Elizabeth Johnson responds to the Committee on Doctrine.

NCR has obtained a copy of Johnson's 38-page replyto the USCCB Committee on Doctrine, whose statement [.pdf] on her Quest for the Living God claimed the book contaminates the traditional Catholic understanding of God and completely undermines the gospel. (We have a copy too [.pdf].) And you can find our posts on the dispute here.) Johnson sent the text to committee members, and executive director Fr. Thomas Weinandy, on June 1. Hope she included a copy of the book.

As I've written before, I think the Committee on Doctrine seriously misread Quest for the Living God. Riddled with errors and distortions, the bishops' statement never should have gotten out of committee. It's a shame that the USCCB Administrative Committee, chaired by the president of the conference, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, voted to publish the statement rather then send it back for revision.

Johnson herself offers a nice summary of the committee's errors:

Given these initial misreadings, what follows was almost bound to miss the mark. Ideas are taken out of context and twisted to mean what they patently do not mean. Sentences are run to a conclusion far from what I think or the text says. False dilemmas are composed. Numerous omissions, distortions, and outright misstatements of fact riddle the reading. As a work of theology, Quest for the Living God was thoroughly misunderstood and consistently misrepresented in the committees statement. As a result, the statements judgment that Quest does not cohere with Catholic teaching is less than compelling. It hangs in the air, untethered by the text of the book itself.

Johnson begins by noting that the Committee on Doctrine seems to misunderstand what Quest for the Living God is--namely, a work of theology, not catechesis. "Theological research does not simply reiterate received doctrinal formulas but probes and interprets them in order to deepen understanding. To do this well, theology throughout history has articulated faith in different thought forms, images, and linguistic expressions. Its work employs all manner of methods and ideas taken from other disciplines in order to shed light on the meaning of faith." Johnson goes to the obvious example, Aquinas, and leans on John Paul II to drive home the point:

Just as Aristotelian philosophy, through the ministry of such great scholars as Thomas Aquinas, ultimately came to shape some of the most profound expressions of theologicaldoctrine, so can we not hope that the sciences of today, along with all forms of human knowing, may invigorate and inform those parts of the theological enterprise that bear on the relation of nature, humanity, and God? (John Paul's Message to the Vatican Observatory, 1988)

As Johnson points out, the idea is not for theology to uncritically accept all ideas from another discipline. But rather that good theology will "engage with the world; dialogue critically with all forms of human knowing; bring that wisdom to bear on faith; invigorate understanding of the relation of humanity and God; bring out new possibilities in Christian expression of the revelation God has given; for the common good of all."

That last bit may blow committee members' minds, given that their statement alleges that Quest lacks "any sense of the essential centrality of divine revelation as the basis of Christian theology." More emphatically, Johnson writes that her book "does not deny, either explicitly or implicitly, any central doctrine of the church derived from Scripture and creed." Rather, as anyone who's read the book knows, Quest attempts to show how contemporary believers are "seeking to express the ancient wisdom with new relevance." That is, as Johnson points out, precisely what John XXIII had in mind when he opened Vatican II by calling for the council fathers to formulate doctrine in the literary forms of modern thought, because "the substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another."

That's a strong point, and it makes the committee's response to Quest look even worse. So does the next move Johnson makes, which is to point out that the sense of the faithful has a crucial role to play in the teaching of the church. She cites the post-Nicene controversy--covered by Cardinal Newman in On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine--when the lay faithful continued to hold to the divinity of Jesus, while many bishops slid back into Arianism. Newman finds that example "as striking an instance as I could take...that the voice of tradition may in certain cases express itself, not by councils, nor fathers, nor bishops but the communis fidelium sensus." Of course, Johnson isn't saying that the church faces a similar crisis today. Rather, she writes, the "point is that Newman's understanding underscores the legitimacy, with all due critical discernment, of consulting the faithful in matters of the doctrine of God."

That is precisely what Quest for the Living God tries to do. More thoughts later, but for now, do read the entire document here. (In case you missed them, have a look at Luke Timothy Johnson's and F. C. Bauerschmidt's takes on l'affaire Johnson [subscribers only].)

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

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