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The yawn patrol.

R. R. Reno and Fr. Robert Barron have had it with these songs of praise for Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSJ, who was recently named "person of the year" by the National Catholic Reporter. Why all the fuss? After all, Reno wonders, why should anyone be surprised that that "trade union for dissent" otherwise known as the Catholic Theological Society of America would come to her defense? "Yawn." And how come she's so well regarded, anyway? Why, her theology offers little more than "a bit of simplified Karl Rahner and lots of talk about contextualization mixed with progressive social attitudes." That about sums her up, doesn't it? According to Reno, Johnson's "great achievement"* was having her book Quest for the Living God "criticized by the USCCB doctrine committee as promoting a theology not in accord with Catholic teaching." Is that really person-of-the-year-worthy? "Writing and publishing the book wasnt such a notable thing for Elizabeth Johnson to do," Reno explains. "Ah, but to be criticized! One hears** the cries of 'censorship,' and 'oppression.'" Reno continues: "NCR as well wants to play its supportive role. Thus Elizabeth Johnson as victim, oops, I meant to say person of the year."

Perhaps Fr. Robert Barron had read Reno's January 6 post, because just a few days later he released a video about the persecution of Christians around the globe (cleaned up for Real Clear Religion here) in which he mentions Elizabeth Johnson. After spending five minutes updating viewers on several disturbing incidents of religious persecution, Barron pauses, and makes a confession to his off-screen interlocutor: "This reflection was an article I read in the National Cathlolic Reporter.... They chose as their Person of the Year Sr. Elizabeth Johnson.... And she was chosen because she was a persecuted victim."

Or, as the Real Clear Religion version has it:

What was the reason for this designation? Sr. Johnson, they explained, had been unfairly 'persecuted' by the bishops of the United States who dared to question the theological integrity of one of her many books.The bishops did not excommunicate Sr. Johnson, or strip her of her teaching position, or declare her not to be a Catholic theologian. They simply were critical of aspects of one of her books. And for this, a tenured professor at Fordham, a woman lionized by the academic establishment, is declared a persecuted victim. Give me a break.

Isn't it strange that the National Catholic Reporter would name someone Person of the Year simply because she had been persecuted by bishops? And, really, how predictable. How played. Not unlike, say, "the 1970s-era narrative of brave progressive theologian fighting against the repressive church," which, Barron notes, "is tired and utterly unilluminating."

You know what else is unilluminating? Putting words in people's mouths. The editors of NCR did not write that Johnson had been "persecuted." Read their piece. Nor do the editors suggest that Johnson was victimized by the USCCB Committee on Doctrine. Rather, the editors highlight her exemplary response to the bishops' critique, and they lament the lack of dialogue between the two -- dialogue Johnson first invited, a cardinal took credit for, and which was finally rejected by the committee. And is there any question that the editors or Johnson would fail to acknowledge that, however difficult it was to be unfairly criticized by bishops, it could never compare to suffering persecution for one's religious beliefs? As Barron would say, give me a break.

And you know what else is tired? Pretending that critics of the Committee on Doctrine were bothered by the fact of the bishops' critique rather than its content. It would be easier to dismiss the bishops' critics if their position amounted to little more than "leave theologians alone." But no serious critic complained that bishops criticized Johnson. It was the quality of their critique that many found wanting. Indeed, some writers noted that the bishops' actions provided an opportunity for an enlightening theological exchange, something that could prove useful in the classroom. Instead, the bishops barely engaged Johnson's long reply to their critique, preferring instead to restate their earlier conclusions, some of which seem impossible to reach unless they failed to read the book. The controversy was never about bishops "censoring" or "oppressing" anyone. It was about a lost opportunity. But perhaps that's the sort of predictable outcome that puts R. R. Reno to sleep.

