Monday, October 31, 2011


This was how I felt when I first heard about the USCCB Doctrinal Committee going after Sr. Elizabeth Johnson for her book, Quest for the Living God.

It kind of seemed like the Church coming out with a fresh condemnation of adultery.

Johnson's theological position was standard fair in graduate school when I was there. St. Mike's - I am talking to you! Who would believe such malarkey was consistent with the teaching of the Church, anyway? Lot's of people would, is the answer, of course. Because:

For the majority of Catholics one or both of the following statements is / are true:

1) They do not know the Faith.

2) They do not like the Faith.

There was nothing in the list of things the bishops singled-out for condemnation that was all that surprising. Yet, that is me. Perhaps to a non-initiate these things might prove contentious. The point is, though, that if a glorified amateur like me is non-plussed by this list, an expert like Sr. Johnson knows well and truly that her ideas are old, heterodox, and, worst still, boring.

The text of the USCCB statement on her book can be found here.

The document highlights her failure to make the proper distinctions between analogical and metaphorical language about God, states she has not sufficiently clarified the datum that man is not merely the result of evolution, that she speaks panentheistically, seems to espouse the heresy of Patripassionism, and seems to espouse Modalism (i.e. Sabellianism).

These are all old heresies. In fact, the newest ones are over a hundred years old - the one about analogy and the one about evolution.

First of all, Catholic theology is based on analogical thinking, that we can know true things about God reasoning from creation. Analogy accents the fact that truth actually lies on the divine side, so being, goodness and paternity, for example, lie on the divine side and are applied relatively to other things. Metaphor implies unknowing, in-clarity, vagueness, which moreover implies reality lies on the side of the creature and not on God's side. Sister seems to be implying that we don't really know anything about God, that revelation does not privelege us to knowledge of God.

Panentheism, the sophisticate's pantheism, means, not that everything is God, but that God is in everything. This error, like that of patripassionism (that God Himself suffers) are rightly said by the bishops to diminish the greatness of the separation between God and man. Modalism means there is no real significance to the Divine Persons of the Trinity.

So, after that quick resume, I'll draw a few conclusions:

1) these are significant errors, common to liberal Catholicism.

2) these are, as I have said, old errors.

3) based on these I am forced to conclude that, because of her relative fame, Sr. Johnson is being made an example of.

4) the question I am forced to ask is, is this time well spent? I wonder when the last time was that the bishops so interceded? Ideally, matters like this should be dealt with at the level of the diocesan censor, the granting or withholding of the imprimatur (permission for ecclesiastical printing), but these are not ideal times. There is nothing in Johnson's book - at least according to the bishops' presentation of it - that has not already been condemned elsewhere. I would direct you to the Vatican's condemnation of Fr. Roger Haight's, Jesus Symbol of God, especially. See here. So it's a matter of the pastoral appropriateness of this act. I don't know. She was mentioned a lot when I was in school (I made it a personal project to avoid any courses where she supplied the text book), so maybe she's the right target for disciplining today?

I defer to the American bishops. I am sure they would be much better able to judge the pastoral usefulness of this act than I. Yet it kind of reminds me of the whole Harry Potter thing. As a friend of mine likes to ask, "With all the filth that's out there, why are they focusing on Harry Potter?" It does seem a little like straining the gnat. (See Mt. 23:24)

Don't worry, Sister,
I think the next pope will be much less Catholic!
The point about the Harry Potter thing is that it's hugely culturally influential. Is Johnson? In churchy circles, she ranks about a 2 out of 10, but I guess the teachers have to teach something. So, even though she does not constitute a three-alarm fire, I suppose that because she is representative of certain insidious tendencies in liberal theology, her fire should be put out.

The timing seems off too. She has been doing her thing for years! This ain't the 80s any longer (I seem to say that a lot). It would have been useful for the bishops to have acted against her way back then, when the heat was on, these ideas were more openly maintained, etc. Now it looks a little like condemning slavery in the 20th century. Given the timing of this condemnation it all seems a little disingenuine, dare I even say cowardly? I mean they acted rightly and everything... Perhaps I have been away from theological politics too long and that is why I can't see what the big fuss is about? Or, maybe this was on some seminarian's "If I am ever made a bishop, I would do X, Y, and Z" checklist who has finally become bishop and can now let loose. Nothing sweeter than fine, aged wrath.

I guess the bishops can never satisfy me, can they?!

I am beginning to wonder whether what I really need is a good, rousing homily on the virtues of homosexual monogamy. It's been too long since I've heard one of those. Perhaps that will rekindle my fire.


  1. You will not hear that homily around here. And, amazing how those funny sisters always look the same - short hair, boxy jacket, outdated scarf or brooch.

  2. I've read her book. And I really think they got it wrong. Honestly, I think they need to reread it and that you need to read it with charity.