Bishops say feminist theologian should have sought dialogue before publishing

By Benjamin Mann

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Fr. Thomas Weinandy and Sr. Elizabeth Johnson

The U.S. bishops' doctrine committee has responded to concerns about their treatment of the feminist theologian Sister Elizabeth Johnson, pointing out that the “dialogue” she now wishes to have with the bishops should have taken place before the publication of her 2007 book “Quest for the Living God.”

On April 8, members of the Catholic Theological Society of America criticized the doctrine committee for its decision to raise objections to Sr. Johnson's book in a public statement. According to the society, the doctrine committee should have had an “informal conversation” with Sr. Johnson first. The author has also complained that she was “never invited” to “clarify critical points” with the committee.

But Father Thomas Weinandy, executive director of the doctrinal board, said that committee chairman Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl would have preferred to speak with Sr. Johnson before the publication of her widely-read book. “Cardinal Wuerl said that if a dialogue should be taking place, it should be before the publication of the book – not after,” recalled Fr. Weinandy.

The doctrine committee's executive director said that if theologians were concerned about the bishops' judgment of their ideas, they should have approached the committee with areas of possible concern prior to publication. He indicated that Sr. Johnson could have sought such a dialogue, but chose not to do so.

In light of that choice, he said, it was not reasonable to expect the bishops to restrict themselves to private discussion about a book that had already reached a large audience. “Otherwise, the bishops are always trying to play catch-up,” Fr. Weinandy said. “They're never given a chance to actually comment on something before it's published.”

Sr. Johnson's book “was already published, and being widely used,” Fr. Weinandy explained. “They felt obliged to make a statement, lest the teachers and the students who read this book think that what is being presented here is Catholic doctrine.” Several bishops had requested that the doctrine committee review the book, which has become a popular text in some Catholic universities' theology courses.

“So, the doctrine committee undertook a review of the book, and judged that the methodology, conclusions, and arguments in the book were not in accord with Catholic teaching.”

Several members of the Catholic Theological Society of America have expressed concern that Sr. Johnson might not have been treated according to the guidelines of a 1989 document entitled “Doctrinal Responsibilities.” It says that “informal conversation ought to be the first step” in cases of “misunderstandings about the teaching of the gospel and the ways of expressing it.”

According to Fr. Weinandy, however, that document was meant to suggest means of resolving a dispute between individual bishops and theologians teaching at the local level. He explained that the guidelines in “Doctrinal Responsibilities” were never meant to address the case of a bestselling book presenting misinterpretations of Catholic teaching to readers in dioceses around the world.

“If you read that document, it's obvious that what the bishops were concerned about at that time was the relationship between the diocesan bishop, and a theologian or theologians who were within his diocese. These were guidelines that were offered for the bishop of a diocese and theologians to follow, if and when there were misunderstandings or disagreement on theological issues.”

“The document itself says that it is not legally binding upon bishops or theologians,” he noted. Rather, it offers a “possible way of proceeding” for local bishops, and is “not relevant to the committee on doctrine.”

The committee reserves the right to review and comment upon questionable theological works, on behalf of the U.S. bishops. However, Fr. Weinandy pointed out that the committee has no disciplinary authority over Sr. Johnson, or any other theologian.

For this reason, he explained, concerns about the committee wanting to “punish” Sr. Johnson, or “make an example of her,” are misguided.

“The doctrine committee has no authority of its own, by which to discipline anybody,” Fr. Weinandy stated. “The committee can say, 'This book is not in accord with Catholic theology,' but it has no authority to say the book cannot be used in Catholic theology courses. It recommends that the book should not be used, but it has no authority to say that it can't be.”

“Nor does it have the authority to discipline Elizabeth Johnson, or any other theologian” – a decision that would have to come from her local bishop, or from the Vatican.

In response to Sr. Johnson's claim that the bishops' statement “radically misinterprets” her approach to theology, Fr. Weinandy said the members of the doctrine committee sought to be fair and accurate in their judgment. He gave Sr. Johnson credit for attempting an important task of cultural and historical analysis, even as he regarded her attempt as a failure by the standards of Catholic theology.

“She was trying to write a book in which she expressed and examined different notions of God within different settings – the notion of God in light of the Holocaust, or within popular piety, or within Latino culture. There's nothing wrong with doing that. It's a noble task, and it can be very fruitful.”

“But what you can't do, in doing that sort of thing, is to come up with notions of God that are not compatible with the doctrinal tradition and teaching of the Church.”

Sr. Johnson's error, the committee concluded, was basically twofold.

“First, the bishops were convinced that Sr. Johnson did not start off by accepting, in faith, the scriptural revelation as it has been understood and professed by the Catholic Church,”  Fr. Weinandy explained.

“She didn't start off with what the Church actually professes, as the foundation of what she was going to say within the book.” To begin from a different starting point, he said, was to engage in something other than Catholic theology.

“Secondly, she has her own understanding of God as an incomprehensible mystery. It's true that God is an incomprehensible mystery – but you can't draw the conclusion, as she does, that all language therefore is metaphorical or symbolic, so that no statement of God bears within it any literal truth. That's where she gets into trouble.”

“We know what the mystery is. We know that God is a Trinity of Persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We can't comprehend that mystery, but we know what the mystery is.”

Ultimately, Fr. Weinandy noted, Sr. Johnson's overemphasis on God's incomprehensibility does not serve to enrich the religious experience of believers. Rather, he said, it turns them away from God's act of self-revelation.

“What you end up denying,” he said, “is that God can reveal to us, something that is true about himself.”

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