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.

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

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