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Catholic Bishops Censure Feminist Theologian’s Book

WASHINGTON (RNS) The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops condemned a book by Sister Elizabeth Johnson, a prominent feminist theologian, charging that her attempts to forge new understandings of God depart from traditional Catholic theology.

The bishops’ Committee on Doctrine on Wednesday (March 30) said Johnson’s 2007 book, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, could be dangerous for the “broad audience” it seeks to reach.

The book came under scrutiny after several bishops relayed concerns about its contents.

The bishops said the book’s “basic problem” is that it 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” as taught by the church.


As a result, the book “does not accord with authentic Catholic teaching on essential points” including the names of God and the Trinity, the bishops said.

Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who chairs the doctrine committee, expressed concern that Johnson’s book would be used as a textbook and students “may be led to assume that its content is authentic Catholic teaching” and could thus endanger readers’ “spiritual welfare.”

Last year, the bishops blasted two professors at Creighton University for a “radical departure” from church teaching in their book on sexuality. In 2007, the bishops rebuked a Georgetown University theologian for his book on the uniqueness of Christianity.


Johnson, a theologian at Fordham University and former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, expressed two concerns of her own in a statement released Wednesday.

Johnson said that she was not invited to discuss her book with bishops, and that the committee misinterpreted her views.

Wuerl said Johnson should have sought an imprimatur — or a bishop’s stamp of approval — to ensure the book did not run afoul of church teaching.

Johnson appeared unbowed by the criticism from the bishops.

“The task of theology, classically defined as `faith seeking understanding,’ calls for theologians to wrestle with mystery,” she said. “The issues are always complex, especially on frontiers where the
church’s living tradition is growing.”

– RICHARD YEAKLEY, Religion News Service

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment pagansister

    Doesn’t take much to shake up the old Bishop boys club, huh? They are so darn scared of losing “control”. All the censuring will do is make folks want to buy it. In the “old” days, when the RCC decided what movies their flocks could see, I expect many went to see just the ones that were “bad”. I would think that bishops would have something else to worry about—priests that can’t behave with children for instance?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment EssEm

    I have had run-in’s with bishops myself, so I am not an uncritical supporter of the men in mitres. But I read the report they published. They have read the book. Carefully. And explained clearly why they have a problem with it. That’s a big part of their job, btw.

    Their fundamental critique is that the book makes ALL words for God metaphors and only metaphors. Catholic theology has given many centuries of reflection to the dynamic of knowing and ignorance in regard to the Divine. A big difference exists between metaphors and analogies. Serious Catholic talk about God is analogical.

    What’s the issue? Metaphors and analogies are very different ways of ascribing both similarity and difference. St Thomas figured that out clearly quite a long time ago in his Summa contra Gentiles. To simplify, a metaphor may be both affirmed and denied without contradiction. “God is my rock”. Yes, and no. In analogy, while there is difference, the similarity is so great that it cannot be both affirmed and denied without contradiction. “God is eternal.” It may not be a perfect statement, but it can’t be wrong and still be right. Yes only. No yes and no.

    By making all God-language only metaphorical, Sister makes it all basically contentless. She may be agnostic about God-language, but she seems very clear about what a desirable world would look like. What drives the theological agenda then is her social agenda.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Tim

    How is “God is eternal” an analogy?

    The US bishops, and the RCC, are irrelevant. Official Catholic doctrine — who cares? I welcome Johnson’s work, and I can decide for myself whether it advances or impedes my relationship with God. Anyone’s “official doctrine” will always define a too-small understanding of God. Yet the bishops worry that students will go astray if exposed to anything but “authentic Catholic teaching.” Dangerous my ass. The only danger is silencing voices like Johnson’s. Students of theology should be smart enough to make up their own minds. The best theology professor I had in seminary was a Jesuit whom the church has repeatedly tried to censor. Thank God (however metaphorically or analogically we understand God) that they have not succeeded.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment BR

    The headline for this article is very misleading. I have read the letter by the Catholic bishops, and their criticisms of the book have NOTHING to do with the author’s feminist point of view. I take the innuendo as an indication of the arrogance, hostility and ignorance of the author (or perhaps editor) of this piece.

    The fundamental problem with Sr. Elizabeth’s book is simply that it’s conception of God is incoherent and logically flawed, and as a result, not a good book to introduce students to Catholic theology. The major flaw is not that the author’s view comes from a feminist perspective — far from it, many Catholic theologians today can speak an authentically feminist and pro-Catholic voice at the same time. Rather, the problem is that the Sister has essentially made the claim that God is unknowable, and that essentially, as a result, all religions are virtually the same. This kind of modernist reading of theology is a gross distortion of the tradition, and does a disservice to the real, and important theological and also cultural differences between varied faiths. It does more harm than good, even though I am sure Sr. Elizabeth has good intentions. But you know what they say about those good intentions…

    As the Bishops point out, God is not unknowable. God is incomprensible, yes, but not unknowable. Sr. Elizabeth’s error is in not understanding the difference.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Paul Kelly

    This is not much of a surprise: the overseers are chosen not for intellectual capacity or honest questioning and study. They are chosen simply to be enforcers of an agenda dictated by (sadly) ignorant old men who are fearful of change and the smell of fresh air. The Wikileaked documents about the papal coverup of the abusers of youth speaks infallibly about the real agenda of JP2 and B16. To better understand the underlying dynamic of Catholic witch hunts, all one has to do is look at the “credentials” of the local ordinaries involved. A good case in point is that of Roger Haight, a brilliant and caring theologian slandered by a dim and self-serving hierarchy and left to twist in the wind by his “community”. The treatment of Charles Curran is yet another example of the sad state of affairs when a cult of papal personality takes the place of faith in God.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment pagansister

    Like I mentioned above—the old dudes are afraid of losing control over their flocks. It’s their job? They don’t like those that bring light into a closed mind—theirs.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Henrietta22

    I haven’t read the book. I haven’t read the Bishop’s evaluation with it. I don’t know the Sister. Here is what I think, they shouldn’t be distressed by this authors words which are “seeking God”. Nobody let alone a practising Catholic would make the mistake of thinking it was something new and accepted by the Pope. She could have a page in the forward that states “These are not the words of the traditional Catholic Church, they are mine alone”. As a writer is she in prison in her religion so she can’t say anything else but what the formal Catholic Church says? I don’t think so. She is being creative and who she is.

  • Pingback: Cleaning the Catholic House of Dissent « The Revealer

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Edward J Baker

    The shallowness of those, without a sense of irony, who mock the Bishops illustrates the Bishop’s point. These mockers are right about one thing however, the Bishops are worried about the young being badly influenced. What decent person wouldn’t be worried by agendas that insist that suffocating a baby that had the gall to survive an abortion attempt can not be viewed as objectively wrong.

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