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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.

About the Author

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



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I offer some comments/analysis about the latest USCCB committee statement here:

As some have tried to ignore the recent statement prepared by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace since it came "merely" from a Vatican office and not from the pope himself, I think that the same reasoning might be rightly applied here also.

Sadly, i think reasonable hope for dialogue exists in the field of theology, despirte say Ft.Hehir's recent comment that we need to return to the days of Benandin.I say to myself"what's the use?"

Weindady - appears that he doth protest too much?

Sister J. is never going to win this one, for the simple reason that the original criticism was broadcast far and wide before she was given a chance to reply. What the boys may have understood in a private meeting they will never be able to grasp in public, and hairs will be split and re-split if necessary because the power, the glory and the competence of the critics is now on the line. Should the line be breached, the gates of Hell will have prevailed. At least.

Fr. Horan's critique is well worth reading. Given my limited competence, let me just add that for the committee to say, concerning the "Evolution of Human Beings," that "the functioning of the brain cannot of itself explain human acts of knowing" is at the least tendentious. I too am convinced that reductivist scientific accounts fail fully to explain human acts of knowing or choosing, but it is factually false to say that their falsehood has already been "amply demonstrated by various philosophical arguments. To say such things does nothing for the committee's credibility.And poor St. Thomas, quoted so glibly about so many matters. Great as his thought unquestionably is, he would surely not countenance the "ipsedixit" way the committee has deployed it.

The state of smorgasbord Catholicism in the US was reaffirmed by the recently released "Catholics in America" study. Meanwhile, the USCCB Committee on Doctrine continues its publicized quest for an end, if not resolution, of the "Quest for the Living God" affair, increasing publicity and book sales at each step. A review of priorities seems warranted. The bishops' comments in part suggest an unfortunately well-known type of book review: "This book is obviously unsatisfactory because it is not the book I would have written". It is telling that, in 4 years since the Quest was published, the bishops are apparently unable to point to an alternative which does properly what they call for and which should be a replacement text in the established niche Sr. Elizabeth's book fills. (Scholarly theological and philosophical tomes are of neither interest nor use to most of the faithful.) It might be fruitful for all if the bishops spent as much attention on what Johnson is doing right as on what they find her doing wrong.

I can hardly bring myself to read the bishops' committee's latest response. I don't know what I find most disheartening: their alarmingly misguided notions of how theology (or any text at all) should be read, their continuing shabby treatment of Sr. Johnson, or their basic inability to save even the tiniest bit of face in this matter. "We commend Sister's good intentions" is condescending, but they might have left it at that. Not willing to admit error? Fine, but there's no need to keep digging. I'm still bewildered by the committee's complaint that the book "does not adequately express the faith of the church." Isn't that what a catechism does? Why are they so determined not to give Johnson the benefit of the doubt (where any doubt is warranted, which is itself arguable)? They seem to have looked and looked for something in Johnson's book that actually contradicts or even muddles the faith of the church, and failed to find it. So they're left with nonsensical accusations like, if she doesn't explicitly explain and assent to whatever basic doctrinal point may be relevant, it is reasonable to presume she dissents. It's ridiculous.

I have been resisting the urge to buy the book until now, but the functioning of the brain cannot of itself explain human acts of knowing pushed me over the edge.

David N. - ? cc: USCCB Committee on Doctrine Subj: FYI

This is a naive question, but since when does theological thinking have to begin with the teachings of the Church? According to Aquinas and (I presume) his theological disciples, there is such a thing as natural theology which begins with non-revelation. Scotus also thought this was possible. I'm surprised that Sister agreed that she should start there too.

To err is human, even for magisterial gentlemen.To apologize, however, is not within the ability of ontological privilege.

Thanks, Grant, for your full and fair presentation. I commend all to my comments today on the bishops' action on Elizabeth Johnson's book in my comment and the crosslinks under the comment heading entitled, "BISHOPS WIN, EJ AND WE LOSE", accessible by clicking on at .

I read Johnson's reply, but I missed the part where she said she reached out to the bishops to seek their counsel. Apparently, she just sat at home waiting for the phone to ring, and can't understand why she wasn't invited to the prom.

Mark, Are you aware of how sexist your comment appears?

"Sister J. is never going to win this one ..."It seems her publisher is the big winner. The bishops can't withdraw a book already printed, sold, read, and discussed widely.It also seems that the bishops have the potential to lose quite a bit: the respect of theologians in particular. Even if they had the power to silence their partners in theology, are they really prepared for a return to a century ago when American seminarians were little better educated in theology than your average high school student.

