Conference of Catholic Bishops Stance on Sister Johnson’s Book Is a Move Against Conversation

by Paul C. DeCamp, guest contributor

Sr. Elizabeth A. Johnson and Her Book "Quest for the Living God"

If you ban it, they will read it. That seems to be true thus far in the case of Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s 2007 book Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, which the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops suggested should be banned from Catholic schools in a statement on March 24.

Statement from US Conference of Catholic Bishops on Sr. Elizabeth Johnson's BookBy April 1, after national media coverage of the USCCB statement, the book was in the top 100 of the Amazon.com Religion & Spirituality Bestsellers list at #39, not far from the works of popular spiritual writer Eckhart Tolle, an impressive feat for an academic theologian.

Johnson has been respected for her work in Catholic theology especially because of her engagement with feminism, which was the subject of her now classic She Who Is, a 1993 book that sought to rediscover the “feminine God” in the Christian tradition. When asked for comment, prominent Catholic theologian David Tracy said that, while he had not yet read this book of Johnson’s, “…this much is clear to me: based on her previous work, I consider Elizabeth Johnson one of the most original and impressive theologians of our period. The range and depth of her published work is a model for contemporary Catholic theology.”

This particular work of Johnson’s explores the diversity of current thought in the theology of God, and as the subtitle indicates, maps “frontiers” in areas such as liberation, womanist, black, and political theologies, areas that have been the subject of great controversies within the Catholic Church.

The Conference said that while it did not have the authority to order the removal of the book from Catholic institutions (only the Vatican could do that), it wanted to draw attention to certain “misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors” of Catholic doctrine in the book. Among these were assertions by Johnson that all names for God are metaphors, that God is continually suffering, and that all religions bear some presence of God. Because the book was “by a prominent Catholic theologian” and “written not for specialists in theology but for a ‘broad audience’,” the Conference believed it was necessary to make the public aware of its problems.

Boston College theologian Stephen J. Pope, speaking to The New York Times, said, “The reason is political. Certain bishops decide that they want to punish some theologians, and this is one way they do that. There’s nothing particularly unusual in her book as far as theology goes. It’s making an example of someone who’s prominent.”

The American bishops are continually drawing lines in the sand. Restrictions had been placed on politicians, such as the refusal of several bishops to allow John Kerry to take communion during the 2004 presidential election. The bishop of the Archdiocese of Wilmington stated that he would not permit Vice President Joe Biden to speak in Catholic schools. And now the Conference suggests that certain books should be kept from Catholic classrooms. The Conference has proven itself to be an organization that does not tolerate change or ambiguity, and Johnson’s work confronts both.

While the Conference claims to be interested in dialogue with Johnson, she indicated in a statement that no such invitations had been extended. She said in this statement, “I have always taken criticism as a valuable opportunity to delve more deeply into a subject. The task of theology, classically defined as ‘faith seeking understanding,’ calls for theologians to wrestle with mystery. The issues are always complex, especially on frontiers where the church’s living tradition is growing.”

While the USCCB’s statement may be interpreted as a move against conversation and debate among the divided American Catholics, the stir over Johnson’s book can serve to promote more open dialogue in Catholic circles. American Catholics, after all, are a group that continues to support politicians whom they are told not to vote for and to consume books that have been deemed dangerous for them to read.


Paul C. DeCamp is an M.A. student at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He holds a B.A. in Religious Studies from Lafayette College.

This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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