* Where "great achievement" does not refer to the fact that Johnson served as the president of the American Theological Society and the Catholic Theological Society of America. Nor does it refer to the latter body's decision to give her the John Courtney Murray Award. Nor does it refer the fact she was the fourth person to receive the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for religion -- for her second book, She Who Is, which has been translated into six European and Asian languages. Nor does it refer to Friends of God and Prophets which won the American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion, Constructive Category in 1999. Nor does it refer to her fourteen honorary doctorates. Nor does it refer to her having received the Marianist Award (Dayton University, 2009), the Sophia Award (Washington Theological Union, 2009), the Myser Award for Promoting Catholic Unity (College of St. Catherine, 2008), the Yves Congar Award in Theology, (Barry University, 2008), the Jerome Award, (Catholic Library Association, 2004), Monika Hellwig Award for Promoting the Intellectual Life of Catholics (Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, 2006), Elizabeth Seton Medal in Theology, (Mount St. Joseph College, 2000), the Woman of Wisdom Award (College of St. Catherine, 2003), the Loyola Mellon Award in the Humanities (Loyola University Chicago, 2000), or the University Medal (Siena Heights University, 1999), among others.

** Where "hears" means "does not hear."

About the Author

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



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Good counterarguments, Grant!You don't let those two conservative Catholic critics get away with their sloppy stuff.

When I read the Bishops' criticism of Sr. Elizabeth Johnson's book---it sounded like a stunthigh school kids pull when they're supposed to read a book in their English class---but instead use "Cliff Notes."

Grant, Elizabeth Johnson's congregational initials are C.S.J. for the Congregation of St. Joseph.

I am sitting here wondering what "a bit of simplified Rahner" would look like. Can anyone give me page numbers for approximately parallel passages? Or does it just look like sour grapes?

Mary Kate: Of course, thanks. That's what I get for writing at the end of the day.

Any professor of quality would have sent Reno's comments as needing more substantiation. As for Barron the praise the Archbishop Cardinal of Chicago heaps on him is telling. Along with his presence on that puerile station: EWTN. My guess is that responsible conservatives would find much to criticize about both of these commentators.

Grant, when you go after an issue through close reading of texts, you really nail it. Thanks again, in the tradition of your thorough responses about the Kiesle case in CA as handled by the Vatican, and scoring critiques of Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny's statement in parliament last summer. work.

Does First Things have a person of the year?

We should all have spoken out with one voice about the suppression of theological freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of publication, thirty years ago when the JP2 inquisition got fully into its stride. It marked the end of integrity and authentic creativity in any institution of theology dependent on the Catholic Church. I don't think we have yet registered the depth of this tragedy.

I have been an enthusiastic fan of Rober Barron, but sadly, this seems like a case of a real "over-reach" by him. We should read something in its entirety before we condemn it (the NCR nomination).And here is another example of over-reaching: " It marked the end of integrity and authentic creativity in any institution of theology dependent on the Catholic Church."More often than not it is better to be a bit tentative when making universal judgments

Are we all reading the same NCR article? The one that keeps showing up in my browser says nothing about honorary degrees, and everything about the dispute.

I agree with you, Anthony. And I like him a lot personally -- his first assignment was my childhood parish, where he was a hit with the altar servers. Although, not with one of their mothers, who expressed serious reservations about the fact that just before Mass began he'd say to the altar servers, "Let's rock and roll." Of course we loved that.

Grant,I wonder if RB might not becoming a bit "overexposed." He seems to be commenting on everything, almost everywhere. That might be why he slipped up here. Just a thought.A

I don't know Grant, I think Barron is trying to fit the world into an awfully simplistic narrative. Take a look at what he did with the movie Fargo on You Tube. How do you strip the irony out of a Cohen brothers film? He did it.

It's "Coen," actually.

Oh, great. Simplified Rahner, Coen brothers without irony. We are standing by here for the fixer upper Taj Mahal.

Echoing Anthony A and Grant, I have often enjoyed Fr. Barron's writings very much, so I was jarred by this column, as some other recent ones by him. His point about Christian persecution in the wider world was very good, but the detour at the end into accusing NCR (and putting words into its mouth) of a persecution complex was bizarre. I wonder if in his zeal to carry forth the latest line from on high he fell into the same trap that caught his boss, Cardinal George (whose eponymous chair Barron holds at the seminary) in the KKK-Gay Pride kerfuffle. Cdl George's worthy apology noted that he made the mistake of trying to make that controversy fit his preconceived template on religious oppression. Interesting that Fr. Barron invented a mote in his opponent's eye but did not point out the timber in his boss's eye, or his own.

