CTSA raises concerns about bishops’ stance on theologian’s popular book

WASHINGTON – The board of directors of the Catholic Theological Society of America has raised concerns about the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine’s critical assessment of a Fordham University theology professor’s popular book.

The 10-member board April 8 questioned the process used by the bishops to assess the 2007 book written by St. Joseph Sister Elizabeth Johnson, suggested that the bishops misread the book’s premise and expressed concern that the bishops’ criticism “seems to reflect a very narrow understanding of the theological task.”

The doctrinal committee, chaired by Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, said March 30 the book, “Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God,” contained “misrepresentations, ambiguities and errors” related to the Catholic faith.

Despite its findings, the committee declined to take any disciplinary action against Sister Elizabeth as they have against other theologians who have been prohibited from publishing or teaching at Catholic institutions.

In particular, the committee cited seven areas of concern, saying that Sister Elizabeth failed to take the Catholic faith as its starting point and chose to use standards 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 doctrinal committee decided to assess the book in late 2009, after it became a popular choice of faculty teaching introductory theology classes on college campuses, according to Capuchin Franciscan Father Thomas G. Weinandy, executive director of the Secretariat for Doctrine of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Of particular concern to the theologians is 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 in a statement March 30 that 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.”

The doctrinal responsibilities document offers the steps bishops and theologians can take to resolve questions about theological issues and that process was not followed, Sister Mary Ann Hinsdale, associate professor of systematic theology at Boston College and CTSA president, told Catholic News Service April 11.

“There is a concern about the process here,” said Sister Mary Ann, a member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Father Weinandy, however, said the doctrinal responsibilities document was written for diocesan bishops who wanted to talk with theologians in their respective dioceses.

“It was never intended to apply to the Committee on Doctrine,” he said. “At the time it was merely envisioned to give guidelines to individual bishops and theologians if some sort of problem arose.”

The CTSA statement also said the doctrine committee’s assessment “is deficient in the way it presents Professor Johnson’s work.” Specifically, the theologians explained, the bishops made a “surprising leap in logic” in faulting Sister Elizabeth for holding that God is “unknowable” on grounds that she maintains that human words cannot completely capture divine reality.

Sister Elizabeth’s claim that human words “cannot capture the divine reality,” the theologians said, is “quite traditionally Catholic.”

“It is difficult for us to imagine that Professor Johnson, who has written so elegantly and movingly about the divine mystery throughout her career, lacks a heartfelt intention to say something modestly truthful about God based on God’s revelation in Scripture and tradition,” they said.

Father Weinandy disagreed, telling CNS that members of the bishops’ doctrinal committee “feel it’s very clear what she’s saying.”

“She’s trying to take different notions of God that come from various settings or cultures,” he said. “The bishops are not concerned about God in popular piety or God in popular Latino culture. What concerned the bishops is the content of her understanding of God as portrayed in the various settings she talked about.”

The final point the theologians made revolved around the practice of theology itself.

“Theologians throughout history have promulgated the riches of the Catholic tradition by venturing new ways to imagine and express the mystery of God and the economy of salvation revealed in Scripture and tradition,” the CTSA board members said.

They cited the teaching of the Second Vatican Council in “Gaudium et Spes” (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), which called upon pastors and theologians to listen to “various voices of our day, discerning them and interpreting them …”

“To suggest that a theologian who engages in the difficult task of interpreting revelation for present times and cultures is denying the knowability of the very revelation – the word of God – that theological reflection takes as its authoritative source, strikes us as a fundamental misunderstanding of the ecclesial vocation of the theologian.”

Father Weinandy said the bishops acknowledge that presenting Christian understanding of God to each new generation is important.

“But in expressing the Catholic understanding of God in each generation must be in conformity of what was believed in previous generations,” he explained. “The bishops judged that Sister Johnson’s rendering of God was not in accord with the doctrinal tradition within the Catholic Church.”

“The bishops would say it has nothing to do with being narrow or broad, but it has to be faithful to the revelation that is in the doctrinal tradition of the church,” he said.

Catholic Review

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