The USCCB on Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s Book: Some Initial Comments

In a report signed 24 March 2001, but published today (30 March 2011), the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) identified the “misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors” that it found in Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ’s book, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (Continuum, 2007). The committee, chaired by Donald Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, organized its 21-page report into seven problematic areas relating to what the committee found to be “theological and methodological inadequacies,” as stated in Wuerl’s March 30th cover letter.

The full report begins with (a) an explanation for the publication of the statement and (b) an overview of the proceeding critique. The reason for the report is described as: “Because this book by a prominent Catholic theologian is written not for specialists in theology but for ‘a broad audience’ [2], the Committee on Doctrine felt obliged, as part of its pastoral ministry, to note these misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors” (USCCB 1).

It is because Johnson’s book is seen as a potential text for undergraduate classroom adoption that it was subjected to such analysis, the bishops say. Yet, I wonder if the phrase “a broad audience” was not included in Johnson’s own introduction and the text was aimed at her theologian peers, would the bishops have just not responded? I somehow doubt it.

Here is how the headings of each section of the full report breaks down and therefore provides us with a brief glimpse at the critique that follows each heading:

  1. “A False Alternative: “Modern Theism” or Radical Reconstruction of the Idea of God”
  2. “A False Presumption: All Names for God are Metaphors”
  3. “A God who Suffers”
  4. “New Names for the Unknown God”
  5. “The Presence of God in All the Religions”
  6. “Creator Spirit in the Evolving World”
  7. “Trinity: The Living God of Love”

I want to only make a few preliminary comments about each of the sections, perhaps the need or opportunity will arise for additional analysis at a later time. What follows might be at times technical and certainly boring. It reflects my initial reading of the report in light of my own reading of Johnson’s book back in 2007 when it first came out. If you have no interest in this response, you can stop reading here and scroll down to the conclusion.

1. “A False Alternative: ‘Modern Theism’ or Radical Reconstruction of the Idea of God”

Concerning the first section, the report claims that Johnson is playing something of a “sleight of hand” to equate what she terms “modern theism” with what the report claims to be “integral and essential elements of [the Christian] tradition” (USCCB 4).

However, I don’t get that impression from my reading of the text in question. Instead, what I see is the perhaps inadvertent grouping-together of inadequate or incomplete — yet, immensely popular — conceptualizations of God. Modern Theism, as it is described here, is oftentimes the “doctrine of God” that most Christians appropriate, something that any pastoral minister can recognize in any given week of pastoral ministry among the faithful. In identifying that popular and problematic understanding of God, Johnson, it would seem, is simply establishing a starting point from which she might engage in a constructive theology.

However, what follows in this section is the beginning of an at-times latent and at-times more explicit concern with what I would classify as an anti-univocal-concept-of-being agenda that appears throughout the report. Take this line for example:

“Within traditional Christian theology, God is indeed the supreme being, but that means that he [sic] actually exists in a manner that is uniquely his [sic] own and so his [sic] manner of existence radically differs in kind from all else that exists. Existing in such a manner does not make God remote” (USCCB 5)

I don’t know about that. First of all, use of the term “supreme being” actually seems to work in a manner contrary to the rest of the argument, suggesting God is a ‘being’ of the ‘supreme’ — i.e., biggest, best, highest — proportions makes God out to be of same kind, different only in degree.

It doesn’t seem to me that the committee intended to say that, nor do I get the impression that Johnson means exactly what the report suggests that she said either. I do agree with the report, in general, that there is a crisis (perhaps a pastoral/catechetical one??) in how many understand God. It is theological efforts such as the book in question that serves to address such concerns.

2. “A False Presupposition: All Names for God are Metaphors”

As I tell all my students working on papers, I note in observation of this report: “use adjectives sparingly. Each adjective increases the statement’s vagueness and weakens an argument.” For example, the opening sentence of this section includes the phrase: “…her radical revision of the traditional Christian understanding of God…” (USCCB 6). What do the report’s authors mean by “radical?” That said, I can understand, at least in part, the concerns raised in this section as they relate to humanity’s ability to know God.

