Many non-theologians have followed the issues regarding theologian Elizabeth Johnson and her conflict with the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine regarding her book, The Quest for the Living God. The Committee has responded to Professor Johnson’s criticisms of her work.
Of course it is not surprising that theologians will, from time to time, have some tension with bishops over new theological formulations, even though those formulations are faithful to Catholic tradition. However, as the U.S. Bishops’ Committee statement above makes clear, it is also possible to provide new formulations that are, in fact, at odds with Catholic tradition. That tradition is not, after all, infinitely malleable or compatible with just anything. Some ways of putting things are false. Some ways of putting things lack important qualifications or give the wrong impression. New formulations are sometimes rejected not because they are new but because they are false or significantly incomplete.
Many reasonably informed Catholics who have read Elizabeth Johnson’s book have found it misleading and otherwise deficient in many important respects, notwithstanding helpful elements within it. The fact that the work was written for a common readership, not simply for specialists in theology, has made the situation worse. The initial statement of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee was helpful in showing that such findings are not simply the personal judgment of unsophisticated readers or even of particular theologians but reflect a substantial theological judgment of devoted scholars, including some scholars with direct pastoral responsibility. Johnson’s counter observations were helpful in that they gave the committee the opportunity to interact with the author’s claims and make further clarifications. Those further clarifications are found in the document linked to above.
Theologians (understandably) insist that their work should be taken seriously, that theology is concerned with first order questions (i.e., the truth of reality) and not just with second order questions or with the study of ideas people have had about God over the centuries (essentially, religious studies). But, when it comes to merely human reflection on the truth, including divinely revealed truth, if you claim to be able to be right about your subject, you have to have the humility to acknowledge that you can be wrong. And, if you want to be a Catholic theologian, you have to acknowledge an authoritative ministry in the Church that assesses whether your ideas reflect the Church’s faith. That authoritative ministry does not always act definitively, of course. In the Johnson case, it hasn’t. But even so, an important aid to that ministry (the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine), one representing theological expertise that goes far beyond Professor Johnson’s theological chums in the guild, has found her work seriously deficient.
Let’s hope and pray that’s enough for her to rethink her formulations. In the meantime, there are ample alternative theological resources people can draw on in their “quest for the living God”. If you are unaware of them, I think we at Ignatius Press can manage to find some to recommend some to you.
Let’s also keep in our prayers the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, which certainly does not have an enviable job in this day and age.
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