R. R. Reno and Fr. Robert Barron have had it with these songs of praise for Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSJ, who was recently named "person of the year" by the National Catholic Reporter. Why all the fuss? After all, Reno wonders, why should anyone be surprised that that "trade union for dissent" otherwise known as the Catholic Theological Society of America would come to her defense? "Yawn." And how come she's so well regarded, anyway? Why, her theology offers little more than "a bit of simplified Karl Rahner and lots of talk about contextualization mixed with progressive social attitudes." That about sums her up, doesn't it? According to Reno, Johnson's "great achievement"* was having her book Quest for the Living God "criticized by the USCCB doctrine committee as promoting a theology not in accord with Catholic teaching." Is that really person-of-the-year-worthy? "Writing and publishing the book wasnt such a notable thing for Elizabeth Johnson to do," Reno explains. "Ah, but to be criticized! One hears** the cries of 'censorship,' and 'oppression.'" Reno continues: "NCR as well wants to play its supportive role. Thus Elizabeth Johnson as victim, oops, I meant to say person of the year."
Perhaps Fr. Robert Barron had read Reno's January 6 post, because just a few days later he released a video about the persecution of Christians around the globe (cleaned up for Real Clear Religion here) in which he mentions Elizabeth Johnson. After spending five minutes updating viewers on several disturbing incidents of religious persecution, Barron pauses, and makes a confession to his off-screen interlocutor: "This reflection was prompted...by an article I read in the National Cathlolic Reporter.... They chose as their Person of the Year Sr. Elizabeth Johnson.... And she was chosen because she was a persecuted victim."
Or, as the Real Clear Religion version has it:
What was the reason for this designation? Sr. Johnson, they explained, had been unfairly 'persecuted' by the bishops of the United States who dared to question the theological integrity of one of her many books.The bishops did not excommunicate Sr. Johnson, or strip her of her teaching position, or declare her not to be a Catholic theologian. They simply were critical of aspects of one of her books. And for this, a tenured professor at Fordham, a woman lionized by the academic establishment, is declared a persecuted victim. Give me a break.
Isn't it strange that the National Catholic Reporter would name someone Person of the Year simply because she had been persecuted by bishops? And, really, how predictable. How played. Not unlike, say, "the 1970s-era narrative of brave progressive theologian fighting against the repressive church," which, Barron notes, "is tired and utterly unilluminating."
You know what else is unilluminating? Putting words in people's mouths. The editors of NCR did not write that Johnson had been "persecuted." Read their piece. Nor do the editors suggest that Johnson was victimized by the USCCB Committee on Doctrine. Rather, the editors highlight her exemplary response to the bishops' critique, and they lament the lack of dialogue between the two -- dialogue Johnson first invited, a cardinal took credit for, and which was finally rejected by the committee. And is there any question that the editors or Johnson would fail to acknowledge that, however difficult it was to be unfairly criticized by bishops, it could never compare to suffering persecution for one's religious beliefs? As Barron would say, give me a break.
And you know what else is tired? Pretending that critics of the Committee on Doctrine were bothered by the fact of the bishops' critique rather than its content. It would be easier to dismiss the bishops' critics if their position amounted to little more than "leave theologians alone." But no serious critic complained that bishops criticized Johnson. It was the quality of their critique that many found wanting. Indeed, some writers noted that the bishops' actions provided an opportunity for an enlightening theological exchange, something that could prove useful in the classroom. Instead, the bishops barely engaged Johnson's long reply to their critique, preferring instead to restate their earlier conclusions, some of which seem impossible to reach unless they failed to read the book. The controversy was never about bishops "censoring" or "oppressing" anyone. It was about a lost opportunity. But perhaps that's the sort of predictable outcome that puts R. R. Reno to sleep.
* Where "great achievement" does not refer to the fact that Johnson served as the president of the American Theological Society and the Catholic Theological Society of America. Nor does it refer to the latter body's decision to give her the John Courtney Murray Award. Nor does it refer the fact she was the fourth person to receive the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for religion -- for her second book, She Who Is, which has been translated into six European and Asian languages. Nor does it refer to Friends of God and Prophets which won the American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion, Constructive Category in 1999. Nor does it refer to her fourteen honorary doctorates. Nor does it refer to her having received the Marianist Award (Dayton University, 2009), the Sophia Award (Washington Theological Union, 2009), the Myser Award for Promoting Catholic Unity (College of St. Catherine, 2008), the Yves Congar Award in Theology, (Barry University, 2008), the Jerome Award, (Catholic Library Association, 2004), Monika Hellwig Award for Promoting the Intellectual Life of Catholics (Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, 2006), Elizabeth Seton Medal in Theology, (Mount St. Joseph College, 2000), the Woman of Wisdom Award (College of St. Catherine, 2003), the Loyola Mellon Award in the Humanities (Loyola University Chicago, 2000), or the University Medal (Siena Heights University, 1999), among others.
** Where "hears" means "does not hear."