What the committee states is that “the tradition acknowledges that there is a difference between God’s being incomprehensible and God’s being unknowable” (USCCB 8). Well, yes, but so does Elizabeth Johnson. Take, for example, her very important article in the renowned journal Theological Studies 45 (1984) titled, “The Incomprehensibility of God and the Image of God Male and Female,” which deals with this distinction quite clearly.

What Johnson deals with in this section of her book struck me as a reiteration, perhaps with some elaboration and development, of what she first published more than two decades ago — where was the concern then?

I agree with the committee’s point, as I have to believe Johnson also concurs, that the Christian tradition has always held that we can say something true about God. Certainly this is central to all creedal statements, to the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation, among so many others. I don’t get the impression that Johnson is jettisoning the knowability of God. Instead, I think she is trying to capture the attention and illuminate serious concerns with the taken-for-granted attitude of many who cannot distinguish human language for God with Deus in se. Yet, I still don’t understand where the concern arises. Perhaps it is a matter of insufficiently expressing a rather delicate and nuanced theological position.

Furthermore, the committee makes clear that all language about God, albeit true, is always rooted in analogy (as good Thomists would, of course, assert). At the same time, there is an objection raised about the notion that “all names for God are metaphors” (USCCB 10). Am I missing something?

3. “A God Who Suffers”

The committee is indeed right to raise concerns about an understanding of God that gets too close to what some process theologians and others have been doing. I wholeheartedly agree that some of those interpretations are indeed non-biblical and can be entirely problematic. I’m not sure how to take this particular concern. I believe that what Johnson is doing here is opening a space within which one can conceive of a God who remains actively and compassionately (literally: “to suffer with”) involved in creation and salvation history. To deny that is to deny much of the truth revealed in the Incarnation and most sound pneumatology. God remains actively engaged in human history, how does suffering play into that relationship? I’m not entirely sure.

My problem, then, with this section is that I don’t believe the committee offers a sufficient critique or ‘alternative’ to Johnson’s theology. Where is the “authentic Catholic tradition” so frequently invoked earlier? Instead of focusing on the questions of theodicy, God’s impassibility and other related theological questions, the authors skip ahead to preemptively critique later portions of the book. I’m not sure what to think about this section other than to point out that the final line contradicts the earlier assertion of a “supreme being,” and again sounds a lot like the Radical Orthodoxy movement’s critique of John Duns Scotus’s theology. The committee writes: “Such an understanding undermines God’s transcendence in that God’s manner of existence, as Creator, would no longer differ in kind, but only in degree, from that of all else that exists” (USCCB 11).

4. “New Names for the Unknown God”

Concerning this section, perhaps the most dumbfounding of the seven, if the committee readily acknowledges that “Sr. Johnson is entirely correct on this: the Catholic theological tradition affirms that no human language is adequate to express the reality of God. Catholic teaching maintains that human concepts apply to God only in an analogous fashion” (USCCB 7), then what is the problem? The images that Johnson discusses are, by and large, biblical images like Ruach and Sophia.

The report continues: “The names of God found in the Scriptures are not mere human creations that can be replaced by others that we may find more suitable according to our own human judgement” (USCCB 13). Well, of course! Who is suggesting the contrary? Johnson is using “Wisdom” and “Spirit,” symbols of Divine Immanence long recognized in both the Hebrew and Christian canons. What is the problem again?

The claim is that Johnson isn’t taking “divine revelation” as a point of departure. I’m not sure that I follow that argument, but either way, she does rely on the Divinely revealed symbols of God’s own presence in creation and salvation history. I do wonder if there aren’t other motivations at play here, perhaps the matter of patriarchy is not something to dismiss so easily.

5. “The Presence of God in All Religions”

This is always a contentious issue. I am not an expert on interreligious dialogue or comparative religion, I know plenty of theologians who are and I would leave it to them to look at this critique with more wisdom than I. Here is my take…

Take the committee’s statement here: “What Sr. Johnson is doing here is setting the stage to argue that the Spirit of God is at work in other religions in the same manner that the Spirit is working within Christianity and thus other religions are equally salvific” (USCCB 14).

