How the Bishops Misread Elizabeth Johnson

Last month, the Committee on Doctrine of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a critique [PDF] of theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson’s book Quest for the Living God, claiming that it “contaminates the traditional Catholic understanding of God” and therefore “completely undermines the gospel.” The bishops’ statement concludes:

The basic problem with Quest for the Living God as a work of Catholic theology is that the book does not take the faith of the Church as its starting point. Instead, the author employs 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. While the book at times displays an engagement with Catholic theological tradition and remains in continuity with it, it also departs from that tradition at a number of crucial junctures. For these reasons, combined with the fact that the book is directed primarily to an audience of nonspecialist readers and is being used as a textbook for the study of the doctrine of God, the Committee on Doctrine 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.

Few contemporary theologians have communicated an appreciation of the Christian mysteries more faithfully, consistently, and intelligently than has Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ. Quest for the Living God is but one of her many profound works unfolding the richness of Christian faith. Throughout her distinguished career, Johnson has brought the love of God into the hearts and minds of countless readers, including many Catholic students, with force and clarity. And, unlike many other theologians, she has done so in a way that takes seriously the discoveries of science, especially evolution.

Johnson does not need me to defend her. However, as I see it, the bishops’ statement reflects, among other problems, a theological failure to take evolution seriously. I suspect this has something to do with some strong opinions of Fr. Thomas Weinandy, OFM Cap, executive director of the Secretariat for Doctrine and author of Does God Suffer? and Does God Change? (in both books his answer is no). Weinandy, with whose writings the statement has unmistakable verbal and ideological similarities, links suffering so closely to human sin that his theology lacks the breadth to take in the full drama of life that Darwin and his followers have laid open. This is true, more or less, of contemporary theology in general, but the structure of Weinandy’s theology is especially resistant to evolution. Unfortunately, this carries over in a significant way into the bishops’ criticism of Johnson.

In order to take evolution seriously theology has to ask whether God cares about the suffering of all living beings, not just humans. Today almost all theologians who take evolution seriously have accepted the idea of a suffering God in one form or another. Of course, what it means to say that God suffers has always been a matter of dispute in theology, and the issue remains unsettled. When Cyril of Alexandria stated that “the Impassible suffers,” he captured the paradox perfectly. Yet, Weinandy, with whom I had a brief and cordial acquaintance many years ago when he was an adjunct instructor in theology at Georgetown, has consistently tried to dissolve Cyril’s paradox by declaring straight out that God does not suffer. His flattening of what has always been a lively theological enigma is evident throughout the committee’s critique of Johnson’s book. How so?

God cannot suffer, Weinandy maintains, for if God suffers, divine transcendence is jeopardized. Following a traditional formulation, his refrain is that Jesus suffers as man, but not as God. That formulation has always floated in a sea of theological paradox, and Weinandy, as I read his scholarly work, wants to rescue God finally from any such ambiguity. In a 2001 article in First Things, he writes: “The truth that God does not suffer is at the heart of the gospel, making it truly good news.” I doubt if many biblical scholars, preachers or theologians have ever summed up the New Testament message this way, but Weinandy persists, “The compassion of God is seen...not in His suffering in solidarity with humankind, but in His ability to alleviate the cause of human suffering—sin.” He says nothing about God’s possible solidarity with nonhuman pain or suffering.

Theologically, associating suffering exclusively or even primarily with sin has always been problematic, as the book of Job already testifies. However, in his book Jesus the Christ Weinandy goes so far as to identify sin as the “source of all suffering.” His citing the “cause” of suffering as sin, together with his literalist denial of divine suffering, is the central core of a doctrinal program to which all other theological ideas must bend. No doubt he can find in Patristic thought a verbal ancestry for his commitment to divine impassability (nonsuffering). The problem, however, is that this theological program, if applied rigorously, now renders it impossible for Christians who embrace it to take evolution seriously.

Taking sin as the sole cause of suffering narrows the understanding of Christ’s redemptive work down to that of the removal of human guilt and leaves the larger drama of life and the 14 billion year cosmic process outside the range of God’s healing love. A purely expiatory theology of suffering—the idea that all suffering is caused by sin—is especially out of place when one contemplates the endless ages of predation, life feeding on life, extinctions, and violent deaths of sentient organisms throughout prehuman evolution, not to mention innocent human suffering. Weinandy’s claim that suffering is essentially the result of sin is also the grounding assumption of today’s antievolutionist biblical literalists. It is a significant obstacle to any serious theological encounter with evolution.

