At LCWR Assembly, Elizabeth Johnson Speaks Her Mind

You may recall, from Grant's coverage on this blog or from the column I wrote in May, that Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, dressed down the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for its decision to present Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, with an award at this year's assembly. The award, Müller said, was an “open provocation against the Holy See,” because Johnson had been criticized by the U.S. bishops for alleged doctrinal errors in her book Quest for the Living God.

As I wrote at the time, Müller's presumption of bad faith on the part of the nuns -- and of correct judgment on the part of the bishops -- did not seem to leave much of an opening for a mutually respectful and collaborative process of reform. After all, as Müller might have known if he'd looked into it, the USCCB's doctrinal committee's indictment of Quest was a pretty shoddy piece of work, one that even contradicted its own claims in its rush to condemn Johnson for "undermin[ing] the Gospel."

Johnson accepted that award on Friday, at the end of the LCWR's annual assembly. For the most part, according to reporters who covered the event, the conflict with the CDF was absent from the group's public talks and deliberations. But in her acceptance speech, Johnson addressed it directly -- deciding, I gather, that since the honor had already been labeled a "provocation," she might as well say what she thought. And did she ever. David Gibson has the full transcript at RNS, and it's excellent: a forthright, clear-eyed, and (in my opinion) very astute analysis of what motivates the hierarchy's suspicion of American sisters and what would be necessary to overcome that tension.

After talking about her vocation as a theologian and expressing gratitude to the women who had encouraged her to pursue it, Johnson turned to the matter on everyone's minds, saying: "It would be disingenuous to ignore the criticism from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith directed at the LCWR for giving me this award. Note that I would not be speaking about this if Cardinal Gerhard Müller had not made his remarks public."

She reminded listeners that the USCCB's condemnation of Quest was vague despite its length: "Yes, Quest was criticized, but to this day no one – not myself, nor the theological community, nor the media, nor the general public – knows what doctrinal issue is at stake." Then she ventures this guess: "It appears to me that a negative reaction to works of theology that think in new terms about burning issues has become almost automatic in some quarters."

She draws a connection between that kind of "institutionalized negativity" and the similarly indistinct criticisms leveled at the LCWR by the CDF, and goes on to propose several frameworks for understanding the situation in which the LCWR finds itself. One is "sociological," referring to the power structure in the church:

The church did not start out this way, but as an institution it has evolved a patriarchal structure where authority is exercised in top-down fashion, and where obedience and loyalty to the system are the greatest virtues. Never before in the history of the church has there been such a cadre of educated women carrying forward the mission of the gospel as is now represented by the LCWR. In this framework the current CDF investigation appears to be an effort by certain ruling men to control committed, competent women whose corporate religious discernment makes them adult believers of conscience, silent and invisible no longer.

(Bishops, take note: this is not "radical feminism.") She then notes how women religious reformed their ministries and lives in response to the call of Vatican II, developing a more collegial form of leadership and moving "away from a cramped ecclesiastical center" -- the one that Pope Francis has so often called "unhealthy." "To my knowledge," she adds, "a similarly vigorous process of post-conciliar renewal has not taken place at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a particular curial office at the center." We're waiting, she suggests, for Francis to take that on; it's the curia, more than the sisters, who should be expecting a challenge from his reforming agenda.

In place of these entrenched patterns, Johnson calls for a framework of "reconciled diversity" -- one in which Rome would approach the sisters as adult collaborators with a legitimately different focus to their ministry.

Finally, Johnson notes, as many others have, that the Vatican's focus on the sisters suggests skewed priorities in a damaged church:

It would be a blessing for the church if [Müller] could find a creative way to bring this investigation to an end in a productive manner. When the needs of the suffering world are so vast; when the moral authority of the hierarchy is hemorrhaging due to financial scandals and to many bishops’ horrific dereliction of duty in covering up sexual abuse of children, a cover-up which continues in some quarters to this day; when thousands are drifting away from the church; when the liberating gospel of God’s abounding kindness needs to be heard and enacted everywhere: the waste of time and energy on this investigation is unconscionable.

Very strong words, and refreshing to hear. I wonder whether Johnson was emboldened by the awareness that this was the last LCWR assembly whose speakers -- and, perhaps, honorees -- would not be vetted by the CDF's representative (at present, Seattle Archbishop Sartain, who attended the assembly "as a brother" and was reportedly warmly welcomed -- though I don't know whether he was there for Johnson's speech). Müller had mentioned Johnson's award as an example of why it would be necessary for the CDF's "Delegate" to approve such decisions in the future -- as "a point of dialogue and discernment," not as a sanction. Or, perhaps she is simply tired of sitting by while others distort her words and misrepresent her positions as a threat to the faith. This speech will doubtless be criticized, by those who share the CDF's institutionalized suspicion of women religious, for demonstrating a lack of humility or obedience. But, bracing as it is, I don't see anything inappropriate about it. In fact, let's consider it a "point of dialogue." Honest and open conversation is a two-way street, and Johnson's attempts to initiate that conversation in private have been rebuffed in the past. So, if it's an "open provocation" the CDF is looking for, I hope they're listening -- this time, listening to what Johnson actually said, instead of just what other people say about it. She couldn't have been more clear.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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