The issue at hand is the use of “in the same manner.” I’m not sure what that means. I understand that God can indeed be found active in all of creation and, because humans are both imago Dei and therefore are capax Dei, all humans are already always in relationship with God. Yet, there is indeed a special relationship to the Trinity, by the Spirit, in Baptism. So, does that mean that God works differently in the Catholic church (or more broadly, in the Christian reality) than in the rest of the world? I don’t know. Nor does the committee, because the report sort of skips over that.

The committee is 100% correct to say that Jesus is the “fullness of truth” (USCCB 16), for Christ is the decisive embodiment of God’s revelation. Yet, the committee is interpreting Johnson’s text at the point at which it suggests that she believes one “needs” other religions. I’m not sure that she says what the interpretation suggests.

6. “Creator Spirit in the Evolving World”

I actually heard Johnson speak on this subject in-person at the Catholic University of America about 3 years ago. I thought it was brilliant and a fine attempt to engage contemporary science with theology.

The committee asks this question in the report: “First, how does one conceive of a transcendent God who is equally immanent within the world and history?”

My response: Rahner’s Axiom.

As for “the second concern” that “is over the evolution of human beings” (USCCB 17), I again return to Rahner and suggest that folks concerned about God’s relationship to humanity vis-á-vis evolution check out works like, “Christology Within an Evolutionary View of the World” and others. We (all those interested in theology — faith seeking understanding) must take seriously the scientific discoveries of our day. Fideism is simply not an adequate response.

7. “Trinity: The Living God of Love”

There is some reason to be concerned, according to the committee’s reading of Johnson’s writing on the Trinity, for what may be lost and gained in the attempt to better elucidate the meaning of the Triune God in Johnson’s book. However, I’m not convinced, having read the report, that the committee’s concerns are self-evident. Yes, there is the uncomfortable (for the authors of the report) engagement with the Council of Nicaea, but there was also an uncomfortable engagement with that council from the perspective of the Fathers of the subsequent six councils.

I am not convinced that Johnson disregards the creedal statements of belief articulated in the Nicene or any other Ecumenical Council. Instead, my view — perhaps generous by some accounts — is that she is attempting to follow the guidance of the Holy Father, the late Pope John XXIII who, on the eve of the Second Vatican Council, reminded the Church of its need to distinguish between the faith and its articulation.

Such an enterprise is bound to be messy. What concerns me about all this business is the fear it instills in young and old theologians alike. Women and men of good faith who, following Anselm, seek only to better understand the faith we share in the Gospel. This sort of promulgation dampens the fervor for clarification, illumination and understanding what it is we profess with our lives, urging instead some sort of fideistic substitute — a “no questions asked” form of belief.

Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s book is imperfect, yet so is Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, Bonaventure’s Breviloquium, and Augustine’s De Trinitate. Each theologian of every age offers further elucidation, not the final word. The job of the theologian is to seek. If theologians are punished for doing their job, then what?

Photos: Fordham Univ; CNS
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21 Responses to “The USCCB on Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s Book: Some Initial Comments”

  1. It’s good to see something like this up so soon!

  2. Very well done – thorough and reasoned. Thank you.

  3. thank you

  4. Rod of Alexandria Says:

    Great post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  5. One quick note: I think that by using the word “radical” the report authors mean the usage “pertaining to the root of.” Thus, a radical position on or revision of the doctrine of God would be one that affects the roots of the doctrine itself (as opposed to merely the surface). It’s not the common usage these days, but it is almost certainly what the report means when it uses the word multiple times.

  6. What’s the problem? Don’t those charged with judging what is orthodox have the right to warn us about wolves in sheep’s clothing?

    Lastly, have you read the article “15 Criteria of Authentic Catholic Thought” by Bevil Bramwell, OMI – here’s the link:

    http://www.thecatholicthing.org/columns/2011/fifteen-criteria-of-authentic-catholic-thought.html

  7. You write: “I wonder if the phrase “a broad audience” was not included in Johnson’s own introduction and the text was aimed at her theologian peers, would the bishops have just not responded? I somehow doubt it.”

    Where’s your proof for this? Note: your bias doesn’t count as proof.

  8. You articulated my unarticulated thoughts. I appreciate this response greatly!

  9. So this is some of what Elizabeth says about the Trinity: “The revitalized idea of the Trinity makes clear that, far from existing as a monarch ruling from isolated splendor and lording it over others, the living God is an overflowing communion of self-giving love. The practical importance of this notion lies in the way it exposes the perversion of patriarchy, racism, and other sinful patterns.” In the next paragraph she adds, in regard to the church, “Only a community of equal persons related in profound mutuality, pouring out praise to God and care for the world in need, only such a church corresponds to the triune God it purports to serve.” (Quest for the Living God p. 223) Uh-huh! Guess we can see how this might upset the hierarchy.

  10. [...] is already a wonderful series of posts in Johnson’s defense over at Dating God. Daniel Horan’s first post is an introduction to both the book and the USCCB report; his second post wrestles more [...]

  11. [...] Dan Horan has a fine post going through the Bishop’s critique point by point. It’s an excellent summary by someone who has really digested the book and the [...]

  12. Re: the 7th concern, Sr Johnson’s treatment of the Nicene Council and her approach to the Creed – read her 2008 keynote at the LCWR annual conference. It is a gorgeous meditation on the Nicene Creed.

  13. Two nights ago I read the first NCR article, the Bishops’ statement and Sister Dr. Elizabeth Johnson’s 2008 keynote to LCWR. I have not yet this book. I have read articles by Sr Johnson. I am a lay Catholic, have had one theology class and so obviously am untrained in the work that Sr Johnson and the Bishops do.

    That said, I made myself a lot of notes as I read the Bishops’ statement.
    Though the Bishops do include some page citations and some specific quotes, their statement is full of conclusive and summary statements of Sr Johnson’s ideas as they, the Bishops, interpret them. Next to these conclusions and summaries, I often wrote in the margins, “Did SrEJ actually conclude_____”, based on the citations and quotes the Bishops present?

    – One example is on pg 8, middle paragraph. The Bishops write, “For Sr Johnson, if God is incomprehensible he is also unknowable. This is incorrect”.

    In the margins, I noted “Did Sr Johnson actually and either informally or formally state this ‘if,then’ proposition?” And “Have the Bishops imposed that strict and reductive proposition?”

    Then I read her 2008 statement which, when combined with other EJ works I have read, led me to question again how likely it is that Sister Dr Elizabeth Johnson’s book could truly be a book-length version of the theological “if/then” proposition implied in the Bishops’ statement that “For Sr. Johnson, if God is incomprehensible God is also unknowable”.

    Other examples:
    – I wondered, every time the Bishops proclaimed “this is her ‘ground rule'”: does Sister Johnson use the language of “ground rule” in her book? The Bishops claim that Sr Johnson establishes three “ground rules”. The Bishops identify each of these ground rules, placing the term ground rule in quotations at least once but without ever offering a page citation. With all due respect, unless Sr Johnson herself stated these “ground rules” and described them as such, the Bishops’ rhetorical imposition of “ground rules” reads like a college sophomore’s effort at persuasive writing.

    – The Bishops, in several places, seem to imply that Sr Johnson denies the Trinitarian God. That is counter to my understanding of her theology, her other works and, especially, the meaning of the beautiful meditation on the Nicene Creed (the 2008 LCWR keynote).

    – Pg 18 The Bishops write, “Sr Johnson’s presentation of the teaching of the Council of Nicaea is ambiguous. According to her, by its teaching the Council aimed to protect ‘the church’s faith that Jesus is God’s self-revelation, the true Wisom of God sent to save and set free'(205). This minimalist interpretation of the Council…”

    First, I wondered, did Sr Johnson actually reduce the “aim” of the Council of Nicaea as claimed by the Bishops.

