Call to Rome’s Eirenic spirit
27 August 2011
The ongoing quarrel between a leading feminist theologian and the bishops of the Catholic Church in the United States is another sign that all is not going well in the household of American Catholicism. It has acquired an intense spirit of factionalism, of a house divided against itself. The theologian under attack is Professor Elizabeth Johnson of Fordham University, a member of the Sisters of St Joseph. The Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has condemned her latest book, Quest for the Living God, for containing “misrepresentations, ambiguities and errors” contrary to Scripture and the Magisterium. She protested that she simply did not hold the erroneous views attributed to her. In June, the Catholic Theological Society of America deplored the action of the American bishops’ doctrinal committee by 147 votes to one.
This will not have surprised the bishops, as they regard the CTSA as leaning in a liberal direction. A measure of the acrimony can be sensed from recent remarks by Fr Thomas Weinandy, director of the doctrinal committee, who said some modern theologians were “a curse and an affliction upon the Church”. He said this was not a legitimate debate between theological schools but “a radical divide over the central tenets of the Catholic faith and the Church’s fundamental moral tradition”.
Professor Johnson’s previously best known book was called She Who Is: the mystery of God in feminist theological discourse, which may give a clue to the underlying issues. Within the Church and without, issues of gender and sexuality lie at the root of the so-called “culture wars” that divide American society, and are often replicated along a Democrat/Republican fault line. The rival positions sometimes resolve themselves simply into being for or against President Obama, as they did over the award to him of an honorary degree by the University of Notre Dame or over the bishops’ effort, against the weight of Catholic lay opinion, to block health-care reform in Congress. Although the religious dimension to these culture wars is usually associated with the Protestant evangelical Right, many of the same issues are contested inside the Catholic community too. There is nothing quite like this degree of odium theologicum anywhere else in the world, certainly – thankfully – not in Britain.
Taking fundamental theological issues seriously, and recognising the influence they can have on the surrounding culture, is good; what gives scandal is conducting such disputes without any sense that there is goodwill and good faith on both sides. The absence of this eirenic spirit may explain why the American bishops’ conference did not avail itself of conciliation procedures that had been worked out in advance with the CTSA – and approved by Rome – for handling problems that might arise between bishops and theologians.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has often stood behind the American bishops in their criticism of liberal-minded theologians, but on this occasion it could play a useful role as peacemaker. As she is convinced she has a cast-iron defence, Professor Johnson should not shy away from taking her case to Rome. Without American culture wars in the background and distanced from Fr Weinandy’s overt prejudice, she might hope for a fairer hearing and a more edifying outcome.
Editorial, this Week’s U.K. ‘Tablet’
“In June, the Catholic Theological Society of America deplored the action of the American bishops’ doctrinal committee by 147 votes to one. ” – Tablet Editorial –
This quote – from the Editorial page of the U.K. Catholic ‘Tablet’ newspaper this week – demonstrates the growing differences between the CTSA and the Roman Catholic Bishops in the USA, on the treatment of liberal Catholic theologians – like Sister (Professor) Elizabeth Johnson, of Fordham University – whose latest book, ‘Quest for The Living God’, has been condemned by the Bishops for its ‘ “misrepresentations, ambiguities and errors” contrary to Scripture and the Magisterium’.
The greatest threat to the US Catholic Bishops, of course, is most potently that the book is deemed to be contrary to the Magisterium – the Roman Catholic authority on teaching, which is held as sacrosanct, at least on the North American continent.
That the academic world – of which Roman Catholic theologians are a significant part in the U.S. – is now questioning the wisdom of the Magisterium, is not too surprising. Liberation Theologians – notably in South America and more recently in North America – are at the forefront of challenges to the conservatism of the Roman Catholic Magisterium on issues of gender and sexuality, which are being tackled by all other Christian Churches around the Western world today.
In my opinion, the Roman Catholic Church needs to be challenged on these issues – as it is by a significant number of practising catholics in North America and around the world.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand