and Avicenna and restricting his teaching to formulas such as quis fecit te (“who made you”).

Cardinal Wuerl is able to make the suggestion that college theology courses should serve as catechesis because that is the bishops’ default understanding of theology as a whole, a point I made in an earlier Commonweal essay (“After the Big Chill,” January 27, 2006). He advances a position concerning the bishops and theology that perpetuates a precritical version of apostolic succession; identifies faith with belief in propositional teachings (doctrine) derived from Jesus and delivered to the apostles and their successors; merges “faith” (as doctrine) and “theology” (as the understanding of these propositions); and equates the bishops’ (legitimate) role of protecting the faith with the (illegitimate) role of controlling theology. Reading his statement, one would never know that the Second Vatican Council had occurred or that Catholic theology had advanced beyond the old handbooks.

There is no trace in Wuerl’s statement of another set of premises: namely, that the Gospels are witnesses and interpretations of Jesus in light of the Resurrection rather than verbatim records of Jesus’ teaching; that resurrection faith in “Jesus as Lord” is obedient trust in God’s work before it is belief in the truth of propositions; that theology is the interrogation and celebration of such existential faith within the life of the church—an inductive art—rather than the handing down of verbal formulas—a deductive science; that bishops are assigned the role of testing theological investigation against the Nicene Creed, the prayer and liturgical practice of the community, and the discernment of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, rather than simply measuring theological statements against the formulas of nineteenth-century systematic theology. This last set of assumptions—absent from the cardinal’s statement—is not only closer to those undergirding Elizabeth Johnson’s work, it was shared by virtually all reputable Catholic theologians before the recent efforts to return the church to a Tridentine form.

In his statement, Wuerl attempts an analogy to sports, but it does not work. The bishops on the committee are not in this case referees of the game called faith, deciding which theological plays are in bounds and which are not. They are themselves also players, representing a highly specific version of theology; they are not protecting the belief or the prayer-life of the faithful, because Elizabeth Johnson has not in any sense placed these things under attack. They are, rather, protecting their own control over all teaching in Catholic institutions by extending their own understanding of theology. Wuerl is perhaps more candid than he realizes when he declares that the church’s teaching office is helpful to theologians “since its judgments are determinative of good theology.”    

It is all the more important in these circumstances for Catholic universities to resist the pressure to sacrifice intellectual integrity to ecclesiastical conformity, and for Catholic theologians to follow the example of the apostle Peter when arrested for healing a lame man and declaring that healing to be the work of the living God through the name of Jesus (Acts 3:12–16; 4:8–10). When brought before their ecclesiastical authorities and told “to speak no more to anyone in this name,” Peter and John respond, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:17–20). 


Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt

The sniping between bishops and theologians is hardly anything new. It was Alexander of Alexandria who first raised the alarm concerning the teachings of Arius, and it was Stephen Tempier, archbishop of Paris, who condemned a number of the views of Thomas Aquinas. Despite the fine-sounding statements in many official documents concerning the collaborative relationship between bishops and theologians, that relationship has often been conflict-ridden. So the recent statement of the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine claiming that Elizabeth Johnson’s Quest for the Living God contains “misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors that bear upon the faith of the Catholic Church” might seem like just one more round in an age-old battle between bishops, who seek to conserve and protect the deposit of faith, and theologians, who, to use a phrase from Johnson’s subtitle, are concerned with “mapping frontiers” in theology. As it was in the beginning, so it is now and ever shall be.

But occasionally there are new things under the sun, or at least new inflections of perennial patterns. The Committee on Doctrine’s statement represents a relatively new way of dealing with doctrinal questions, one that focuses more on critique than on censure.

To some degree, this reflects the development of theology as a modern academic discipline. Arius was not a professional theologian but a presbyter of the church in Alexandria and thus directly under the authority of Alexander, who deposed and excommunicated him. Thomas Aquinas was by profession a teacher of theology at an institution, the University of Paris, in which the faculty had a certain amount of autonomy, but over which Stephen Tempier retained a measure of authority. Though Tempier’s condemnations look somewhat benighted in hindsight, no one at the time doubted his competence to make them.

