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.
Repossessing Virtue: Joan Chittister on Christmas
» download (mp3, 16:33)
by Krista Tippett, host
I spoke with Joan Chittister this week. She’s been thinking and writing about Christmas, the prism through which economic crisis is coming home uncomfortably to many of us right now. It is a wonderful, eloquent 15 minutes of her energetic wisdom — highly recommended listening. The gold, frankincense, and myrrh of the kingly biblical gift-givers, she’s learned, are not displays of wealth but of blessings of character — generosity, serenity, and spirit.
Such states of being are counterintuitive, perhaps, at this moment in time. But perhaps they are precisely the qualities that can help us emerge with our humanity intact and enriched. I wish them for myself, and for all of us, in this season.
Armstrong Continues to Build on Her Ideas about Religion
Colleen Scheck, Producer
We interviewed Karen Armstrong in 2004 and were gripped by her intellectual, passionate, and singular insight into religion in our world. This week we are repeating that program. It is among the many engaging shows from our archives worth hearing again.
In preparing for this rebroadcast, I listened to Armstrong’s recent talk at the 2008 TED conference. While her speech echoed many of the themes she and Krista spoke about four years ago, she shared some new ideas that keep me interested in continuing to follow her broad perspective. Here’s an excerpt (or watch the entire 20-minute talk above):
"I found some astonishing things in the course of my study that had never occurred to me. Frankly, in the days that when I thought I’d had it with religion, I just found the whole thing absolutely incredible. These doctrines seemed unproven, abstract, and, to my astonishment, when I began seriously studying other traditions, I began to realize that belief, which we make such a fuss about today, is only a very recent religious enthusiasm. It surfaced only in the West, in about the 17th century. The word ‘belief’ itself originally meant to love, to prize, to hold dear. In the 17th century it narrowed its focus, for reasons that I’m exploring in a book I’m writing at the moment, to mean an intellectual ascent to a set of propositions — a credo. ‘I believe’ did not mean ‘I accept certain creedal articles of faith.’ It meant, ‘I commit myself. I engage myself.’ Indeed, some of the world traditions think very little of religious orthodoxy. In the Qur’an, religious opinion — religious orthodoxy — is dismissed as zanna — self-indulgent guesswork about matters that nobody can be certain of one way or the other but which makes people quarrelsome and stupidly sectarian.
So, if religion is not about believing things, what is it about? What I’ve found is that, across the board, religion is about behaving differently. Instead of deciding whether or not you believe in God, first you do something, you behave in a committed way, and then you begin to understand the truths of religion. And religious doctrines are meant to be summons to action: you only understand them when you put them into practice.”