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The poor misunderstood theologian

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Apr 05, 2011

Last week the US bishops’ conference released a detailed critique of a book by Sister Elizabeth Johnson. The bishops’ doctrinal committee found that Quest for the Living God “contains misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors that bear upon the faith of the Catholic Church as found in Sacred Scripture, and as it is authentically taught by the Church’s universal magisterium.”

In a measured response to the bishops’ statement, Johnson said that the criticisms “paint an incorrect picture of the fundamental line of thought the books develops.”

Well, obviously somebody is wrong here. Either Sister Johnson is wrong about what the Church teaches, or the bishops’ doctrine committee is wrong about what Sister Johnson teaches. Either she misrepresents the faith, or they misrepresent her.

Father Thomas Weinandy, who heads the staff for the bishops’ doctrine committee, reported that the bishops had no real doubts about their judgment. “They thought it was self-evident in the book what she was saying and that it was wrong,” he told the Catholic News Service . In other words, it was not a close call.

Have you noticed how frequently, when the Vatican questions the orthodoxy of a theologian’s works, the theologian claims that the Vatican has misunderstood? Invariably, the embattled theologian defends himself by saying that the Vatican did not properly grasp the nuances of his position. Now the same little drama is being played out between Sister Johnson and the US bishops’ conference. Yet the US bishops’ doctrinal committee saw no nuances; they saw a clear-cut decision.

This difference of perspective might be understandable if the work in question was an esoteric text, aimed at professional theologians and difficult for amateurs to grasp. But that is not the case with Quest for the Living God. The book is aimed for a popular audience. In 2008 it was cited as the top theology book of the year by the Catholic Press Association: a group of journalists, not theologians. It is assigned reading for undergraduates in many Catholic colleges. It is—or purports to be—a book that an ordinary reader can understand.

If we can assume that the bishops on the USCCB doctrinal committee have at least an ordinary comprehension of theological issues, then when they perceive “self-evident” doctrinal problems, it seems reasonable to conclude that the problems are real—that the bishops have not simply failed to understand Johnson’s work. Or to look at the question from a different angle, if Catholic bishops cannot grasp Johnson’s points, how can we expect college undergraduates to understand them? If the bishops have misunderstood, it’s fair to assume that many undergraduates will misunderstand, and thus be led astray. And if that’s the case, the bishops were right to issue a warning.

The standard line of defense for heterodox theologians—that the bishops (or the Vatican) misunderstood them—is growing old. If the theologians were writing exclusively for their academic peers, they could plausibly make that argument. But invariably they are writing for a popular audience, conveying their views to readers who are at best no more sophisticated than bishops. If their books are subject to misinterpretation by bishops, they are subject to misinterpretation by the general public. And if they are subject to misinterpretation, they can lead people astray. Even if the theologians are right, and their works have been misunderstood, their defense still fails.

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Show 7 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: annedanielson4099 - Apr. 09, 2011 12:37 AM ET USA

    Sometimes you can judge a book by its'cover. How do you even begin a quest for the Living God, when you think there is an analogy between three rocks that do not appear to be of the same substance, are not ordered, show no sign of unity so there can be no communion, thus they can never be One, and The Blessed Trinity? With no mandatum, no imprimatur, and no discipline, should we be surprised at all the nonsense? I, for one, have had enough. When will the Bishops end the dissent in His Church?

  • Posted by: hartwood01 - Apr. 08, 2011 3:42 PM ET USA

    Yes, what is so wrong with seeking an imprimatur? Unless one has something one wants to slide under the radar. I'm still old fashioned enough to look for an imprimatur and if missing, am forewarned.

  • Posted by: Cornelius - Apr. 06, 2011 10:43 AM ET USA

    op - nothing "secret" at all about it. Sr. Johnson complained that she was not consulted beforehand - another familiar trope of heterodox theologians. Fact is her book has been in the public domain for years, so it is the PUBLIC message her book conveys that the Bishops must address and its very PUBLIC undermining of the faith, not her private re-interpretation of it (which the public never sees).

  • Posted by: op - Apr. 06, 2011 9:46 AM ET USA

    A little face-to-face dialogue with the author would have been helpful. Why the secret"investigation"?

  • Posted by: frjpharrington3912 - Apr. 05, 2011 11:00 PM ET USA

    The bishops' doctrinal committee deserves credit for exercising its authority in identifying the "misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors" contained in this book. The integrity of the faith depends on the diligence of the bishops to protect and preserve the authentic teachings of the Church, to hand on for the sake of posterity what it has itself received. This responsibility is one of the many blessings of the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church.

  • Posted by: lawrence_mosher4475 - Apr. 05, 2011 10:05 PM ET USA

    If this text was published in 2008 and is just now being reviewed, being an assigned reading text & not esoteric text, aimed at professional theologians and difficult for amateurs to grasp. But that is not the case with Quest for the Living God. The book is aimed for a popular audience. It is assigned reading for undergraduates in many Catholic colleges. So whose at fault her, is it Sister Elizabeth or the bishops’ doctrinal committee. I am confused? fritz_bolivar

  • Posted by: cynthia5528 - Apr. 05, 2011 8:10 PM ET USA

    We have a process available. Authors can reduce misunderstandings with the Catholic Church by using that process. I just pulled out a friend's book for a specific example of a result of the process: "IMPRIMATUR + George V. Murry, S.J. Bishop of St. Thomas" Bishops are busy but with persistence, accessible. Perhaps ask after Mass, by appointment or a handshake-query. A few words and you are on a path to a referral, as in "my bishop suggested..." For myself? I'd ask my parish priest for advice.

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