USA: Catholic Bishops' Attack on Book Concerns Scholars

Publication Date: 
April 11, 2011
New York Times
Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson

Is God male? The Old Testament uses the masculine pronoun to describe him. Jesus refers to the divinity as Father. So does that make the creator a masculine force — and mean that men are more godlike than women?

These are questions that theologians like Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson, a professor, have been mulling for years. At 69, Sister Johnson is among the pioneers of a generation of feminist scholars who examine how cultural biases among biblical scribes may have led to women’s diminished roles in Western religious traditions, especially the .

Until a few weeks ago, when a committee of American bishops  in , many theologians considered such questions standard academic fare — a natural line of inquiry into the cultural context and history of ancient texts.

Now, those scholars are sifting through  to understand what it may mean for them, and for the future of theological study in the United States. Many on the left and the right agree on one point: The bishops, who have already shut off discussion about ordaining women, are signaling that other long-debated questions about gender in the church — the choice of pronouns in prayers, the study of the male and female aspects of God — are substantially off-limits as well.

Several Catholic thinkers say that in confronting Sister Johnson, a highly respected theologian whose books are widely used in theology classes, the bishops have tried to make an example.

“What the bishops have done is to reject 50 years of contemporary theology,” said Terrence W. Tilley, chairman of the theology department at Fordham, where many faculty members have rallied to the sister’s defense. “Sister Johnson has been attempting to push Catholic thinking along new paths. And the bishops have now made it clear — this is something they stand against.”

He and other supporters describe Sister Johnson as a moderate who works from well inside the Catholic mainstream. In a statement on Friday, the board of the  the bishops’ criticism represented a misreading of her work, and showed “a very narrow understanding” of the ways theologians serve the church, including “interpreting revelation for present times and cultures.”

Much of Sister Johnson’s scholarship is informed by the Second Vatican Council, which urged the faithful to overcome “every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion.”

But conservatives in the church have long accused her of holding radical beliefs, and the bishops’ action has cheered them.

Sister Johnson’s support for granting women greater authority in the church — a position that stops just short of defying Vatican pronouncements against the ordination of women — and her willingness to address meetings of Catholics who differ with the church on issues like  have made her a high-profile target of traditionalist Catholic groups. The Cardinal Newman Society, which monitors Catholic colleges for what it considers “inauthentic” teaching, has criticized a half-dozen of them in recent years for giving her honorary degrees.

“This is a person who has described the male-only priesthood as a sign of ‘patriarchal resistance to women’s equality,’ ” said Patrick J. Reilly, the society’s president. “So I think she has officially challenged church teaching in ways that are beyond the pale.”

Chastisements by the , while rare, have become more frequent in recent years. According to official records, the bishops’ doctrinal committee issued none between 1989 and 2007, but Sister Johnson’s book is the fourth theological work since 2007 to draw its criticism.

Such cases are investigated and decided in secret, usually after a complaint, which can be initiated by any member of the Catholic hierarchy in the United States or the Vatican. Even Archbishop  of New York, who was elected president of the bishops’ conference in November, said he learned of the Committee on Doctrine’s rebuke only a week before it was announced on March 30.

Sister Johnson has declined all requests for interviews. , she said the bishops had misrepresented her writings and never contacted her, but she promised to use their criticism to “delve more deeply” into her thinking.

The critique was limited to her most recent book, “Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God,” which examined different understandings of the divine through the experiences of women, Latinos, Holocaust victims, the poor and people of other religions.

Saying the book should not be used in Catholic schools and colleges, the bishops singled out passages they said contained “misrepresentations, ambiguities and errors.” Those included sections describing other religious traditions as having roots in divine revelation as deep as Christianity’s.

The passages drawing the harshest admonishment, however, concerned Sister Johnson’s proposal that feminine as well as masculine imagery be used in prayers referring to God, a recommendation that has been debated and rejected by the bishops before. Still, the book persisted, “all-male images of God are hierarchical images rooted in the unequal relation between women and men, and they function to maintain this arrangement.”


Wrong, the bishops said: If the Gospels use masculine imagery, it is because divine revelation would have it that way.

“The names of God found in the Scriptures are not mere human creations that can be replaced by others that we may find more suitable,” the bishops wrote. “The standard by which all theological assertions must be judged is that provided by divine revelation, not by unaided human understanding. God does use human, and thus limited, means in revealing himself to the world.”

Dr. Tilley, the Fordham theology chairman, described that argument as “approaching the incoherent.”

“All revelation is received through language, and all language is culturally conditioned,” he said. “All they are saying here is that they have the truth and Sister Johnson doesn’t.”

Sister Johnson was president of the Catholic Theological Society in the mid-1990s when she joined a highly publicized battle to change the language in the Catholic Bible and other prayer texts to reflect a more “gender neutral” sensibility — using words like “humans” and “our parent” in place of “men” and “our father.” While the bishops’ conference initially supported the idea, traditionalists eventually carried the day, restoring the original language in all but a few instances.

“People like Elizabeth Johnson were not just talking about changing semantics,” said Helen Hull Hitchcock, founder of a lay organization called , which opposed the changes. “They would have radically restructured the reality of the way Catholics receive their core beliefs,” possibly laying the groundwork for another effort at women’s ordination, Mrs. Hitchcock said.

Sister Johnson entered the Sisters of St. Joseph in the late 1950s. She worked as a high school science teacher until the mid-1960s, when the liberalization inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council inspired her to pursue graduate studies in theology, according to her faculty Web page at Fordham, where she has taught since 1997.

By theology standards, her seven published books have achieved best-seller status, said a spokesman for her publisher, Continuum, an independent company in New York. An early work, “Consider Jesus,” is a standard text in many undergraduate theology classrooms, as is “Quest for the Living God,” which has sold 20,000 copies and been translated into six languages.

It was apparently her popularity, more than any extreme or groundbreaking theological views, that drew the attention of the bishops.

“There was a sense of urgency in this matter, because the bishops knew that Sister Johnson’s book was being taught in undergraduate theology,” said the Rev. Thomas G. Weinandy, executive director for the bishops’ Committee on Doctrine. “They wished to make it clear that this did not represent church teaching.”

Father Weinandy said the committee’s concern was less about “feminism or nonfeminism” than about the author’s “understanding of God.”

But Teresa Berger, a theology professor at Yale Divinity School whom the Vatican barred from teaching in Catholic universities in the early 1990s because of her feminist theological writings, said the church’s attitude toward women was diminishing its understanding of God.

“Gender has become such a contentious issue in the church,” Professor Berger said, “that any exploration of it, in terms of language or in the larger question of the nature of God, is viewed as a threat to the basic givens of the faith.”