Today, however, most theologians, with the exception of those who teach in seminaries or on Pontifical faculties, are in their professional lives primarily creatures of the academy, governed far more by the pronouncements of various accrediting agencies that by the Codex Iuris Canonici. Indeed, the efforts by the American bishops ten years ago to implement canon 812, which stipulates that “those who teach theological disciplines in any institutes of higher studies whatsoever must have a mandate from the competent ecclesiastical authority,” raised among theologians an amazing degree of anxiety about the potential damage that might be done to their academic respectability in the eyes of their secular colleagues. This is simply one indication among many that today a theologian’s professional identity, whatever his or her personal ecclesiastical adherence, depends more on such things as where one went to graduate school, what professional meetings one attends, which academic presses and journals one publishes with, and how one’s work is evaluated by one’s academic peers, than on something as quaint as one’s relationship to one’s bishop. In this context, the move by the bishops from censure to critique in dealing with theologians might be seen as a creative adaptation to changing circumstances.

In the context of the controversy over Johnson’s book, it is interesting to note the amount of attention paid to the theologians listed as “consultants” on the doctrine committee’s Web site, as well as to Thomas Weinandy, OFM Cap, executive director of the bishops’ Secretariat for Doctrine. Most commentators seem to presume that it is Fr. Weinandy and the consultants who did the intellectual heavy lifting behind the statement, and that it ought to be evaluated in terms of their academic competence. (See, for example, John F. Haught’s take on how the bishops misread Johnson, which is really about how, according to Haught, Weinandy misread Elizabeth Johnson and how the bishops’ statement reflects the weaknesses of Weinandy’s theology.) The ecclesiastical competence or authority of the bishops seems somewhat beside the point. What really matters is the academic competence of the consultants.

In light of all this, the statement issued by the Committee on Doctrine emerges as an odd sort of beast, the hybrid offspring of the academic world of the theologian and the ecclesiastical world of the bishop. Though similar statements have been issued in recent years (in response to works by Peter Phan, Daniel Maguire, and Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler), it is still a relatively new sort of document. Despite the headline in the New York Times“Bishops Urge Catholic Schools to Ban a Nun’s Book”—the statement does not suggest any particular course of action with regard to the book or its author. Its purpose, it says, is to “note” the doctrinal difficulties associated with the book. In some ways, the statement resembles the sort of book review one might find in an academic journal (including the fact that it did not appear until several years after the book’s publication). Like an academic book review, it cites specific places in the text to support its criticisms but also tries to give an overall assessment of the argument that runs through the book, uncovering and critiquing its fundamental assumptions. It notes, for instance, a certain equivocation in Johnson’s use of the term “modern theism” (the bête noire of her book), which seems to refer sometimes to a form of Enlightenment Deism and at other times to the traditional doctrine of the church concerning God’s omniscience, immutability, and so forth. The statement also claims to identify a tendency in the book to confuse the incomprehensibility of God with the idea that God is completely unknowable, an idea that ironically aligns Johnson more with the Enlightenment whose Deism she decries than with traditional Christian views of God. Whether or not one judges these critiques to be correct, one ought to note at least the relative novelty of this sort of statement, which contains critique but no censure.

In failing to note this novelty, the response issued by the board of directors of the Catholic Theological Society of America somewhat misfires in its complaint that the bishops failed to follow the procedure outlined in their own 1989 document “Doctrinal Responsibilities: Approaches to Promoting Cooperation and Resolving Misunderstandings between Bishops and Theologians.” Specifically, the CTSA response notes that the lack of consultation with Johnson prior to the issuing of the Committee on Doctrine’s statement ignores the recommendation of “Doctrinal Responsibilities” that, in cases of conflict between a bishop and a theologian, “informal conversation ought to be the first step towards resolution.” This criticism misfires for a couple of reasons. First, as Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the chair of the Committee on Doctrine, points out in his rejoinder to the CTSA response, “Bishops as Teachers,” “Doctrinal Responsibilities” is primarily about the relationship between individual bishops and theologians and says nothing about how the Committee on Doctrine ought to proceed. Furthermore, while “Doctrinal Responsibilities” does list as one of the possible outcomes of a formal theological dialogue between bishop and theologian the bishop’s declaring “publicly the apparent error of a position,” this is something quite different from what the Committee on Doctrine has done in their statement, which is less an anathema than an extremely negative book review.

If we see the statement as at least partially fitting into the genre of “review,” then the lack of consultation with Johnson becomes more comprehensible. I know that I am not in the practice of contacting authors to engage in informal conversation before I write a negative book review. When I edited an academic journal I would occasionally get a complaint from an author that a review we had published had badly misunderstood his or her work. Even when I agreed that a review had misread some aspect of the book, I never faulted a reviewer for not seeking to engage the author personally prior to writing the review. Academics, as Pontius Pilate might say, must live by the motto quod scripsi scripsi (“what I have written, I have written”) and simply defend our published writings, or admit their flaws and try to do better next time. If theologians wish to play the academic game, then we should recognize that our reviewers have no personal obligation to us. In the world of the academy, no one owes us a personal, private consultation prior to eviscerating our published work in a public forum.