Grant--No. Can you explain why you feel that way?

An Archbishop assured me that theological controversy of this kind has nothing to do with orthodoxy and everything to do with shoring up clerical privilege.In the present case, a high school level of masculine pride can be detected. The tawdry and jejune notions of theological intelligence that the bishops think sufficient reeks of the locker room.

Mark, does Grant really need to explain?

Joseph--Yes, or you. It would be helpful. Honestly, though, I think it would be even more helpful to stick to the issue, rather than get mired down in personal attacks on fellow commenters. Why do you think Johnson did not seek out the counsel of the episcopacy at an earlier point in the process (if she ever did it at all)? Seems to me that would have been the obvious thing for a Catholic theologian to do. It could well be as an outsider to the way theology works, I'm missing the obvious. Could also be the opposite, though, it seems. For example, could it be that the Archbishop who "assured" you that controversy "of this kind" must be due to the base desire to protect clerical privilege, simply had an axe to grind? Or did he have relevant knowledge of the Johnson matter and offer specific reasons? By the way, I'm a bit puzzled why "reeks of the locker room" would not be a sexist comment, given what you consider sexist.

Mark,You just don't get it. Johnson, is not a child going to her daddy for advice. That is the relationship you have implied should exist between her and the bishops. Balderdash!

John--I suppose you're right: I do not get it. For example, I consider seeking counsel a sign of wisdom, humility, strength. I would never think of it as being childish or weak.

I think the two sides need to chalk this one up to agree-to-disagree. Or, perphaps, disagree-to-disagree.

You're right Mark, you don't get it.This isn't about dialogue or discussion. This is about being adversarial, it is about a constant "us vs. them" attitude toward the Church, about always looking for ways to be contentious, rather than seeking to work together.The very fact that certain bishops construed the book in a manner contrary to what Sister Elizabeth says she intended demonstrates by that very fact that her book, as currently written, is at best ambiguous and susceptible of being misconstrued and, hence, capable of misleading people. Rather than simply re-writing the text to remove any ambiguities and eliminate any possiblity that lay readers might misunderstand what she meant to say, she decided to pick a fight. Rather than seeing herself in common cause with the Church, she decided to see the bishops as her opponents.It is all so unnecessary.

Whaaaaaaaaa?!? The fact that a text can be misconstrued means that it needs to be rewritten? Isn't that kind of logic basically a formula for theology have all of the substance of a takeout menu?

Yes, Abe. We have an obligation, especially with respect to the faith, to avoid leading others into error.If what we say is susceptible of misinterpretation, it is incumbent upon us, not to rail against the reader for being so stupid and ignorant, but to clarify and reformulate our words so that they can be properly understood. That is a common editorial practice, as well as being a common peer-review practice.Authors have an obligation to present their material in a fashion that can be properly understood by the consumer (reader), and if it cannot be understood by all, if it is inherently ambiguous and susceptible of multiple interpretations, then the author cannot rightly complain when someone says to her, "this is ambiguous and confusing."

One of Sister Elizabeth's biggest complaints was that the bishops did not come to her first for explanations. Instead, they confined themselves to the text.Well, the common reader is not going to have access to Sister Elizabeth to ask her to explain to them exactly what she means. They are necessarily confined to the four corners of the page. As such, her book must stand or fall entirely on what she has written. And if what she has written is not clear, then it is upon her to make it clear, and not simply complain that the reader is twisting what she really meant.

Wasn't her complaint in the most recent statement that they did not actually respond to the questions and points of clarification that she posed for them when all of this originally started up?But perhaps you could give me some examples of theologians from the 20/21st centuries that successfully steer clear of the ambiguity and possible points for confusion in Johnson's work--just so I can see what you have in mind. Maybe Balthasar? I haven't really read him, but I hear that the Pope likes him. Is he a good example of clear and unambiguous theology?

