In a thirteen-page letter [PDF], Cardinal Donald Wuerl, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Doctrine, explains his committee's rationale for taking on Elizabeth A. Johnson's Quest for the Living God (blogged abouthere,here, andhere). The wide-ranging letter--while acknowledging the theologian's "legitimate vocation"--re-emphasizes bishops' authority to teach, govern, and sanctify, comparing their role to that of a referee--"it's not the player who calls the ball out of bounds," Wuerl writes, "but the referee." (Mollie takes up that analogy below.)It's a strange document. The letter is addressed to "brother bishops," but it's framed as a response to Catholic Theological Society of America board members, who issued a statement criticizing the doctrinal committee's review of Johnson's book. The CTSA board, according to Wuerl, "seems to misread the legitimate and apostolic role of bishops in addressing the right relationship of theologians and bishops." The cardinal doesn't provide evidence for that claim. Read the CTSAstatement. It explicitly recognizes the "distinct vocations of the theologian and the magisterium."Why, then, does Wuerl spend several pages reminding the bishops of the scriptural and traditional grounding of their office? That is not in dispute. What remains to be seen is why the Committee on Doctrine issued a document that so badly misreads the work of a prominent theologian without bothering to ask whether they read her right.As the CTSA boardpoints out, the bishops of the Committee on Doctrine failed to follow their own guidelines for handling disputes between theologians and bishops, as set forth inDoctrinal Responsibilities (1989). That document--overwhelmingly approved by the bishops conference--held that when such conflicts arise, "informal conversation ought to be the first step towards resolution." Of course, as Wuerl points out, the bishops weren't required to contact Johnson before condemning her book because the guidelines inDoctrinal Responsibilities are not "obligatory." Besides, "the statement makes clear that these suggested guidelines 'can only serve if they are adapted to the particular conditions of a diocese, its history, and its special needs.'" I don't know what that means or how the cardinal thinks it applies here."Our understanding of the not limited to the explicit teaching and preaching of the bishop," Cardinal Wuerl writes. "The bishop and the theologian have a special relationship that can and should be reciprocally enriching." He affirms theologians' "legitimate autonomy" while emphasizing that their work must be carried out "presuming" the "received faith of the church." A bishop's job is to set the "boundaries of the authentic faith." Sure, there will be times when the "legitimate academic freedom of Catholic theologians" leads to apparent conflict with pastoral obligations of the bishop.

Nevertheless, when good will is present on both sides, when both are committed to the truth revealed in Jesus Christ, their relationship can be one of profound communion as together they seek to explore new implications of the deposit of faith.The church, therefore, encourages a respectful dialogue between and among bishops.

Undeniably wise. Yet, reading the Committee on Doctrine's statement on Quest for the Living God, which accuses the book of "completely" undermining the gospel and the faith of those who believe it, I can't help wondering: where was the good will? Lost in the rush of composing and approving a response to a four-year-old book? When the Committee on Doctrine misrepresents important aspects a distinguished theologian's work, why would other theologians submit their work for an imprimatur? (Never mind that imprimaturs are handled locally, not by a USCCB committee.)Cardinal Wuerl writes that his committee "does not wish to stifle legitimate theological reflection or to preclude further dialogue, but it does want to ensure that the authentic teaching of the clearly stated and affirmed." That's reassuring--and who would deny that a bishop's job includes clearly affirming church teaching? But couldn't the doctrinal committee have carried out its task more carefully--by, say, not ascribing to Johnson views she does not hold?Cardinal Wuerl concludes by expressing his committee's hope "that the discussion generated by its statement will help lead to renewal and foster a proper and fruitful relationship between the bishops and the whole theological community." Regrettably, I doubt this discussion will have such a happy ending. Doubling down on a bad bet rarely does.

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

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