Johnson flap has its pluses

Our coverage lately has contained a lot about theology, with coverage of the College Theology Society and the Catholic Theological Society of America. And, of course, related to this is an update on the Elizabeth Johnson saga.

By now you have heard it time and again: The U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, after quietly (secretly?) studying Johnson’s book Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, found it not in keeping with “authentic” Catholic dogma. The committee went public with its finding last March.

It was almost immediately behind the eight ball after it admitted that during the course of its one-year study it never notified Johnson or allowed her to explain or defend the book. The best the committee has been able to say in its defense has been that the 2007 book had been out for three years when it took up the examination and so it felt rushed, and didn’t feel it had the time to speak with Johnson. During 12 months?

Johnson this month replied to the bishops’ scalding critique with a 38-page defense. In it she argues her book is faithful to Catholic teaching, that she works out of Vatican II theological directives, and, had the bishops engaged her in discussions, she could have helped them avoid serious misunderstandings of her book. She makes a strong case.

Admitting up front to a desire to make lemonade when handed lemons, or to find some light in darkness, we note that the public discussion between the doctrine committee and Johnson about her book, misrepresentations aside, highlights different theological perspectives within the church.

Religious educators might want to consider forming seminars that use as the syllabus Quest for the Living God, the doctrine committee’s findings and Johnson’s response. Additionally, we report in this issue that the doctrine committee will respond to Johnson’s response within a few months. It’s unlikely you will find a more concise contemporary layout of unresolved Catholic theological issues than in these back-and-forth papers.

Johnson clearly comes out of Second Vatican Council theology. The doctrine committee, in our opinion, appears to dismiss 50 years of theological tradition. Important aspects of post-Vatican II theology are under attack by the committee, and these attacks appear part of a broader effort by today’s hierarchy to rein in the council’s impact on our church. Theological debates might appear abstract and heady to some. But over time theologies change the way we view our faith, act as Catholics, and operate in the world.

Johnson makes these points in her defense to the committee. She uses the example of the late Jesuit Fr. John Courtney Murray, whose theological writings on the dignity of the human person and individual conscience helped shape the Vatican II Declaration on Religious Freedom. That document shifted centuries of Catholic thought.

Another example she offers is the way insights in liberation theology shaped the contemporary church. Writes Johnson: “Seldom has an insight moved so quickly from the faith of the people to theology to church teaching as has the idea of God’s preferential option for the poor, now present in magisterial documents as a challenge to the church’s own practice.” Liberation theology, of course, is one of the theologies presented in Quest for the Living God.

Yes, theology does matter. St. Anselm once defined theology as “faith seeking understanding.” This is the work of our theologians today, and we commend them for it.

More NCR coverage of Sr. Elizabeth Johnson's Quest for the Living God:

Coverage of the CTS and CTSA gatherings:

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