Why does the "faith of the church" not deny "In hoc signo Vinces" which clearly talks about wars and chopping people's heads off. There was virtual silence when millions were toasted in incinerators citing that the silence was necessary not to bring more harm. What is more harmful than being burned alive? There were no statements by the UCCB when clergy were resent to abuse children. There really has never been a clear condemnation of the Crusades where chopping of heads was a planned act of intimidation. For that a person would be forgiven all their sins. For sure there will be no UCCB condemnation for the nun who was on EWTN last night saying that the number 33 was so magical that you instantly sprung people from purgatory on completion of 33 rosaries, prayer, pilgrimages, novenas and the like. What Mark, Bender and many others have to understand that the authority of bishops is centered in service. Jesus made this crystal clear with the Washing of the Feet telling all of us, especially those in authority, that they must serve first. The Holy Thursday Liturgy is the most hypocritical Liturgy of the year because the clergy ignore it completely, choosing domination over service. Make no mistake. This is what the statement of Elizabeth Johnson is. Men from the Empire are telling her, especially women, that the bishops tell us what the faith is while service is a token and non mandatory advice.

Did Hans Urs von Balthasar endeavor to work with the bishops, did he desire to be in communion with the Church, or did he view theologians and bishops as being in opposition to each other? Did he seek to set up a parallel magisterium, a pope unto himself, or did he willingly and happily submit to review of his works, especially if he was going to hold himself out to the public as a specifically "Catholic" theologian?Sister Elizabeth is entirely free to publish whatever she wants without the review of the bishops. But if she wants to write on Catholic theology, then as a matter of communion and truth, she must work with the successors of the Apostles and not in competition with them or against them. And if not that, then merely as a matter of Truth in Labeling under consumer protection principles.

A glance at in the category: [ Books Religion & Spirituality Christianity Catholicism "theology" ]lists 8,100 results, including 9 by Prof. Elizabeth A. Johnson of Fordham. Other authors being bought in that category range from Saint Augustine to Joan Chittister. The particular focus and purpose of the USCCB Committee on Doctrine's efforts on Quest this year remain puzzling, given the variety of doctrinal issues readily identifiable among US Catholics that might warrant Committee attention -- Resurrection, Transubstantiation, sacraments, and extent of hierarchical authority on morals, for example. What is so special about this one woman?

Donald Wuerl himself submitted to the review process in seeking and obtaining an imprimatur and nihil obstat for his catechetical book "The Teaching of Christ."

If your fundamental view of the church is to identify it with hioerarchy , then you follow Mark and Bender;s approach.Little insight into paternalism and infantilization . The simplistic "a pop comment underscores the lack of insight.e unto himself"If protocol had been folowed originally (as discussed long ago) then maybe we wouldn't have this part of the srgument.What I think is germane though is that not long Cardinal Wuerl met with theologans to hype the new evangelization as Cathy reported in at hread here.He was the point man in the Bishops approach to this(with Weinandy as his spokesperson despite the reception of all this at CTSA).I think that speaks volumes about the disconnect between our bishops and many excellent theolgians , not just Sr, Johnson. I posit the continuing action as another (unfortunate and false0 step in the power control approach of policy makers.Of course if the hierachy is everything to you , you'll disagree.......

Have any other theologian in recent years been publicly critiqued by this Committee the way Sr. Johnson has been? Any male theologians?

Bender, don't be such a putz. I have no idea if Balthasar did/didn't do any of those things, but is your implication that Elizabeth Johnson has set up a parallel magisterium, where she is her own pope? Really? And, again, the point would not seem to be that Johnson doesn't want to work with the Bishops. I think it's fairly clear that she does want to work with them, but that she is frustrated with how they have gone about her work. Working with bishops doesn't mean rolling over for them. Or does it?

"the authority of bishops is centered in service. Jesus made this crystal clear with the Washing of the Feet telling all of us, especially those in authority, that they must serve first". Couldn't agree more."The Holy Thursday Liturgy is the most hypocritical Liturgy of the year because the clergy ignore it completely, choosing domination over service. Make no mistake. This is what the statement of Elizabeth Johnson is. Men from the Empire are telling her, especially women, that the bishops tell us what the faith is while service is a token and non mandatory advice."These are heavily worded conclusionary statements with no evidence provided for support. Don't stand with them, as they could fall and hurt you.

Irene - Yes. Salzman and Lawler won a prize and praise for their book "The Sexual Person". They also received a scathing 24-page rebuke from the USCCB Committee on Doctrine under then-Abp. Wuerl. The bishops declared in their conclusion: "The efforts of theologians, however, can only bear fruit if they are in fact carried on within a hermeneutic of continuity and in the framework provided by the Catholic theological tradition and the teaching of the Church." Immediately before that, the bishops wrote: "The issues treated in The Sexual Person are indeed vital matters for the life of the Church in our time. They should be thoroughly studied and discussed by theologians as part of their service to the Church and to society." Reconciling these adjacent statements is difficult. A associated press release was put out, to which my original link now fails.

