Authoritarian church leaders, when they are either ignorant or simply short-sighted, often respond to theological observations they don’t comprehend by issuing speedy condemnations.

A few days ago, Gerhard Mueller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, did just that when he reprimanded representatives of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, for giving an “Outstanding Leadership Award” to Elizabeth A. Johnson.

Johnson is an eminent contemporary theologian, deeply rooted in our Catholic tradition. Mueller argued that due to “the gravity of the doctrinal errors” in her writings, LCWR’s award to Johnson was an “open provocation against the Holy See.” Quite a statement and more than a bit of overblown rhetoric. The CDF condemnation becomes even more puzzling when one realizes that, true to a pattern established a few centuries, the CDF has again condemned without indicating what has been condemned. An old bullying tactic.

Our USCCB Committee on Doctrine has also strongly criticized Johnson for her “errors” and “ambiguities.” Some members of that committee, I suspect, could use refresher courses in New Testament exegesis and historical theology.

I have read all of Elizabeth Johnson’s books and have never read anything that undermines our Christian tradition; and frankly I have a pretty good reputation for being an objective historical theologian. If an author seems to stray from our tradition in a “grave” way, I have no problem expressing my concern or alarm. (And there are indeed contemporary theological authors on the left and on the right of center who depart from authentic Christian belief.)

Two of Elizabeth Johnson’s books that I very much like (and strongly recommend) are: She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (1991) and Quest for the Living God (2007.)

She Who is was a well-developed attempt to integrate feminist categories such as women’s experience and emancipation into classical Catholic theology. (When this book came out thirteen years ago, one of my U.S. bishop friends — who never even bothered to read the dust-jacket — denounced Elizabeth Johnson and her book, cynically yelling “why can’t she acknowledge that God is our Father?” I responded with a friendly chuckle, “why can’t you acknowledge that all God-talk is analogical and perhaps many of our sisters and brothers in the faith relate better to God as a loving mother than a judgmental father.”)

Guest for the Living God is a masterpiece. I used it last autumn in an adult faith discussion group and will do that again this coming autumn. Johnson understands so very well that people of faith are seeking God, the Divine, not in abstract medieval doctrines but in sincere and deep reflection on our everyday experiences, struggles, and hopes. Her chapter headings say it well:

• Gracious Mystery, Ever Greater, Ever Nearer
• The Crucified God of Compassion
• Liberating God of Life
• God Acting Womanish
• God Who Breaks Chains
• Accompanying God of Fiesta
• Generous God of the Religions
• Creator Spirit in the Evolving World
• Trinity: The Living God of Love

Elizabeth A. Johnson is Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University.

And Gerhard Mueller? I am sure he is a fine fellow, like my bishop friend. These ecclesiastical authorities must learn, however, that theological exploration is the responsibility of ALL in the church. And we only make progress in our quests for the Living God when our conversations are mutually respectful, and open, and honest: without secretive hidden agendas.

Now go buy a copy of Johnson’s book………and organize your own adult faith discussion group!


11 thoughts on “A Provocation Against the Holy See…..

  1. I highly recommend Elizabeth Johnson’s Quest for the Living God. Johnson opens us to many notions of understanding in new light the Divine Presence. To paraphrase an important statement from Elizabeth is that what ever words, metaphors or notions we use to describe the Divine Presence, we still cannot in any way shape or form encapsulate the understanding of our our Creator. God is Big, REAL BIG! Beyond our feeble attempts to embrace.

  2. Jack, well put as usual. I especially liked your words all God-talk is analogical and perhaps many of our sisters and brothers in the faith relate better to God as a loving mother than a judgmental father.” I’ve been saying that for a long time, but never as succinctly as you do.

  3. Jack, thank you for this post. I was just in a book discussion group reading & discussing Quest for the Living God. So encouraging and so exciting in the breadth of vision of these many ways that Catholics experience God.

  4. Do you know this newly ordained priest for the Diocese of Orange?  His background parallels mine: musician, convert, theologian, priest

    Father William Goldin Father Goldin was born to a non-Catholic family in San Diego (his father is Jewish, and during his childhood his mother was an Episcopalian). The future priest became Catholic at age 15. He left San Diego after graduating from high school to attend the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he earned his degree in Vocal Performance (operatic singing). After obtaining his bachelor’s degree, Father Goldin continued to pursue his career in opera by completing a Master of Music degree in Vocal Performance at UCLA. After finishing his master’s degree, Father Goldin decided to switch careers. Following his interest in Catholic theology, and a developing desire to discern a priestly vocation, he enrolled at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., and completed a master’s degree in Theology. He decided to continue his studies with an eye on a career as a professor of Catholic theology–so he moved to Belgium to study Systematic Theology (Dogmatic Theology) at the Catholic University of Louvain. While in Belgium, Father Goldin applied as a candidate for the priesthood in the Diocese of Orange. At the university, Father Goldin completed a Bachelor of Sacred Theology degree (STB), and a Master of Advanced Studies degree (civil licentiate) in Systematic Theology. He was sent to St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo to complete his formation for the priesthood. After his ordination Father Goldin will continue his studies at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome.

  5. How about “Quest” for the Living God?!

    Richard & Janet Fry 1059 Lynchs Beach Road Bayboro, NC 28515-9133

    Home Phone: +1-252-249-1037 Richard: +1-252-571-8952 Janet: +1-252-571-9863


Leave a Reply