Johnson's book undermines the gospel, bishops say

by Dennis Coday

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The U.S. bishops' committee on doctrine has condemned Sr. Elizbeth Johnson's book Quest for the Living God in a statement released this afternoon.

NCR's John Allen has the story: U.S. bishops blast book by feminist theologian

Here's the press release from the bishops' office with links to to the full statement and introductory remarks by Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, who chairs the committee.



Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s Quest for the Living God distorts Catholic concept of God
Book does not recognize divine revelation as the standard for Catholic theology
Differs from authentic Catholic teaching on essential points

WASHINGTON — The U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine authorized a statement March 24, critiquing Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, a book by a Fordham University Professor, Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood, New York.

In the statement, the Committee asserts that the “basic problem with Quest for the Living God as a work of Catholic theology is that the book does not take the faith of the Church as its starting point. Instead, the author employs 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.”

The statement notes that Sister Johnson attempts to justify her revisions of traditional Catholic theology by arguing that this tradition has become contaminated by ideas from Enlightenment thinkers, who are responsible for the conception of God in what she calls “modern theism.”

“Against the contamination of Christian theology after the Enlightenmentby modern theism, Sr. Johnson claims to be retrieving fundamental insights from patristic and medieval theology. As we have seen, however, this is misleading, since under the guise of criticizing modern theism she criticizes crucial aspects of patristic and medieval theology, aspects that have become central elements of the Catholic theological tradition confirmed by magisterial teaching,”the statement says.

The Committee contrasts Sister Johnson's assertion that the Church's names for God are metaphors that do not apply to the reality of God with the traditional Catholic understanding. The Church teaches, based on patristic and medieval theology, that certain names truly apply to God by analogy and are not merely metaphors.

“While Sr. Johnson is well within the Catholic theological tradition when she maintains that human language is never adequate to express the reality of God, she departs from that tradition when she makes the more radical claim that human language does not attain to the reality of God,”the statement says.

The Committee also criticizes her characterization of the Church's names for God as humanly-constructed metaphors that can be replaced by novel human constructions that are intended to help transform society in a positive way by promoting the socio-political status of women.

“What is lacking in the whole of this discussion is any sense of the essential centrality of divine revelation as the basis of Christian theology,” the statement says. “The names of God found in the Scriptures are not mere human creations that can be replaced by others that we may find more suitable according to our own human judgment. The standard by which all theological assertions must be judged is that provided by divine revelation, not by unaided human understanding."

The committee issued the statement because of the book's unacceptable departures from the Catholic theological tradition and "the fact that the book is directed primarily to an audience of non-specialist readers and is being used as a textbook for study of the doctrine of God."

”For these reasons …the Committee on Doctrine finds itself obligated to state publicly that the doctrine of God presented in Quest for the Living God does not accord with authentic Catholic teaching on essential points,”the statement says. The full statement is available online at

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington offered introductory remarks on the committee’s action, March 30, when the statement became public and referred to a canon law concerning use of the imprimatur.

“The Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine is first and foremost concerned about the spiritual welfare of those students using this book who may be led to assume that its content is authentic Catholic teaching,” he said. “Although an imprimatur is not required for all books that treat Sacred Scripture and theology, it is still a recommended practice (see c. 827 §3). By seeking an imprimatur, the author has the opportunity to engage in dialogue with the bishop concerning the Catholic teaching expressed in the book. Thus, clarifications concerning the text can be made prior to its publication. It would have been helpful if Sister Elizabeth Johnson had taken advantage of this opportunity.”

He added that “The Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine is always open to dialogue with theologians and would welcome an opportunity to discuss Sister Elizabeth’s writings with her.”

Cardinal Wuerl’s introductory remarks are available online at

Quest for the Living God is copyrighted 2007 and published by Continuum. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Doctrine includes Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, chairman; Bishop Leonard P. Blair of Toledo, Ohio; Archbishop Daniel Buechlein, O.S.B., of Indianapolis; Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles; Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut; Bishop Robert McManus of Worcester, Massachusetts; Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana; Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson, New Jersey; and Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit.

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