And yet, there is something different for a Catholic theologian about a statement coming from the bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, and one would be foolish to ignore it. As I said, the statement is a sort of hybrid. On the one hand, it is an academic critique and can be evaluated like any other critique. Is it convincing in pointing out flaws and weaknesses in argumentation? Does it properly identify and evaluate the overall point of the book? Does it locate the book in the context of larger theological debates and developments in an interesting way? On the other hand, the Committee on Doctrine’s statement does not confine itself purely to academic critique. Recognizing that the book is intended not primarily for an audience of academic peers but for students and nonacademic readers, the statement has an underlying pastoral concern. This concern, largely implicit in the statement by the Committee on Doctrine, becomes explicit in “Bishops as Teachers,” Cardinal Wuerl’s rejoinder to the CTSA’s statement. He notes that “while the contents 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.”

It is one thing to be told that one has written a book that fails in an academic sense: fails to make a cogent argument, fails properly to describe another’s position, fails to attend to other relevant work on the topic, or fails to anticipate obvious criticisms. It is something else to be told that one’s book is spiritually harmful. Given modern notions of academic freedom, which on the whole are observed even in church-related colleges and universities, no one’s career is ever going to be endangered by having the Catholic bishops judge one’s work to be spiritually harmful. Indeed, in some quarters it is a charge that will enhance one’s career (and book sales). But I cannot imagine that any Catholic theologian would not find such a criticism far more devastating than even the most scathing academic book review, whether or not he or she thought it a just one and however much it increased that theologian’s academic reputation.

When such pastoral judgments are interwoven with academic critique, the effect can be particularly jarring, for spiritual edification and intellectual cogency are things that we modern people normally like to keep segregated. Christianity, however, has a long tradition of thinking that incorrect ideas about God have deleterious spiritual consequences, and the bishops are hardly exceeding their proper role when they say that the ideas proposed by a theologian are false and therefore spiritually harmful. In this sense, even absent any formal censures, critique might well feel like censure when it comes from the pastors of the church. This is something that both theologians and bishops ought to recognize.

It is possible that we theologians might just have to develop a certain tolerance for the sort of critique represented by the Committee on Doctrine’s statement, and to use some of the thick skin we have grown in the academic world. On the other hand, the charge that one’s work is “spiritually harmful” cannot and should not be heard as simply one more academic critique, even if it is not quite a formal censure. Theologians cannot live in a purely academic world but must attend to the pastoral implications of our work, implications with which the bishops are rightly concerned.

At the same time, the Committee on Doctrine might want to think more about what would constitute appropriate procedures for statements such as the one issued concerning Quest for the Living God. I agree with Wuerl that the Committee on Doctrine is not bound by the procedures outlined in “Doctrinal Responsibilities,” which concern individual bishops and could conceivably result in a formal censure of a theologian. Yet the bishops should recognize that even without such formal censure, a statement from the pastors of the church that not only notes intellectual failings but also warns of spiritual harm is not quite the same thing as an academic book review. Some process of dialogue between the committee and the theologian prior to the issuance of such a statement would be beneficial, precisely because most Catholic theologians, while being creatures of the academy, also seek to be theologians in service to the church and of spiritual benefit to her people.

I have not weighed in on the question of the merits of the Committee on Doctrine’s statement itself. In the interest of honesty, however, I should say that I am sympathetic to most, if not all, of the points made in the statement. I find Quest for the Living God to be an intellectually confused and confusing work, in which appeals to mystery are used to evade something as basic as the principle of noncontradiction; and had I been asked to write an academic review of it, I would have had some fairly harsh things to say. Nor in my role as a deacon would I be likely to recommend it for a parish study group, because I think it simply flatters the prejudices of a certain sort of Catholic liberal, and no one is well served spiritually or intellectually by having one’s prejudices flattered.

But I also think there are larger things at stake than the merits or demerits of a single book or a single theologian’s criticisms of that book. In the relationship between bishops and theologians, it is, I believe, a creative response to the current context of theology to move beyond simple censure to extended critique. But such a move must recognize that when critique comes from those whose primary role is to be pastors of the church, it may sound very much like censure—and so should be issued as carefully as censure.

Related: Unevolved, by John F. Haught
Does God Suffer? by Brian Davies
Dennis O'Brien's review of Quest for the Living God

dotCommonweal's coverage of the bishops' critique of Quest for the Living God

Published in the 2011-06-03 issue: 

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor. Among his many books are Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (Yale) and Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (Eerdmans).

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