How, though, does this discussion of evolution, sin, and suffering bear on the bishops’ statement? I think the imperviousness of Weinandy’s theology to evolution supports and coincides with the severe judgment by the bishops’ statement that Johnson has gone astray from Christian faith in her espousal of panentheism. This is a serious charge, so it is important to understand where it comes from.

Panentheism (as distinct from “pantheism”) is the venerable notion that everything (“pan” means “all”) exists in God rather than outside of the divine life. It is not a new idea in religious and theological history. As Paul says in Acts, God is the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.” Christian versions of panentheism imply, therefore, that God’s mode of being is wide, deep, and compassionate enough to embrace all of creation—including the undeserved suffering of nonhuman life which Darwin himself found so excessive. Panentheism, as many contemporary Catholic theologians understand the term, is also perfectly consistent with the affirmation of divine transcendence (see, for example, K. Rahner and H. Vorgrimler, Theological Dictionary).

Beneath the statement’s repudiation of panentheism lurks not only Weinandy’s claim that all significant suffering is the consequence of sin but also his judgment that a suffering God would be in danger of being absorbed into the world and hence contaminated by sin and evil. Such a being would be, in his view, less than “God,” even though for other theologians the eternal, unchanging fidelity of God reveals itself most powerfully in images of divine solidarity with the world’s suffering. For many contemporary theologians, divine transcendence is expressed, not suppressed, by God’s empowering participation in the world’s anguish and struggles, including the whole drama of life. Weinandy declares in his First Things article, however, that a theologian who accepts a suffering God necessarily succumbs to panentheism, just as a proponent of panentheism is bound to accept the erroneous idea of a suffering God.

Weinandy’s writings and the bishops’ statement harbor a distorted understanding of panentheism. They carelessly conflate it with pantheism, the belief that no distinction exists between the world and God. Their caricature of panentheism is then mistakenly projected onto Johnson’s book, implying that her work tends toward pantheism, which it clearly does not. Instead, her theology preserves the qualitative distinction between God and the world. The “mutual abiding” of God and the world to which Johnson refers, and which the statement characterizes as contrary to church teaching, is completely consistent with the traditional Christian (Trinitarian and Chalcedonian) principle that “true union differentiates.” God’s intimacy with the world, as Karl Rahner and other Catholic theologians have noted, paradoxically makes the world something distinct from and other than God.

Weinandy’s detachment of God from life’s suffering also undergirds other criticisms of Johnson’s book as well. I cannot elaborate here, but the bishops’ statement expresses uneasiness with Johnson’s allowance for revelatory experience in non-Christian religious traditions, for indeterminacy and self-creativity in natural processes, and for using a plurality of analogies and metaphors for God. The statement’s objection to new ways of imaging, thinking, and talking about God is consistent with a theological decision to protect God from too close a contact with human experience, the suffering of life, and a universe that, as contemporary cosmology has shown, is still in the making. This is especially ironic since the sacramental quality of Catholic life and thought has always featured a God who touches the world in order to heal it.

Even so, my main objection is not that a particular theologian takes a firm stance on the never fully settled topic of God and suffering. Much more problematic is that the USCCB seems to want to make one debatable, scientifically uninformed interpretation of an ancient theological paradox a test of orthodoxy in the work of a widely respected Catholic theologian who also happens to take science seriously. As a Catholic, I want the Committee on Doctrine to teach authoritatively. However, given the problematic process that went into shaping the statement, as well as its failure to take evolution seriously, just how much authority can scientifically educated Catholics attribute to it?

Finally, what seems most obviously unjust is the nondialogical character of the process that led to the statement’s harsh accusations. One might assume, of course, that the bishops on the committee were continually involved in the process. If so, why did they not point out the distortions in the statement’s understanding of panentheism? Why did they not ask if there might be more nuanced theological ways of understanding the relationship of God to the world and to suffering? Were other theologians invited to participate in this process? If so, on what points did they perhaps differ from Weinandy’s opinions? Above all, of course, why did the committee not consult Elizabeth Johnson herself, just to make sure the bishops fully understood what they were rejecting. Why was she not invited to clarify her understanding of God before, rather than after, the release of the statement?

Related: Brian Davies's response to this article: Does God Suffer?
Censure or Critique? by Luke Timothy Johnson & Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt
Teilhard and the Question of Life's Suffering, by John F. Haught
Dennis O'Brien's review of Quest for the Living God

From dotCommonweal: Did the Committee on Doctrine Read 'Quest for the Living God'?
It's Not about the Feminism (Except When It Is)
USCCB Helps Boost Theologian's Amazon Ranking

About the Author

John F. Haught, author of God after Evolution and many other books, is a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University.