If hundreds of millions of lives were not impacted by the consequences of episcopal fiats, this would all be comical. You start with Jesus. Decades later unknown persons for little known reasons wrote down what someone thinks he said and whom people thought he was. The various reports sometimes conflict and are often ambiguous. What is clear is Jesus was unique and said unambiguously God loves us and we must love one another. That was new and basically all we really needed or need today to know. But some intellectuals for the next three centuries thought Jesus had to be dressed in a Greek philosophical suit, which was not an easy fit. In the early 4th century, Constantine, a ruthless pagan emperor and persecutor of Christians and many others, decided for presently unclear reasons, to commandeer the Church and convert it into a hierarchical, military style organization that is still with us. Being a military man, Constantine was intolerant of dissent and coercively compelled the bishops at Nicea prematurely to jam Jesus into Greek terminology This only led to unsatisfactory and endless trimming for centuries of the rough theological edges, only to end up with a "mystery" beyond our limited words to express. Poor Elizabeth Johnson tried to explore this "mystery' and has been burned at the virtual stake for her efforts. But this was not her real "sin". She has written well and often as a feminist Christian and that is her "mortal sin". Commonly, the Roman clique goes after a straw man (or woman) to make a brutal point about an author who writes well on forbidden topics. Women theologians surely see the inquisitorial signals here and will certainly get the message. The Roman clique are not fools. They could care little how many copies of the Quest books are sold. The are trying to depress her and other women's feminist theology books and they will likely succeed here. Hans Kung was nailed by Karol Wojtya, with the Judas-like support of Hans' long term ambitious "friend, Joseph Ratzinger, purportedly for Hans' later Christology, not his real "mortal sin" of challenging papal infallibility. Hans was not fooled and neither was anyone else. Google "infallibility' and you will find on this extremely important topic mainly either a few serious books written by Protestant scholars or apologies written by rising Catholic careerists . My college classmate , Joseph DiNoia O.P., a long time papal enforcer, was in DC recently to promote the new Roman imperial theology. What do you think he said to Messrs. Wuerl and Wienandy about Elizabeth's work and inquisitional treatment? You can continue now endlessly interpreting the entrails of the disgraceful and painful non-process Elizabeth has been subjected to or you could move on to how we might revere the modern "sack of Rome". Personally, seeing Elizabeth mistreated like this by bully bishops is painful. Her order, the Community of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood, Long Island, NY, taught me a lot for 8 years in the '50's about Christian charity and prophetic witness. She surely deserved better treatment and more respect for her life of dedicated and valuable service to the cause of promoting the Gospels.

Oops. "Reverse", not "revere" obviously in the next to last pararaph.

Question - thought that Sr. had repeatedly offered to meet with this committee? Appears that even after her offers, the committee continued to meet and ignored her requests. This statement does not address her specific replies to the initial USCCB committee findings. Why is there no effort to be consistent and fair?Now there is a statement that Wuerl offered to meet with her - in what capacity? Also, Wuerl has his own agenda and a record/pattern that is not very balanced or objective in these matters.There are also conflicting accounts about whether the 1989 agreement applies to this situation - as if it didn't? (that USCCB statement is an example of splitting hairs so fine you can't see it or figure out what it means).Why did it take the committee four+ years before weighing in on this book? Lots of unanswered questions. Would agree with other commentors - disagree to disagree.Shift things about - why are other groups (e.g. EWTN, Acton Institute, Ave Marie) allowed to air statements, shows, interviews, etc. claiming to be in the name of the church, and yet the USCCB and this committee do nothing? Any objective audit and investigation into frequent speakers, theologians, etc. on EWTN would arrive at much more glaring theological errors than the supposed errors in this book. Compare this committee finding to the papal backwards somersault to try to find a way to reconcile with SPPX which has members that continue to reject Vatican II. It is all very confusing.

The tasks of theology and theologians are many and multifaceted. Theology mediates between religion and a cultural matrix (cf. Lonergan) in one understanding of theology's task. Some see the aim of theology as the passing on of the wisdom and truth of the faith. These two tasks (and many other aims of theology) used to be understood in their relationality and complementarity by those who evaluated theologians and their work. Today, I am sad to conclude, the evaluators are just not as smart as those they evaluate.As many in the larger culture and some within the church devolve into dumbed down, simplistically "thinking" (I use the term loosely) reductionists, understanding of theology and all else must be shallow and minimalist (how else can one explain Bachman and Perry as candidates for the Presidency?). The increasing lack of intellectual depth and curiosity bodes ill for the intellectual future of the faith, politics and much else. Sr. Johnson's book is a very good book, elucidating much accepted theological thinking and developing deeper ways of appreciating the mystery we call God. Too bad some can't think on her level(s). So they denounce her work.

