Authoritarian church leaders, when they are either ignorant or simply short-sighted, often respond to theological observations they don’t comprehend by issuing speedy condemnations.
A few days ago, Gerhard Mueller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, did just that when he reprimanded representatives of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, for giving an “Outstanding Leadership Award” to Elizabeth A. Johnson.
Johnson is an eminent contemporary theologian, deeply rooted in our Catholic tradition. Mueller argued that due to “the gravity of the doctrinal errors” in her writings, LCWR’s award to Johnson was an “open provocation against the Holy See.” Quite a statement and more than a bit of overblown rhetoric. The CDF condemnation becomes even more puzzling when one realizes that, true to a pattern established a few centuries, the CDF has again condemned without indicating what has been condemned. An old bullying tactic.
Our USCCB Committee on Doctrine has also strongly criticized Johnson for her “errors” and “ambiguities.” Some members of that committee, I suspect, could use refresher courses in New Testament exegesis and historical theology.
I have read all of Elizabeth Johnson’s books and have never read anything that undermines our Christian tradition; and frankly I have a pretty good reputation for being an objective historical theologian. If an author seems to stray from our tradition in a “grave” way, I have no problem expressing my concern or alarm. (And there are indeed contemporary theological authors on the left and on the right of center who depart from authentic Christian belief.)
Two of Elizabeth Johnson’s books that I very much like (and strongly recommend) are: She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (1991) and Quest for the Living God (2007.)
She Who is was a well-developed attempt to integrate feminist categories such as women’s experience and emancipation into classical Catholic theology. (When this book came out thirteen years ago, one of my U.S. bishop friends — who never even bothered to read the dust-jacket — denounced Elizabeth Johnson and her book, cynically yelling “why can’t she acknowledge that God is our Father?” I responded with a friendly chuckle, “why can’t you acknowledge that all God-talk is analogical and perhaps many of our sisters and brothers in the faith relate better to God as a loving mother than a judgmental father.”)
Guest for the Living God is a masterpiece. I used it last autumn in an adult faith discussion group and will do that again this coming autumn. Johnson understands so very well that people of faith are seeking God, the Divine, not in abstract medieval doctrines but in sincere and deep reflection on our everyday experiences, struggles, and hopes. Her chapter headings say it well:
• Gracious Mystery, Ever Greater, Ever Nearer
• The Crucified God of Compassion
• Liberating God of Life
• God Acting Womanish
• God Who Breaks Chains
• Accompanying God of Fiesta
• Generous God of the Religions
• Creator Spirit in the Evolving World
• Trinity: The Living God of Love
Elizabeth A. Johnson is Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University.
And Gerhard Mueller? I am sure he is a fine fellow, like my bishop friend. These ecclesiastical authorities must learn, however, that theological exploration is the responsibility of ALL in the church. And we only make progress in our quests for the Living God when our conversations are mutually respectful, and open, and honest: without secretive hidden agendas.
Now go buy a copy of Johnson’s book………and organize your own adult faith discussion group!