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Cardinal Wuerl defends USCCB critique of Sister Johnson’s book

April 19, 2011

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, chairman of the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, has written a 13-page letter to US bishops defending the committee’s recent critique of Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s Quest for the Living God.

Cardinal Wuerl’s letter follows a recent critical response from the directors of the Catholic Theological Society of America, who charged that the bishops had not followed their own procedures in reviewing the book, had misunderstood Johnson's arguments, and had cast a shadow on the work of Catholic theologians.

“The Church’s teaching office, when grasped in the context of faith, is a great assistance to the scholarly research of theologians since its judgments are determinative of good theology,” Cardinal Wuerl writes. “The alternative is the principle of private judgment, which Blessed John Henry Newman labeled a ‘principle of disunion,’ conceived in opposition to the judgment of the Magisterium.”

“When a theologian does not understand his or her role within the communion of the Church, the role of a servant-- like that of a bishop-- to the truth, he or she risks usurping the bishop’s central role of leading people to salvation. Isolated from the community of faith, the theologian seriously endangers the faithful by proposing a ‘different Gospel’ (2 Cor. 11:4) which is no longer salvific.”

Cardinal Wuerl added that the catechetical crisis of the past few decades made the critique of Sister Johnson’s book particularly necessary.

“The book in question is an already published work not primarily directed to professional theologians for theological speculation, but rather one used as a teaching instrument for undergraduate students, many of whom are looking for grounding in their Catholic faith,” he said, adding:

The background against which the bishops must exercise their teaching responsibility today is the generally recognized catechetical deficiencies of past decades beginning with the 1970s. The result is a generation or more of Catholics, including young adults today, who have little solid intellectual formation in their faith. It is in this context that books used in religious studies/theology courses at Catholic colleges and universities must be seen as de facto catechetical and formational texts. While the content of a book may be highly speculative and of interest for trained theologians, when it is used in a classroom with students often ill-prepared to deal with speculative theology the results can be spiritually harmful. The bishops are rightly concerned about the spiritual welfare of those students using this book who may be led to assume that its content is authentic Catholic teaching.


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  • Posted by: - Apr. 19, 2011 1:36 PM ET USA

    a ‘different Gospel’ (2 Cor. 11:4) which is no longer salvific.” The 'no longer salvific' clause would seem to imply that those who embrace such a 'different gospel', let alone teach it to children, are in imminent danger of being, well, not saved.

  • Posted by: pauljworthington637024 - Apr. 19, 2011 10:19 AM ET USA

    There is still a Catholic Theological Society? Looking at the Board Members, I'd swear it was the Jesuit Theological Society, doing things in the "Jesuit" tradition. Earth to Bishops - PULL THEIR TICKET! Applaud the Cardinal, it's a first step. Let him know you support his decision to speak out and correct.

  • Posted by: sparch - Apr. 19, 2011 10:09 AM ET USA

    I agree with Bishop Wuerl's statement on the matter. I would like to know if there is a set procedure the bishops use to reveiw such books. I know that those procedures of no concern to Sister Johnson who apparently didn't submit her work for the bishop's review before she allowed it to be published. Bishop Wuerl was correct, she was (and is) in disunion.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 19, 2011 9:39 AM ET USA

    Interesting that the Cardinal cites the lack of peer review amongst theologians as contributing to the public confrontation with Sr. Johnson: "When . . . peer review is absent or ineffective, it is the responsibility of the Bishop . . . to declare . . . certain notions out of bounds . . . ." [p.7]

  • Posted by: - Apr. 19, 2011 9:09 AM ET USA

    Good for the Cardinal and well said, though I wonder about excessive reliance on the book's intended audience as the reason for criticizing (condemning?) it. Had it been aimed at other theologians would the USCCB have given it a pass? I rather hope not.