Thanks, Rick for those helpful observations. Notwithstanding my cranky comments, I am more hopeful, in part because of many sincere efforts of highly principled and very intelligent bloggers at dotCommonweal, ranging from the "hard of hearing wisdom" of savvy Anne Oliver, to the solid comments of Bill Mazella, Bob Nunz, Abe Rozenzweig , Rita Ferrone, and Jack Barry, to the often wonderfully bold (but true) comments of the youthful Lisa Fullam and Eric Bugyis. Of course there are many others as well. Sorry JSO, I will always pray for you, but I can't honestly give you many accolades, at least until we get a Buddhist related thread. Let's be honest; our Church is in crisis. But I am optimistic, if we work authentically, prophetically and respectfully, we will get through this well. It is not enough to say the Church always has, because an honest review of our history is truly upsetting. But here we are with an Internet invented not by Al Gore, but by the Spirit. Catholics, let's roll!

Rick Malloy,Read through this thread. As with a lot of threads on Commonweal and America, it lacks charity and civility. You are the people who are going to renew the church? Sarcasm, vitriol, snark, solipsism, bitternes -- these are fruit of the Holy Spirit?You talk of dumbing down? One of the commentators on this thread wrote a few weeks ago that the Gospels didn't talk much about sin -- in fact he claimed the word sin only appeared once in the Gospel of Mark. When I (charitably, I might say) pointed out multiple instances in just the first three chapters of Mark where sin is a thematically critical element, he replied that his search engine only returned results for "sin" not "sins" or "sinners". Search engine? You mean, you never read the Gospels? You never listened to liturgy of the Word? Millions of people are joining Pentecostal and Fundamentalist churches where Christ is unambiguously proclaimed. In Latin America, the number is in the tens of millions. Central and South America will have an evangelical protestant majority some day. I find that very painful and I pray that the Church goes through authentic renewal before this happens. But as I say, renewal will not come from Commonweal or America. You just can't get there from here.This is my last post in Commonweal. Too much dumbing down, too much shallowness and not enough charity.

Mr. Gibbons --If you check your last post carefully you'll find that it includes one accusation after another. Perhaps you think its brotherly correction. Then again, maybe Rick and the rest of us see our negative statements as brotherly correction.Wouldn't it be best to leave the judgments to the Lord as to who will or will not renew the Church?

"What is so special about this one woman?"Johnson chooses to work with the bishops. That is her problem. Joan Chittister's community backed her up completely and the bishops and Vatican backed up.

"Johnson chooses to work with the bishops. That is her problem."No, this is what makes Sr. Elizabeth the strong and wise woman as she is. She works within the system, and in the end, it seems that history, and truth, will vindicate her.

"Too much dumbing down, too much shallowness and not enough charity."Sounds like you are talking about the bishops.

The bishops' Committee has a responsibility ex officio and by intent to deliver a conclusive critique of the book in question. To be conclusive, i.e., to wrap it up, the critique requires accuracy in statements, rigor in logic and analysis, precision in definitions, and preemption of plausible objections at least equal to, if not superior to, that of the objects under examination. Their evident difficulty in spite of immediate access to resources in 9 dioceses and beyond should be cause for concern at a time when the US Church is in desperate need for clear, effective leadership. More is at stake than theology. The CEO of Ignatius Press Mark Brumley concludes his 10/28 blog statement on the proper relation between theologians and the USCCB Committee with " there are ample alternative theological resources people can draw on in their "quest for the living God". If you are unaware of them, I think we at Ignatius Press can manage to find some to recommend some to you."

Repetition is not the same as persuasion.Repetition is not the same as persuasion.See?

I read the St. Ignatius blog and then stopped at this sentence:"But even so, an important aid to that ministry (the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Doctrine), one representing theological expertise that goes far beyond Professor Johnson's theological chums in the guild, has found her work seriously deficient." Does he elucidate the argument? Does he make sense of the objections? No, it seems whatever it is, those kinds of things fall from sight, instead, it always comes down to whose presumed authority (i.e., title) gives one the prerogative to shut others up. This is the age of disintermediation. The bishops should be required to take a course.

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?

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