    Second, does her language “Jesus is God’s self-revelation” in ANY way challenge the traditional Catholic teaching that, in the Bishops’ words, “Jesus is ontologically the eternal Son of the Father”? The Bishops note that Sr Johnson’s words could be interpreted loosely and, in effect, chastise her because that phrase fails to definitively “affirm a true metaphysical Incarnation”. I wondered: does anything Sr Johnson wrote actually deny “a true metaphysical Incarnation”? Or, I wondered, are the Bishops simply demanding that any discussion of the Nicene Creed include a clear statement of this affirmative Catholic teaching and declaration of the Creed, without regard to the contextual necessity (or lack thereof) of that statement? (Were they looking for a Catechetical station break? Sort of a Catechetical version of the surgeon general’s warning?)

    As I read Sr Johnson’s 2008 Keynote on the Creed, after reading this critique by the Bishops, I asked myself this question again because nothing I have encountered in Sr Johnon’s work – last night or in the past – suggests to me that Sr Johnson contests that affirmative teaching.

    **********

    As I said, I have not read the book and am not theologian, cleric or religious sister. So I know that my own understanding of the content, the theology, the Catechism is limited. And so I concede in advance any challenges to my statements on those grounds. I am, however, I am an educated, adult Catholic trained to interact critically with written language and that includes the right (responsibility) of all readers to critically evaluate what they read.

    And I believe the very broad conclusive and summary strokes that – to my eyes – remain questionably supported within the four corners of the Bishops’ statement.

    That left me questioning whether the Bishops had played rather fast and loose in their apprehension and representation of Sr Johnson work.

    And that left me questioning the fairness and value of the value of the critique accruing to the Bishops’ apprehension and representation of the work in question.

    Given all of the above, I am not surprised to hear that the Bishops failed to communicate with Sr Johnson about their reading of her book and their concerns. I am not surprised but I am saddened. Catholicism has a venerable tradition of genuine scholarship, which – at its best – demands collegial and respectful dialogue among its practitioners.

    Jean Brookbank

    • Anthony A. Kalnoky Says:

      All dialogue is not as in equals; the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is the Moral and Theological Catholic Authority in the USA: (1) 1 Timothy 3:15 has Our Lord’s statement on Moral/Faith Authority: singularly in Church ‘Fathers’, the Apostles, now the Bishops, known as The Magestarium. (2) Jean clearly pictures “The Bishops” and Sr. Johnson as equals, the clear Opposites of Catholic Teacing reality: (a) A sophomore and his Department Head are Intellectually treated as equals, Dependant on the Worth of their arguments; This is Preciselly what the USCCBs Have done in their very res[onsible Church Teaching analysis, presented with Church teaching and Cited authority. (b) Most impressive to me is the Intellectual Respect for Sr. Johnson’s Intellect As Intellectual ‘equal’, as questionable as ‘some’ of Sr. Johnson’s presentations are, Preciselly As the USCCB’s Church Teaching/Beliefs Questions. (3) Most impressive to me is that the USCCB’s commentary is not Dogmatic declaration, but respects Us as the judges of the merits of each set: The definitive Catholic Concept of respecting Intellectualism: Our evaluation.

      • Hi Anthony – I have reread your response a few times, trying to get a handle on yoru meaning. First, it seems likely to me that you may be writing from a formal education re: philosophical/Catholic teaching that I lack. For instance, I am sure of the significance of the capitalization of some of your terms (“Opposites”, “Intellectualism”, “Dogmatic declaration”) and wonder if you are using some of those capitalized terms to signify conceptually-formalized and -specific philosphical/theological meanings/theories about which I am uneducated.

        If so, I wonder if you can use more pedestrian language suitable for those of us who are not formally trained in philosophy/Church teaching.

        That said, I did not speak to anyone’s “intellect” or anyone’s comparative “intellect”. Not Sr Johnson’s; not the Bishops'; not the college sophomore’s; not mine or yours. (For the record, one of the most intellectual – and intelligent – men I 0know dropped out of high school two weeks into grade ten. So, I definitely was not speaking to anyone’s intellect here).

