USCCB helps boost theologian's Amazon ranking.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Doctrine has released a statement criticizing [PDF] Sr. Elizabeth A. Johnson's Quest for the Living God (Continuum) for failing "to accord with authentic Catholic teaching on essential points." The twenty-one-page document claims the book doesn't "take the faith of the church as its starting point," that it 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," and that the book "contaminates the traditional Catholic understanding of God" and "completely undermines the gospel."

Johnson, a highly respected feminist theologian (a former professor of mine, and a friend), told the New York Times that the bishops had radically misinterpreted Quest for the Living God. "The book itself endeavors to present new insights about God arising from people living out their Catholic faith in different cultures around the world," she said. "My hope is that any conversation that may be triggered by this statement will enrich that faith." The bishops did not invite her to discuss the book.

In a statement dated March 30, she offered a longer response to the Committee on Doctrine:

It is heartening to see the Bishops Conference give such serious attention to the subject of the living God. I appreciate how this statement acknowledges the laudable nature of the task of crafting a theology of God, and the number of issues on which the statement judges that I am "entirely correct." The book itself endeavors to present new insights about God arising from people living out their Catholic faith in different cultures around the world. My hope is that any conversation that may be triggered by this statement will but enrich that faith, encouraging robust relationship to the Holy Mystery of the living God as the church moves into the future.I would like to express two serious concerns.

First, I would have been glad to enter into conversation to clarify critical points, but was never invited to do so. This book was discussed and finally assessed by the Committee before I knew any discussion had taken place. Second, one result of this absence of dialogue is that in several key instances this statement radically misinterprets what I think, and what I in fact wrote. The conclusions thus drawn paint an incorrect picture of the fundamental line of thought the book develops. A conversation, which I still hope to have, would have very likely avoided these misrepresentations.

That being said, as a scholar I have always taken criticism as a valuable opportunity to delve more deeply into a subject. The task of theology, classically defined as "faith seeking understanding," calls for theologians to wrestle with mystery. The issues are always complex, especially on frontiers where the churchs living tradition is growing. Committed to the faith of the church, I take this statement as an occasion to ponder yet further the mystery of the living God who is ineffable.

Johnson says she won't make any more public comments on the matter.

According to its statement, the Committee on Doctrine chose to respond to this particular book because it is "directed primarily to an audience of nonspecialist readers." While it's true that in the introduction Johnson says she wrote the book with a "broad audience in view," no one who has ever perused the Continuum catalogue would mistake the company for a trade publishing house. Just a few sentences later, after all, Johnson explains that the book is "about the work of theology." Theologians, she writes, "ply their craft by marshaling reasons, laying out arguments, making a case the way a trial lawyer might do, seeking to present an intelligible and convincing scenario."

Regrettably, the Committee on Doctrine's statement largely fails to meet such standards. Rather, relying on too many apparentlys, the document reads as a series of catechetical assertions that inadequately address the questions that animate the book (which I've only just begun reading).

Take, for example, the statement's section on "The Presence of God in Other Religions." In Chapter 8 of Quest, Johnson asks a classic and vexing theological question: Is the fact of religious pluralism part of God's plan? What role do the religions play in the salvation of individuals? She cites John Paul II's Redemptoris missio: God "does not fail to make himself present in many ways, not only to individuals, but also to entire peoples through their spiritual riches, of which their religions are the main and essential expression." Johnson then writes that the answer to that question, "while not definitive, would appear" to suggest that owing to the "presence of the God's own Spirit, people are saved through the practice of their religion, not despite it." That leads the Committee on Doctrine to conclude that Johnson is "setting the stage to argue that the Spirit of God is at work in other religions in the same manner that the spirit is working within Christianity and these other religions are equally salvific." A bizarre criticism, given that in Chapter 8 Johnson writes, "In truth, the crucified and risen Word of God and the church that proclaims God's mercy in him are normative and constitutive for the salvation of all." The committee quotes that sentence, but follows with another: "Still, [Johnson writes,] 'The manifestation of God's presence and activity in the religions cannot be limited to what has been revealed in Jesus Christ and proclaimed by the church.'" And then an assertion: "Sr. Johnson's position on that matter is not in keeping with the Christian understanding of Jesus as the fullness of truth. For the fullness of 'truth,' according to Sr. Johnson's argument, one needs Jesus + Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc. (see pp. 174-79)." I couldn't find any such argument in those pages, or anywhere else in that chapter.

I did find that later in Chapter 8 Johnson discusses John Paul II's 1986 World Day for Peace, held in Assisi. At that event,leaders from many religions said their own prayers to their own Ultimates--together. That occasioned a great deal of criticism--to which John Paul responded in an address to the Roman curia. He called the Assisi gathering a "wonderful manifestation of the unity which binds us together beyond the differences and divisions which are known to all." The pope continued: "We can indeed maintain that every authentic prayer is called forth by the Holy Spirit, who is mysteriously present in the heart of every person." Indeed, according to John Paul, this "mystery of unity" of all peoples is "radical, fundamental, and decisive." Johnson approvingly quotes these passages, which emphasize the mystery of the unity of all peoples--not the notion that all peoples are equally saved in the same way no matter their religious tradition.

Fr. Thomas Weinandy, executive director of the USCCB Secretariat for Doctrine, told the Times, "The primary concern was not over feminism or nonfeminism. The bishops are saying that the book does not adequately treat a Catholic understanding of God." Yet, after knocking Johnson for allegedly wanting to "replace" the presumably masculine names of God found in Scripture with more feminine ones (she's always advocated both--and both are in Scripture), the committee statement reads: "The Spirit of God does not simply repeat what 'she' has revealed in Jesus, otherwise these religions would not be different from Christianity." The scare quotes around "she"--taken from Johnson's citation of Michael Amaladoss, SJ--along with the document's view that Johnson seeks to replace traditional names for God make me wonder whether Johnson's feminism didn't feature more largely in the committee's mind than Weinandy lets on.

The document contains several other questionable claims, but do read the whole thing--or at least the press release. And have a look at Dennis O'Brien's review of Quest for the Living God. If I have anything interesting to say after I finish the book, I'll let you know.

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

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