Elizabeth Johnson honored by women theologians

This story appears in the CTSA 2016 feature series. View the full series.

by Heidi Schlumpf

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Editor's note: NCR is reporting on the ground at this year's Catholic Theological Society of America conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Keep checking our feature series page CTSA 2016 for our coverage.

Feminist theologian St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson challenged fellow theologians “to do something,” echoing the words of the namesake of the award she received June 9 for her ministry on behalf of women. The award was presented at the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Johnson told the story of how in 1995 theologian Ann O’Hara Graff urged Johnson, then-president of CTSA, to respond to the Vatican’s assertion that the prohibition against women’s ordination was infallible. The CTSA eventually approved a statement challenging that assertion. Johnson called O’Hara Graff’s persistence her “last gift to the church and to women.”

O’Hara Graff died in 1996. Johnson, professor of theology at Fordham University and the author of “She Who Is” and other influential books, is the 20th recipient of the memorial award named for O’Hara Graff. 

In presenting the award, speakers noted that honoring Johnson was "long overdue." Johnson was the sixth woman to receive the organization’s John Courtney Murray Award, and the fifth woman to serve as CTSA president.*

Johnson was recognized for “her clear and courageous voice,” according to the award’s citation. 

She was called “an exemplary woman of faith and woman religious for our time” by Christine Firer Hinze, who works with Johnson at Fordham. “As an authoritative professor, she has the courage to profess,” said Hinze, director of the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies.

Friend and fellow theologian Mary Catherine Hilkert, OP, of the University of Note Dame, noted that even as a student Johnson was a pioneer. In addition, Johnson helped created the CTSA’s Women’s Consultation seminar at which the award is given. Yet, Johnson’s “work has not always been celebrated,” Hilkert said, referring to the U.S. bishops’ public rebuke of her book, “Quest for the Living God” in 2011.

“Is it possible for us to overestimate her grace in the of the face of the ecclesial violence that was thrown her way?” asked Natalie Imperatori-Lee of Manhattan College, a former student of Johnson’s.

Another former student, Julia Brumbaugh, now of Regis University in Denver, recalled Johnson’s insistence to “keep doing theology,” especially when the stakes are high. Johnson believes “the work matters because God matters,” Brumbaugh said. “Thank you for your fierce and holy faith in the Living God.”

*This story has been updated to clarify a sentence and add information.

Editor's note: Heidi Schlumpf has written a book about Johnson titled Elizabeth Johnson: Questing for God.

[Heidi Schlumpf teaches communications at Aurora University, outside Chicago.]

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