Bishops say book critique was not meant to question author’s service

WASHINGTON – The harsh critique by the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine of a Fordham University theologian’s popular book was not meant to question the “dedication, honor, creativity or service” of the theologian’s work, said a letter to faculty members at the university.

Written by Capuchin Franciscan Father Thomas G. Weinandy, executive director of the Secretariat for Doctrine of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the letter was sent April 28, 10 days after 179 Fordham faculty members from various academic departments offered their unconditional support to author Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson, a Sister of St .Joseph and professor of theology at Fordham.

It was Johnson’s 2007 book, “Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God,” that was criticized by the committee for having “misrepresentations, ambiguities and errors” related to the Catholic faith.

The doctrinal committee decided to assess the book in late 2009, after it became a popular choice of faculty who teach introductory theology classes on college campuses.

The faculty members expressed dismay in their letter that the committee acted without talking with Sister Elizabeth, whose theological work is recognized internationally and has been honored with several awards.

They also urged the bishops to “take steps to rectify the lack of respect and consideration your actions have shown for Sister Johnson both as a scholar and as a dedicated woman religious who has given a lifetime of honorable, creative and generous service to the church, the academy and the world.”

The critique also stirred response from theologians across the U.S. Leaders of the Catholic Theological Society of America and the College Theology Society expressed concern over the committee’s action.

Of particular concern to the theologians was that they said the bishops failed to follow procedures established in the document “Doctrinal Responsibilities: Approaches to Promoting Cooperation and Resolving Misunderstandings Between Bishops and Theologians” approved by the bishops in 1989. The document calls for an informal conversation to discuss concerns with a theologian during any review of work.

Sister Elizabeth said March 30 she was never invited to discuss the concerns that doctrine committee members had with the book. She also said the conclusions by the committee “paint an incorrect picture of the fundamental line of thought the book develops.”

Father Weinandy suggested in his letter that it may be time to review the 22-year-old document. He said the document calls for “timely review to see if modifications are needed” and that such a review might help parties “see how well its provisions are understood and applied.”

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.