WASHINGTON – The nine members of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine have reaffirmed their concerns that a 2007 book by Fordham University theologian Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson is “seriously inadequate as a presentation of the Catholic understanding of God.”
In an 11-page response to Sister Elizabeth’s extensive June 1 defense of her 2007 book, “Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God,” the bishops said her explanation did nothing to change their minds. Sister Elizabeth said then that the bishops misunderstood and misrepresented the book’s main points.
The committee, chaired by Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, said that Sister Elizabeth’s response to their original critique of March 24 had “not in fact demonstrated that the committee has misunderstood or misrepresented the book.”
Sister Elizabeth, professor of systematic theology at Fordham and a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, was on sabbatical, but issued a statement in response early Oct. 28.
She said she read the committee’s statement with “sadness.” She also said she was “disappointed” in the way the committee addressed its response, pointing to the process the bishops undertook, the content of their message and the result of their findings.
“I want to make it absolutely clear that nothing in this book dissents from the church’s faith about God revealed in Jesus Christ through the Spirit,” she said.
The bishops noted in their statement that Sister Elizabeth explained in her response that her book expresses the Catholic faith “in different words but with the same meaning.”
While commending Sister Elizabeth “for her stated intention to help the church progress in her understanding of divine realities,” the bishops go on to say that the book “fails to fulfill this task because it does not sufficiently ground itself in the Catholic theological tradition as its starting point.”
The statement added that “multiple readings of the words themselves point at least to serious ambiguity in the book.”
“When it examined the particular points at issue, the Committee on Doctrine was confirmed in its judgment that these ‘different words’ do not in fact adequately express the faith of the church,” the bishops said.
“Just as in its March statement, however, the committee finds itself coming to the same conclusion, that although ‘the book at times displays an engagement with the Catholic theological tradition and remains in continuity with it, it also departs from that tradition at a number of crucial junctures,’ and that ‘the doctrine of God presented … does not accord with authentic Catholic teaching on essential points,’“ the bishops added.
The bishops reiterated that the book is a “particular pastoral concern” because it is written for a broad audience rather than for scholars and has become widely used as a text in college and university classrooms across the country.
The bishops also said their comments were referencing Sister Elizabeth’s book and were not intended as “judgment of the personal intention of the author.”
Father Thomas G. Weinandy, executive director of the Secretariat for Doctrine for the bishops, told Catholic News Service Oct. 25 that the bishops understood that Sister Elizabeth’s central argument revolved around the idea of expressing the Catholic faith in “new ways, creative ways.” However, he added, “the words and concepts she used did not in fact state the truth” and were “inadequate, sometimes ambiguous, sometimes erroneous.”
“So the point was not that the bishops wanted her or theologians to just give back old formulas, but rather that the real question was making sure that the new ways that you are saying things, trying to be creative, actually is in accord with the deposit of faith of revelation,” he explained.
The committee’s response encompassed seven areas addressed by the book. Point by point, the committee’s statement repeats Sister Elizabeth’s main contention followed by a more detailed analysis of her response including citations from the book.
The points addressed by the committee include:
– The failure to distinguish the difference between analogy and metaphor when referencing God and that the book’s argument leads the reader to “conclude that all names for God are metaphors or the functional equivalent.”
– The expansion of language to include female images of God while not recognizing the central role that the names Father, Son and Holy Spirit play in divine revelation to explain the relationship among the three persons in the Trinity.
– Failure to distinguish what constitutes theological distortions because of modern theism and what properly belongs to Catholic theological tradition.
– The scientific view of evolution cannot alone account for the emergence of human life – the immaterial soul with rationality and free will.
– The panentheistic view of God – that “all is in God” – that is presented does not adequately preserve the transcendence of God.
– The idea of God suffering as God fails to uphold God’s transcendence with respect to creation.
– Because of the book’s exclusive focus on the economic Trinity – the Trinity as it acts within time and history – the reality of the immanent Trinity – the persons of the Trinity as they exist and relate to each other as the one God – is obscured.
Mercy Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told CNS that Cardinal Wuerl invited Sister Elizabeth to meet with him to discuss the book and the bishops’ concerns.
Sister Elizabeth’s statement said she was not afforded the opportunity to meet with doctrine committee members despite her stated willingness to do so after she provided her June response to the bishops’ initial criticisms. She said her response then “posed important questions about the nature of faith, revelation, biblical language and theology itself, figuring that the discussion on these fundamental matters might clarify the content of the book and where it had been misrepresented.”
“The committee did not engage these questions,” she said. “No invitation was forthcoming to meet and discuss with the committee in person. Moreover, in its new document the committee addresses none of these issues – not a single one.”
The theologian’s statement also said that because of “the lack of process,” the committee’s new statement mainly restates its original statement.
“I appreciate that the new statement distinguishes between its criticism of the book and the intent of the author. It does correct some errors made in the committee’s original reading of my book, and the vituperative rhetoric has been toned down. Yet there is little movement in understanding,” she said.
Sister Elizabeth added that the committee’s statement “disappoints” because it “ignores the breadth and depth of God’s self-gift in history (revelation) and the people’s living response (faith).”
In the end, she explained, the committee’s statement continues to “misrepresent the genre of the book and in key instances misinterprets what it says.” She said the bishops fault the book for “what it does not say, as if the book were a catechetical text aiming to represent the full range of Christian doctrine.”
“It takes sentences and, despite my written clarifications to the contrary, makes them conclude to positions that I have not taken and would never take,” Sister Elizabeth continued. “The committee’s reading projects meanings, discovers insinuations, and otherwise distorts the text so that in some instances I do not recognize the book I wrote. This October statement paints an incorrect picture of the fundamental line of thought the book develops.
“I am responsible for what I have said and written, and stand open to correction if this contradicts the faith. But I am not willing to take responsibility for what ‘Quest’ does not say and I do not think,” the theologian’s statement said.