A Bishops’ Bungled Book Review

I’m sure Elizabeth Johnson’s publisher is happy at the prospect of a sales uptick with Quest for the Living God: Mapping the Frontiers in the Theology of God. I’m not well-read on Elizabeth Johnson. Maybe I should take Jim Martin’s recommendations to heart.

Have the bishops realized their approach to theology is not much different from a reviewer’s? I’ve written reviews for almost twenty years in print and online. I listen to a disk or read a book. I relate the content briefly. I explore one or two points of possible interest to readers. I give a recommendation or not. I generally don’t contact the creator.

First, this is sort of an enemy-of-my-enemy situation. People don’t like Cardinal Rigali, Cardinal Law and other bishops. The bishops don’t like Professor Johnson. People figure they might like Professor Johnson. The book gets read.

Next, isn’t this just a tomayto/tomahto kerfuffle? The bishops say Professor Johnson doesn’t grasp basic theology. She says they don’t understand her book. Good communication, that. As a result, more people will buy and read the book. She will continue to write and teach. The bishops will continue penning press releases at which some will cluck. Does that reinforce or enhance their teaching authority?

Is it plausible for a bishops’ committee to interview a theologian and discuss content? I don’t have the answer to that. It’s sure not the Vatican way. I will remark that institutional secrecy hasn’t done a lot of good for the Church recently.

Who knows? Maybe Archbishop Wuerl and his confreres on the committee really liked the book and if they gave it a positive review, they would sink it. There must be a better way to enhance the pursuit of good theology. If the bishops have abdicated, it looks like it’s been left to the laity.

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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8 Responses to A Bishops’ Bungled Book Review

  1. Eb Hurley says:

    I object to your generalization that “people don’t like Cardinal Rigali.” There are plenty of people who like Cardinal Rigali and many people who love Cardinal Rigali and remember him in our prayers. The Philadelphia Inquirer is not the infallible source of all information regarding the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

  2. David D. says:

    Shouldn’t the primary concern be whether there is any validity to the issues raised by the bishops?

    I’ve read the USCCB’s statement and Cardinal Wuerl’s letter. Despite the predictable silliness from the usual suspects (Goodstein, Laurie. “Bishops Urge Catholic Schools to Ban a Nun’s Book.” The New York Times. 30 Mar. 2011. Web. 31 Mar. 2011.), I see nothing heavy-handed in the bishops’ actions. The book in question was first published in 2007 and is currently in use at several colleges and universities. The bishops have not taken action to suppress its dissemination nor threatened the author with any sanction. The Committee on Doctrine did not undertake its review sua sponte but at the behest of individual bishops who had raised certain concerns. Cardinal Wuerl represents that the Committee remains open to “dialogue” with the author and also points out that the bishops would have welcomed pre-publication discussion.

    You have admittedly not read the book in question yet dismiss the bishops’ response out of hand. If we’re going to reflexively question any action or statement originating from a bishop, it seems to me that such suspicion should be extended to tenured professors of eco-feminist theology at semi- elite universities where the average yearly cost of attendance approaches $57,000.00.

    • Bill Logan says:

      David, is the Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine seeking to understand Sister Johnson’s book or are they seeking publicity? As both you and a commenter on the America blog point out, Cardinal Wuerl admits that the committee has not spoken with Sister Johnson about her book. Far easier for them to condemn what they may well have misunderstood.

      Sister Johnson’s statement to the press is reproduced in one of the National Catholic Reporter’s articles about this.

      Todd, the New York Times article on this had a statement from Continuum that the paperback version of Sister Johnson’s book is due out in July. I’m guessing they’ve increased the print run for it or else moved the date forward.

  3. Todd says:

    I haven’t followed the Inquirer on this; mainly Whispers and the archdiocesan paper.

  4. Liam says:

    Sr Johnson’s statement is classy, as I’d expect it to be. Elizabeth Johnson is not Mary Daly, and it should be remembered that feminist theologians have as much individuality as male theologians. (I recall a colleague going to a conference where Sr Johnson gave an address, and in the Q&A that followed, she was criticized by a member of the audience who asked her “Why aren’t you angry?” and she replied “Who said I wasn’t angry?”. I respect scholars who know how to avoid baiting and being baited. While there are certainly theologians on the left who bait and allow themselves to be baited, there are certainly prelates who are no less vulnerable in this regard….)

  5. Todd says:

    I have Sr Johnson’s book on my desk. I plan to read it and offer my own review. I’ve also examined the first few pages of the bishops’ statement, and I confess I’m flabbergasted.

    I do take bishops’ statements very seriously, even the ones not elevated to points of unfailing doctrine. Yet the first arguments against this book strike me as very weak. It seemed to me they were objecting to her judgments on misinterpretation of the image and reality of God. Analysis is not a matter of theology.

    I might say, for example, that people have lost a sense of sin. An adversary, in turn, might insist that people’s level of awareness of sin is indeed as high as it ever was. These are sociological points that might be solved by a survey or an analysis using the human sciences. Nothing is likely to be solved rationally by an appeal to subjective experience.

    A person is not a questionable theologian for suggesting people have a flawed view of theology. The worst one might say is that Elizabeth Johnson is out of her depth in history and sociology. But somehow I doubt it.

    Like David, I see nothing heavy-handed in their piece either. Their judgment is irrelevant: the book has been published; it is being read; and its sales will likely swell. Do the bishops have something positive and substantive to offer in its stead? Something other than a jovial and friendly archbishop on tv?

    • Bill Logan says:

      Here’s something that I’m wondering about since both you and David mentioned this. Why isn’t the bishops’ action heavy-handed? Why aren’t they trying to sanction or discipline Sister Johnson? (Not that I’m encouraging this.)

      The bishops’ statement is a litany of complaints about how Sister Johnson gets it all wrong. Here’s what they say towards the end, when discussing Sister Johnson’s treatment of the Trinity (p.19 of the pdf) (emphasis added):

      Once again, it is evident that, according to Sr. Johnson, language about God, even Trinitarian language, does not actually provide knowledge of and truth concerning God and the manner of his existence. For her, God remains mysteriously unknowable. This position, however, completely undermines the Gospel and the faith of those who believe in that Gospel, for it supposes that the Church does not proclaim what is actually true . . . .

      Strong words–”completely undermines the Gospel” and “completely undermines . . . the faith of those who believe in that Gospel”. But if Sister Johnson is so very, very wrong, why aren’t the bishops’ proceeding against her? Aren’t they supposedly worried about our spiritual well-being?

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