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Yet another reason to pay less (or no) attention to what the bishops might say. This constant undercutting of their own credibility just continues to reinforce that this is our church as much (maybe more?) than theirs.

It is difficult not to notice the similarity of the USCCB's imposition of arbitrary orthodoxy on a respected theologian and the concurrent disaster of Republican scorn for governance by due process being heaped on the nation in the person of President Obama.

Mustn't we ask ourselves, what in Christ's Name can we do to bring solace to such great fear - there is evidently little or no reasoning with it for it abjures reason itself - along with the very notion of Christianity based in compassion for suffering without regard to any theology of its cause.

Thank you Fr. Haught for the analysis; I hope I can figure out what good to make of it.

Bill Mullins, Kansas City

Just what you would expect in an institution operating solely on dogma, to the exclusion of all else.  At least, modern secular governments prevent the church from torturing and murdering her, as it would have done in the past.

According to Rahner-Vorgrimler, Theological Dictionary, in their definition of 'Communication of Idioms', it is false to say ‘The Logos did not die.’ Why then would it be true to say ‘The Logos did not suffer’?

Last Sunday's Gospel was about the man born blind.  The disciples asked Jesus, "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind."  Jesus answered, "Neither he nor his parents; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him." 

The blind man's suffering was not caused by sin, yet the bishops apparently follow Father Weinandy's assertion that all suffering is caused by sin.  WDJS?  What did Jesus say? 



Déja vu over again! 

What an interesting experience it was to read




less than one week after reading and hearing and meditating on last Sunday’s gospel – The Man Born Blind (John 9:1-41).

I don’t think I am unique in seeing Sister Elizabeth Johnson as one born blind (like all of us) but who now who can see.  She has certainly helped me to see.   I confess that in the Church of the present blindness is a tempting comfort.

Eve Kavanagh

Let me ask a simple question. Is it remotely possible that the bishops' criticism of Elizabeth Johnson's work undergirds an evolving (no pun intended) uneasiness with  (read: disdain for) her writing because she could be considered a feminist theologian? 

I have studied this text in a systematics class for my master's in theology, and found her work refreshing and enlightening, particularly in view of evolution and its relationship to God's presence in the world. Johnson has helped many of my classmates to understand God as, yes, living and working and being in the world. There is something profoundly sacramental about that notion. 

Fr. Haught, thank you for your comments.

I have found Johnson's work, including Quest, not only intellectually stimulating, but also profoundly reverent and "devotional" in the best sense of that word.  This woman clearly loves God---but she loves the LIVING GOD, and not the fossilized idol of the institutional boys' club.  Maybe that's where the bishops' fundamental mistake is:  they don't recognize their dead deity in Johnson's work and so think it's heretical. 

The day I became a Christian feminist was the day a young priest told me that ordination is a form of transubstantiation.  Turned my whole world upside down and the scales finally fell away from my eyes.  I have since been told that this little prig of a man is on the "bishop track."  Is it any wonder that these men cannot properly read and discern truth in a serious work of theology?  The only way I survive in the church is by paying as little attention to them as possible. 

While this is just another tragically insensitive, unnecessary, and soulfully regrettable action by the United States Catholic bishops, I look to the fact that many of the men appointed bishops under the auspices of Cardinal Rigali, have little real theological education much less any liberal arts education of any depth. They have matriculated through closely watched ecclesiastical schools with the substance of their theological education coming from EWTN and Mother Angelica's school of theology.

Their preaching and writing, in general, betrays the fact that they are poorly read and unable to understand the complexities of serious educational study. Their preaching and writing, in general, shows absolutely no familiarity with the texts of the literary classics of the average high school reading list in our American schools and, absolutely, no understanding or appreciation of American poetry.

They are intellectually handicapped and will be recognized as regrettable figures in the history of American Catholicism. The most dreadful dimension of this is that when they are recognized for their limitations, there will be relatively few American Catholics.


While I would agree with Haught and others in the blog that the USCCB should have had an open debate about the book, and sought out Sr. Johnson in its investigation, I remain perplexed by H's counter-punch about the beauty and merits of "Darwin and his followers" for theology.  What is charged, in this charged article, is that W adheres to an older doctrine of divine impassibility, and so will not allow for an evolutionary perspective in theology.  As H states: “The problem, however, is that [W’s] theological program, if applied rigorously, now renders it impossible for Christians who embrace it to take evolution seriously.” W and USCCB, it appears, simply do not understand evolutionary theology, and the novel (and perhaps creative, bold, etc.) doctrine of panentheism which it professes.  What more, the inherent danger in W's and the USCCB's contrary theological program is that they seem “to want to make one debatable, scientifically uninformed interpretation of an ancient theological paradox a test of orthodoxy in the work of a widely respected Catholic theologian who also happens to take science seriously.”

