Conference of Catholic Bishops Stance on Sister Johnson’s Book Is a Move Against Conversation
by Paul C. DeCamp, guest contributor
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.
By 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.
Valuing Intellectual Depth and Its Relationship to Work and Life in All Its Forms
by Krista Tippett, host
I was hooked by the opening lines of Mike Rose’s lovely book, The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker:
"I grew up a witness to the intelligence of the waitress in motion, the reflective welder, the strategy of the guy on the assembly line. This, then is something I know: the thought it takes to do physical work. Such work put food on our table, gave shape to stories of affliction and ability, framed how I saw the world … I’ve been thinking about this business of intelligence for a long time: the way we decide who’s smart and who isn’t, the way the work someone does feeds into that judgment, and the effect such judgment has on our sense of who we are and what we can do."
Mike Rose grew up in an immigrant family in the center of Los Angeles; I grew up in a small town in the melting pot of Oklahoma. I did not grow up around much physical work, but I did attend a school where advanced classes in languages, math, and science were axed to sustain a strong football team. His story of his late discovery of the strength of his own mind, and, even later, grasping the forms of intelligence he had known without appreciating, sparked all kinds of longing and recognition in me. Our stories taken together are disparate but kindred facets of a schizophrenia in the American story that thrives, largely unexamined, in our public life. Despite our national history of exceptional intellectual achievement, we also harbor what the historian Richard Hofstadter classically observed as a “national distaste for intellect.”
This takes the form of a defiant bias against “book learning” where I grew up. Joe Six-Pack is, after all, a descendant of Thomas Jefferson’s “common man.” Sarah Palin strums these guitar chords powerfully, as Mike Rose points out — a phenomenon that learned commentators deride but fail to understand. For the other side of our schizophrenia is a learned dismissal of the cognitive accomplishments of “average” people, working people, summed up in a phrase like manual labor.
Mike Rose can demonstrate the error of such dismissiveness with hard research. But his concern goes deeper than that and is relevant to us all. Failing to see and nurture the intellectual and civic substance of all kinds of work, he worries, is profoundly undemocratic. It limits our collective vision and range of action from school reform to social planning. We shape educational policies with economic competitiveness in mind; we don’t ask what kind of education befits a democracy. Mike Rose asks this question through his life story and in his scholarship, and speaking with him leaves me at once nourished and challenged.
My conversation with Mike Rose is more about intelligence and its relationship to work and life than it is about schooling per se, though he also offers very fresh and provocative observations on standardized testing and on what we might collectively learn from the controversial experience of No Child Left Behind.
Working on this show strummed some guitar chords already resonating in me and my colleagues after our show last fall titled "Learning, Doing, Being" with neuroscientist Adele Diamond. Many of you responded passionately to that show, and Mike Rose helps explain that response, I think. He calls forth — in a way we rarely do in our society, even in discussions about educational policy — the life-changing memories so many of us can summon of school or of teachers or of moments of reading or learning when our minds came alive; and how such moments formed who we wanted to be, who we are. We’ve gathered those insights on our website and would love to add yours.
What moments in your life shaped who you are in terms of becoming, longing, hope, and possibility?