Bishops Reaffirm Criticism Of Theologian’s Book

by Dennis Sadowski

WASHINGTON (CNS) – 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, C.S.J., 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 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 Sisters of St. Joseph, Brentwood, 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 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 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.”

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.