        What I was speaking to had nothing do with hierarchy in the Church. What I was speaking to was the factual, historical reality that Roman Catholic theologians, so many of them religious sisters, brothers, priests) have been integral in shaping the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. So much so that, to my ears, that sounds the understanement of the year. The collegial dialogue I referred to would have the Bishops – before they made what I read as a crystal clear, definitive and dogamtic declaration that, in their evaluation, aspects of Sister Johnson’s work “completely undermines the Gospel and the faith of those who believe in the Gospel” – demonstrating an active recognition and engagement with the larger Roman Catholic community in which they live and by which they and RCC teaching have been formed and, indeed, blessed over the centuries. To come full circle in my paragraph, that larger Roman Catholic community includes leading Catholic scholars like Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, a leading Catholic scholar in this case who also happens to be a religious sister, the Bishops’ cohort in consecrated life in the RCC.

        And, Anthony, the book was published four years ago: there was truly no urgency here necessitating that they act without delay, act without taking time first for “disputatio” with Sister Johnson or, at the very least, a letter of notice of the impending release of their statement.

        Nonetheless, I do get it that, if the Bishops’ focus is on whom they are obligated – by virtue of their position in the RCC’s “organizational chart” – to engage with before actions like this, then they met their obligation here.

        If, however, the Bishops’ focus on their role as teachers in the larger Roman Catholic community, they would serve all of us – the larger RC community – well if they participated in the collegial dialogues common the scholarly world before they take such measures.

        Peace, Jean

  14. [...] on the flap over Elizabeth Johnson’s book from Daniel Horan, OFM, here and [...]

  15. A prophet is never accepted in his/her own land! Didn’t Jesus call the pharisees blind? Elizabeth Johnson’s theology and writings have helped me deepen my knoweldge and reflection of who God is – and that is much more than all the official dogmas and Church doctrines have been able to do. I have read Quest for the Living God and from my modest Master’s degree in Theology I have found the book very sound. Our understanding of God cannot be trapped just in fixed age old teachings of the past. God is a living God and as we evolve, our understanding of God hopefully also develops and deepens..

    • Anthony A. Kalnoky Says:

      (1) The Church has never been able to explain The Supreme Creator/Intellect: God. How does one ‘explain’ or ‘dogmatize’ The Ideal? Only by human type attempts. (2) God is Not a “Who”, because not mortal, not human. The Church has attempted to picture the characteristics Of God, Some of which are Dogma, not intellectually possible to refute, except by ‘Fundies’, who misrepresent God as having conflicts and problems, like even being evil, vengeful, based Solely on Ignoring the Culture/Thinking of 2, 2 1/2 Millenia ago: Which Are specifically described Only in the Definitive Bible Commentary: The innumerable footnotes In the USCCB’s New American Bible edition, now being added to, in the New Edition. (3) The Greatest minds in Church History have Tried to explain The Supreme Being in our human-limited conceptswords, unsuccessfully, inherently. Many think the best Attempt at trying to Describle God/The Trinity, was by St Augustine 1700 Years ago. Modern Thinking has not been able to improve on his presentation overview; Sr. Johnson’s ideas included. (4) The most historic Re-Presentation of the Nature of God was by The Magesterium/Popes of Vatican II: God is Love, not vengeance/hatred: the precise opposite of “fixed age old teachings of the past”. (5) Vatican II’s Definitive Proof of Concept/Definitive Proof of Where the Bible says TRUTH is: 1 Tomothy 3:15: Church ‘elders’ (then the Apostles only, as witnessed by the ‘First Church Council: the ‘Council of Jerusalem’ to define if Jewish teachings were to be 100% observed by Newly converted Christians, and who would replace Judas as ‘The New Apostle’) Now Catholic Bishops, including the USCCB’s.

  16. [...] (3/30/11) http://datinggod.org/2011/03/30/the-usccb-on-sr-elizabeth-johnsons-book-some-initial-comments/ [...]

  17. Maureen Says:

    Excellent point by point explanation – you must be a good teacher!

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