Perhaps someone could please point me to the correct link, the one that doesn't say anything about persecution. The article that keeps coming up in my browser laments:Far from having buttressed the work of a faithful Catholic scholar, a soul mate by most any measure, they sowed doubt and exposed her to Catholic extremists -- few in number but capable of capturing public attention -- who have little, if any, inklings or care about the nature of theology and its critical place within the church.I'm not sure what little inklings are, exactly, but otherwise this passage is surely intended to describe a persecution complex.

More sad divisive stuff IMO.The breach on how USCCB, and Fr. B (whether likeable or not) and CTSA and many of their supporters is not helped one bit by this.As to "persecution". one shoul ask that subsequent to the affair Sr. Johnson, why the Canon Law Society decided to get involved in having fair processes for theolgians and USCCB?In the meantime, another NCR piece on the chnaging dynamics of pasorin g in the Church today as demographics switch, underscores the credibility problem the hierachy has wth many of the faithful.Did someone say "simplistic narrative?" Which, of course, raises a few hackles from suporters of Fr. B and his patron in Chicago.

Fine, Kathy, I'll bite: Do you know what it means when you summarize an article by putting quotation marks around a word following "they explain"? It means you are quoting that article. But that word does not appear in the piece he cites. Of course, from the point of view of the editors of NCR -- and from my own -- there is no way to summarize these events without hinting that the bishops were unfair to Johnson. Sorry, but the bit you've quoted here does not describe a "persecution complex." Not by a long shot. Maybe you can find more evidence for your theory in the Amazon preview of Quest for the Living God.

Grant, It can mean a quotation. Or they can be "scare quotes" that are pointing out an irony. The description of the irony follows in the paragraph: The bishops did not excommunicate Sr. Johnson, or strip her of her teaching position, or declare her not to be a Catholic theologian. They simply were critical of aspects of one of her books. And for this, a tenured professor at Fordham, a woman lionized by the academic establishment, is declared a persecuted victim.In contrast with real victims, for example the Nigerian martyrs who are DYING right NOW, NCR names as its person of the year someone who has experienced no more angsty concrete consequence of the bishops' actions (in the words of more than one Commonweal commentator) than increased book sales. There's not even a de Lubac martyrdom here: no removal, no silencing. To me, it's not just that it's a tired story. It's more that it's only a faint echo of real stories.

Kathy,She was not declared a persecuted victim (as Barron has it). No one said she was being "censored" or "oppressed" (as Reno claims). The editors of NCR named her "person of the year" because of her life's work, and because of the way she handled herself in the face of intense and, to my mind, unfair criticism. But Barron mistakenly asserts that she was given the award because the editors view her as a persecuted victim. I find that laughable. And unsupported by the article he misquotes. Barron simply rigs the comparison. No one thinks being treated unfairly by bishops is worse than suffering religious persecution -- least of all the editors of NCR. Only if you think the editors set out to determine their awardee on the basis of the person's intensity of suffering would you believe you have a salient point in noting that being repeatedly misread by one's religious leaders is worse than dying for one's religious beliefs.

"But Barron mistakenly asserts that she was given the award because the editors view her as a persecuted victim. I find that laughable. And unsupported by the article he misquotes."We can grant that Barron's conclusion isn't supported by the NCR article, but it isn't laughable that NCR would view any theologian who is investigated or censured by the hierarchy as a persecuted victim. Has NCR ever sided with the hierarchy in any of these cases?