Is “science” informing theology (or not) really at issue here? Is it not the philosophical presuppositions that undergird each position that must be elicited and debated?  To turn this into unscientific v. scientific matter seems farcical considering that the terms and meaning of ‘science’ and ‘Darwinism’ are themselves problematic for both scientists and Darwinists.   Anthony Baker (“Theology and the Crisis of Darwinism”, Modern Theology [2002]) nicely captures this point:

[Theistic evolutionists are] somehow related to the ground-breaking research of Fr. Teilhard de Chardin, generally proceed by means of a theological withdrawal from the natural sciences, allowing the latter to reach conclusions “objectively”, without any metaphysical prejudices. When theology does come on the scene, these writers are careful not to let it violate the space of autonomous science, simply finding room within its limits for a more scientifically savvy version of Christianity (or a baptized Darwinism, some would say). But the problem, of course, is that autonomy and objectivity are not easy to come by in modern science. As will be discussed below, Darwinism in particular is heavy-laden with its own metaphysical assumptions, and a theology that begins by surrendering to it has already rendered itself hopelessly compromised.

Could this attack on W and H’s own position, to use Charles Taylor's (via MacIntyre) phrase, be rather a case of rival, and/or asymmetric, traditions?  H claims’ that J’s book offers “new ways of imaging, thinking, and talking about God”, but at least in terms of evolutionary science they are really “old ways” of talking about God from antiquity and the 18th and 19th centuries.  Moreover, the philosophical presuppositions undergirding the rival traditions Leucippus àEpicurus vs. Plato/Aristotle and their modern votaries cannot be dispatched with a appeal to ‘science’.  In the end, it seems that the adage “two wrongs don’t make a right” applies here.


John Haught provided a very thoughtful response to the statement from the USCCB committee, one I consider more insightful and closer to the truth of what Sister Elizabeth Johnson actually said and meant than the response of the bishops' committee headed up by Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washinton, DC, the ordinary for my dioceses.

I was taught, thanks to How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler, a book a theology professor required us to read in the seminary, that any criticism of what was written by any author could only be made after "coming to terms with the author."  In other words, the reader must fully understand the terms as the terms were used by the author. This is much more than looking up the words in a dictionary.  

Since there was no dialogue with Sister Elizabeth Johnson, then I have to conclude that her critics definitely did not "come to terms with the author."  Therefore, I have concluded that the statement is deficient as an authoritative statement that I should take seriously.  Ordination may give a bishop authority (everyone else must merit respect and authority on a subject or discipline by the quality of their work: physicians, lawyers, teachers, engineers, etc. except for bishops).

We read her Quest for the Living God in our parish book discussion group, in our parish in Washington, DC.  With the exception of one person among the  16-20 who participated, all of us were enriched by her writing.


Just another reason why faith and reason do NOT go together. I am a Biology major and never feel as if any of it is a stumbling block to my faith. I must admit that I agree with Luther that "faith must trample under foot all reason, sense, and understanding." When we try to put reason and faith together we get the problem that was outlined in this article. Evolution is an explanation of how God's world works and faith is evidence of God. Yes, the evidence of God's existence, the incarnation, the Trinity, and the Eucharist is in faith. Science answers how. Faith answers why and who. Reason doesn't explain faith.

thoughtful comments, thank you. PANENTHEISM: a staple of mystics, i.e. Meister Eckhart. Some mention should be made to the current mystic and esteemed Theologian: Matthew Fox. M.F is a rich resource re evolution.

I find it fascinating that Donald Wuerl has time to pile on Elizabeth Johnson. Between being a frequent guest on EWTN, polishing the rungs on his career ladder and trying to out-Dolan our local ordinary, I would think he was too busy.

Are we backing into the Index of Forbidden Books?  I thought that was over and done with. I had the privilege of being at Fordham and being able to take advantage of Beth Johnson's mind and heart -- as well as her gentle sense of humor as a theology graduate student. I hadn't read the book in question; thanks to Amazon, I am about to and I will make up my own mind.

The church I studied was open to discussion, intellectually honest and worthy of respect. It is now reduced to an extension of the Republican right wing.  Indeed, one of his choristers was having a notorious relationship with a prominent politician right under Wuerl's nose. Did he pile on those two or did he smile complacently and soldier on?  Yes, I'm piling on Wuerl. He is a careerist unworthy of the miter.



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