Elizabeth Johnson Under Attack

Feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson’s book Quest for the Living God has been denounced by the US Council of Catholic Bishops. The bloggers at Women in Theology have been following this story closely and promise to continue to address it in detail — I strongly recommend checking out their ongoing defense of Johnson’s important work against an apparently ill-conceived attack.

11 thoughts on “Elizabeth Johnson Under Attack

  1. Hi Adam,

    Thanks for the shout out. We are desperately working on publishing a more substantial defense. Will update soon.



  2. The bishops are not attacking her. They merely stated that her conclusions are not in accord with Catholic doctrine. Why overstate the case? This is not a silencing of Sr. Johnson or her work. This is a corrective issued to the lay audience to which Sr. Johnson is intending to speak.

  3. I imagine our word choices here are determined by our stance toward the bishops’ intervention. You appear to believe it is appropriate, while I understand the claim that Johnson’s work is contrary to Catholic doctrine to be an “attack” on her credibility and an attempt to lessen her influence over her audience. Meanwhile, you appear to be proposing a higher standard for what counts as an “attack” by referring to the hypothetical of “silencing” her.

    In my mind, we both seem to agree on what’s happening, but we’re characterizing it differently — but I would defend my decision to call it an attack and I think your (implicit) definition of an “attack” is overly narrow.

  4. Adam – This from the “Online Dictionary” (sorry – it was there and convenient):

    1. To set upon with violent force.
    2. To criticize strongly or in a hostile manner.

    There are other meanings, down the list, but these three (violent force, criticize strongly, hostile criticism) give us enough to work with. Of the three, I’ll grant you “criticize strongly” might well apply, so I take your point.

    However, I must insist that – since we want to be careful with how we use words, at your suggestion – the phrase “Elizabeth Johnson Under Attack” is too broad. “Elizabeth Johnson’s Book…” or “Elizabeth Johnson’s Ideas Under Attack” would accurately reflect the tone and language of the USCCB’s document, which absolutely can be said to criticize both Sr. Johnson’s ideas and book very strongly.

    Nowhere, however, at least as far as I can find, do the bishops engage in a violence – or even a criticism, let alone a strong one – against Johnson as a person or her reputation. I was actually surprised at how respectful the document was, all things considered.

    I respect what you do here on the blogs and the amazing conversations you have aided over the years. So – since I’ve rarely been in these comments boards, thank you for that. In this particular case, however, I don’t think the point is merely semantic, so let me press it.

    The immediate context of Johnson’s book, and the intervention of the bishops, is a matter of Catholic teaching. Johnson – by writing a book explicitly directed to a popular audience, and because that writing is specifically concerned with matters of the history of doctrines of the Church, which affect the understanding of Catholic teaching – falls under some pretty clear canonical rules from the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

    Among these are canons 218 and 804-806. Without quoting at length, they basically say that teachers of theology (which is how Johnson is to be understood here) have certain freedoms of inquiry, but these freedoms are rightly understood to be subservient to the magisterium as the final teaching authority of the Church.

    Certainly Protestants should not feel bound or compelled to consider this fact in their judgment of the bishops’ document. However, that *is* the context in which Elizabeth Johnson, both as a teacher of theology and as a “woman religious,” under vows, is canonically expected to view it.

    So – are the bishops attempting to “lessen her influence over her audience,” as you suggest? Absolutely. And certainly they are within their rights to do so, at least as far as the current articulation of these canons is concerned.

    Let me also say that I recognize that there is another large Catholic context in which the bishops’ actions could be criticized: namely both the current investigation of orders of women religious in North America undertaken by the Vatican, and the last several decades of debate among Catholic colleges and universities regarding the proper role – if any – of the magisterium and the mandatum in the daily lives of teaching faculty.

    I write as one of those Catholic faculty, and as one who is voluntarily teaching under the mandatum, so I take your point that my “stance toward the bishops” may well be different than yours (although maybe not as far off as it might at first appear).