I, too, like a number of you was originally a fan of Fr. Barron's -- his explanation of Catholic Tradition is attractive, understandable, convincing -- but I also think that, as Anthony has pointed out, he's a bit "overexposed" ... with an opinion about everything.I recall reading Peter Steinfels article about the screening of Barron's Catholicism series in New York. Peter pointed out that there were those who loved it ... and those who thought it was a lot of hype. Peter added, "It's probably a little bit of both." I used the first four segments of the series in our parish as an Advent adult ed event ... about 15 people came the first evening, 7 the second evening ... and 2 the last two evenings. I don't think they were impressed.Regarding his criticism of NCR's choice of Sister Elizabeth Johnson as Person of the Year,although Barron holds a doctorate from the Institut Catholique in Paris, he is basically a commentator on theology. He really has not broken any new ground in theological research. Sister Elizabeth Johnson has broken new ground, and has taken a lot of heat for it. Were it not for the French thinkers of Nouveau Theologie, like DeLubac, Chenu,and others, most of whom had been silenced and condemned by the Vatican, there would have been little development in Catholic theology. We stand on the shoulders of giants!Sadly, Reno and Barron would not have approved of that group at the time.

Jim: Believing that Johnson was treated unfairly by Committee on Doctrine is not the same as believing she was persecuted by them. It's a rhetorical trick. Don't fall for it.

I just want to add that I think NCR's view of the current US hierarchy"s view of theology (and that certainly includes Cardinals George and Wuerl) are extremely limited, Hence, I find Jim's view quite disingenuopus and defensive.

Thanks, Grant - join with Carolyn's pointed praise for your analyses. Would also suggest that his visibility is becoming "tiresome"....if you add in his constant "New Translation" seminars (and his liturgical, scriptural expertise is what?) this past fall at a diocese near you, the over-exposure does not help him.Okay, Grant, know you don't like cynicism but do wonder if Fr. Barron is positioning himself given George's mandatory retirement letter next week (yeah, B16 may leave him there for 1-2 years and, yes, George just named a Cleric as chancellor) but, one wonders??

Well, the pope has called for a rebirth of apologetics.Barron has give us apologetics. When will he be made a bishop?

Oops, I posted that before reading what Bill DeH said immediately above. Great minds ..

I liked Robert Barron before he became Hot Catholic Stuff. His early books are insightful, challenging, and really quite good despite the Cardinal George liberalism-is-dead lens.In addition to his misfiring on Prof. Johnson, he also blundered on NCR, which has covered more on persecuted Christians in the Third World than Word on Fire, and has been doing it a lot longer. I appreciate his passion for making films. But if he's fussing about attention for Christian martyrs, perhaps he should ponder a call to make a Schindler's List for the 21st century.

Whatever NCR's usual coverage of persecuted Christians in the Third World, I couldn't say, but in the linked article nothing of the kind is mentioned (paragraph 1) as a top story of the year.I'm personally very grateful not to have the zero-sum, us-or-them, dog-eat-dog attitude towards anyone in the Church that some laity apparently have for bishops. Who gains what by this rancor?

"Who gains what by this rancor?"I think it's less a question of gain or less, like expecting laity 1, bishops 0 to result from it all. People get ticked off. I think there's a real question of a drop-off in the quality of bishops: theological, administrative, liturgical, etc.. Smart guys like those in Chicago and virtuous guys as in Kansas City really getting caught badly.We don't expect bishops to change, so we'll mouth off and then go on with our lives. It might happen more from conservatives these days than liberals. I expect that it simmers longest with the bishops, and that it colors their outlook in ministry. It probably exerts some ungentle pressure, either to metanoia like in Cardinal George's recent apology, or Archbishop Dolan's deflecting with good humor.As for the rest of us, we deal more with priests than bishops. We tend to like our own bishops a bit more--not unlike our respective congresspeople.

The current NCr has an editorial "the defense of christians is a defining human rights struggle.'I think NCR offers the most comprehensive coverage of thrid world catholicism including missions and problems.I suggest their perception is far keener than the preconceived notions expressed bvy some here.

This is ridiculous. Commonweal takes issue with Reno/Barrons characterization of the NCRs recognition of Elizabeth Johnsons response in light of a lack of dialogue that was rejected by the committee of bishops who didnt give a high-quality enough critique of Johnsons response to their critique that was problematic not in the fact that they made it, as no serious critic would have posited, but that the bishops lost an opportunity that Commonweal thinks would put Reno to sleep?What?? Im so confused. Either I need to log onto Commonweal more often to keep up with these tit-for-tat moves, or else just go read something easier. Rahner isnt a bad idea, LOL.

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