    My concern here is not so much to defend the bishops (after all, the gated of hell themselves will not prevail against them, so why would they need my help?) as it is to be a voice in the midst of what is – by my lights, at least — a lot of unnecessary calumny against them.

    That is to say, I think there is a way for Protestants (and Catholics) to bring some criticism of the bishops actions here without impugning or denying (explicitly or implicitly) their right and obligation to speak out and clarify matters of doctrine. As I’ve been watching the blogs these last few days, I’ve seen a lot of attacks on the bishops as if canon law doesn’t matter in the considerations, and shouldn’t matter to Elizabeth Johnson. Neither of these positions could be further from the truth.

    So again, Adam, thank you for what you do. But I ask, in this case, that you encourage your readers and fellow bloggers to aspire to a higher level of criticism than the one I have been observing in this case. Since the term is in play, I feel as if there has been more than one “attack” here – perhaps against Johnson, I’ll grant you, and perhaps against the bishops as well (certainly in some of the comments I’ve read responding to the WIT posts this has been the case).

    Johnson has made the claim that she has been misread. Quite possibly. On all fronts, I’ll wager, more careful reading and a more deliberate and humble rhetoric might well be called for – both at the “official” level, and here on the blogs as well. I’ll certainly try to do my part to that end.

    My sincere regards,


  5. David, while we may personally disagree with what counts as an “attack” I find it quite strange that you object to the statement being called an “attack” on Elizabeth Johnson but also suggest our commenters are “attacking” the bishops. The most critical comments have come from non-Catholics, first of all (in case that makes a difference). In this case you seem to consider “attack” to be anything that is critical of the bishops, because our commenters have called into question the handling of the specific case not the idea that there is magisterial teaching authority. In fact, I am outright proud of how our commenters have handled the case, because we haven’t had to moderate anything as problematic–which I consider quite an accomplishment considering some of the anger I’ve seen between different parties elsewhere on this issue. To assume that there’s nothing to be critical of the bishops in this case is to miss the point of our coverage (and the broader discussion) entirely.

  6. David,

    Your comments here are far too “meta,” and they seem to me to be changing the subject. All the posts I’ve linked to from the WIT blog are focused, as Megan says, on this particular case. They aren’t saying that the bishops should never, in principle, criticize a theologian — they’re saying that the bishops’ statements on Johnson’s work are incorrect and that Johnson does in fact stick to Catholic teaching on the points they address.

  7. Megan – thank you for your comment. I had intended for the next-to-last paragraph of my comment to function in a certain manner, but upon re-reading it I realize it just came off as confusing, and you are right to point it out. I take your point and would suggest simply skipping that paragraph – it doesn’t get the rhetorical job done.

    I also take your point about your not having had to moderate. In looking back over WIT (I’ve looked at a LOT of blogs over the past 48 hours) I realize I misattributed the hostile comments to a WIT discussion when, in fact, they appeared elsewhere. My apologies for the mistake.

    As for your response, Adam – frankly, I’m disappointed. I spent quite a while this afternoon writing what, for me (for those who know my oeuvre) was a genuinely respectful, irenic and informed comment. I write from a concern that is both personal and theological in this case, and I feel I would have genuine benefited from your engagement with the issues I raised. Instead, you dismiss me – as is your right, of course. Very well. I am dismissed. So it goes. Off to better things. Cheers.

  8. And you continue to go “meta”! I’m sorry you feel dismissed, but you don’t seem to me to have addressed whether this particular intervention by the bishops was prudent or necessary — you’ve simply defended the right of the bishops to make such statements (which neither I nor the WIT bloggers have disputed) and criticized our tone (which continues in your most recent comment). If this is such an important thing for the bishops to be doing, shouldn’t they be doing it well? Shouldn’t they also be doing it with at least some modicum of humility, for instance by entering into dialogue with the theologian they’re criticizing? Johnson says she had no idea her book was even under discussion by the bishops before this statement was issued — is that really the best way to go about it? It seems clear to me from the WIT posts that the bishops have misunderstood her work — do you disagree? Do you even have a basis for making that judgment?

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