USCCB shreds Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s book on the Trinity

US Bishops do care about theology and what is being taught and written.  For example, even though we already knew this, Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s book on the Trinity, Quest for the Living God, is not a good book.

The Doctrine Committee of the USCCB has issued a statement about the doctrinal orthodoxy of Sr. Johnson’s little tome.   Sr. Johnson, a CSJ, teaches as the Jesuit school Fordham University in NYC.

The USCCB Doctrine Committee is chaired by His Eminence Donald Card. Wuerl.

There is a 21 page pdf available.

The nearly ubiquitous John L. Allen, Jr., sadly still writing for the National Catholic Fishwrap has a very good summary article about the statement on the theological orthodoxy of Sr. Johnson’s book.  He saves you some time so you don’t have to slog through the pdf.

After saying explaining that Sr. Johnson’s book was very popular, and that it won awards, and how many awards and degrees Sr. Johnson has, we learn that … well… let me share some of this with my emphases and comments:

First, at the level of method, the statement accuses [Interesting choice of words.  It may actually be accurate.] Johnson of questioning core elements of traditional Christian theology, including its understanding of God as “incorporeal, impassible, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent.” Doing so, the statement asserts, is “seriously to misrepresent the tradition and so to distort it beyond recognition.” [I believe the Church teaches that God, Triune, is all of those things.]

Second, the statement faults Johnson for treating language about God in the Bible and in church tradition as largely metaphorical, implying that truth about God is essentially “unknowable.” Even if mysteries such as the Trinity and the Incarnation can never be fully grasped, the statement says, they can nevertheless be “known.” While Johnson bases part of her argument on early church fathers, according to the statement, her position actually has more in common with Immanuel Kant and “Enlightenment skepticism.

Third, the statement asserts that in talking about the “suffering” of God, Johnson actually undermines God’s transcendence, suggesting that God differs only in degree, not in kind, from other beings. [That would be bad.]

Fourth, according to the statement, Johnson advocates new language about God not based on its truth but its socio-political utility. In particular, she argues that all-male language about God perpetuates “an unequal relationship between women and men,” and thus has become “religiously inadequate.[And so we get to it.] In fact, according to the statement, male imagery about God found in scripture and tradition “are not mere human creations that can be replaced by others that we may find more suitable.”

Fifth, the statement asserts that Johnson’s emphasis on the presence of the Holy Spirit in non-Christian religions “denies the uniqueness of Jesus as the Incarnate Word.” [That would be bad.] In effect, according to the statement, Johnson’s argument suggests that for the fullness of truth about God, “one needs Jesus + Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc.”, a position it says is “contrary to church teaching.”

Sixth, the statement says, Johnson’s treatment of God as Creator ends in pantheism, undercutting the traditional understanding of God as “radically different from creation.” [The inevitable end of Modernism.]

Seventh, the statement faults Johnson’s understanding of the Trinity. Johnson treats traditional language about God as three persons as symbolic, according to the statement, thereby undercutting the church’s belief that “Jesus is ontologically the eternal Son of the Father.”

[NB] In its conclusion, the statement says the root problem with Johnson’s book is that it “does not take the faith of the church as its starting point.”

“It effectively precludes the possibility of human knowledge of God through divine revelation,” the statement says, “and reduces all names and concepts of God to human constructions that are to be judged not on their accuracy … but on their social and political utility.”

With today’s statement, Quest for the Living God joins a handful of other recent books by prominent American theologians which have been singled out for formal criticism by the Committee on Doctrine. [Get this great list:] Those works include The Sexual Person by Todd Salzman and Michael Salazar (Georgetown University Press, 2008); Being Religious Interreligiously by Peter Phan (Maryknoll, 2004); and two 2006 pamphlets on contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage by Daniel Maguire.

I am happy that the USCCB Doctrine Committee is reading books.   Also, we should be grateful to Mr. Allen for giving us a summary.

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23 Responses to USCCB shreds Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s book on the Trinity

  1. shane says:

    I am just after reading the USCCB document and I would highly recommend it. To see a modern episcopal conference referencing St Thomas Aquinas in the cause of orthodoxy is really quite refreshing. I can’t imagine it happening 10 years ago.

  2. dad29 says:

    Sr. Johnson, a CSJ, teaches as the Jesuit school Fordham University in NYC

    Shocked! Shocked!!!! I say.

  3. Charivari Rob says:

    Gee, couldn’t they find something nice to say about the book?

    High-quality binding? Eye-pleasing font? Used recycled paper? Anything?

  4. Thank you, Fr. Z, for posting this so we don’t have to give the NCReporter hits on their website and have to suffer through the ignorant, ill-tempered comments. Apparently, according to the NCReporter comboxers, the job of bishops is to reaffirm the goodness of every worldly wind that blows (especially in liberal “Social Justice” issues), and bow and scrape to dissident theologians and journalists. Actually defend the teachings of Christ? Who cares about that? We want to be of the world, not merely in it.

  5. Fr. Sticha: In a nutshell, the Fishwrap will say:

    Feminist theologian = good.
    USCCB Doctrine Committee = bad.

    There. Saved you more time.

  6. joecct77 says:

    Some of these books were published by Catholic printing houses!?!?!?!?!

    Do these books have an Imprimatur or a (spelling) Nihil Obstat???

  7. wmeyer says:

    Interesting that one of the comments made on NCR accuses the bishops of not engaging any of Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s statements in the book. It appears that few if any of those commenting there read any of the statement issued by the bishops. The spirit of Vatican II lives on….

  8. Massachusetts Catholic says:

    Reclaiming our heritage… book by book.

  9. BaedaBenedictus says:

    If there ever is a proper occasion to use the dreaded “H” word, this is one. She goes from parish to parish to peddle her poison—I remember getting an e-mail about her coming to my area a couple of years ago to give a lecture, described as “reflections on God from feminist, liberationist, black, Hispanic, interreligious, ecological and Trinitarian perspectives.”

    I remember thinking, “Phew. At least she got the Trinitarian perspective in!” But now, in light of this USCCB document, I wonder what kind of “Trinity” she was talking about.

  10. Brad says:

    And the miracles of the loaves and fishes was just the “miracle” of people sharing their food with one another.

  11. markomalley says:

    Anybody who hasn’t read the combox on the Fishwrap page should. It gives a stark picture of what we’re up against.

  12. CJD89 says:

    I wonder if the Holy See will say anything. Father, do you think the Vatican will concern itself with this book? Will Sr. Elizabeth Johnson have to retract what she wrote?

    P.S. I have a couple of Religious Studies professors who studied under her haha… oh what dire times we live in.

  13. Gail F says:

    She says the language about God being three persons is just symbolic??? The mind boggles. Trinitarian theology is pretty basic to Catholicism. Deny that and you affirm… well, who knows what you could end up affirming? A variety of things, depending on which direction you go. But none of them are Catholic.

  14. vmanning says:

    So…is she a Catholic ? Or a theologian? [Very good questions.]

  15. This strikes me as Modernism, in the actual, using-Catholic-terms/categories-while-giving-them-totally-different-meanings-or-none-at-all, Pascendi Dominici Gregis sense. of course, I haven’t read the book, but that’s what it SOUNDS like.

    (I really wish St Pius X had chosen a more specific term, like ‘Theological Relativism’ or something. Calling a heresy ‘Modernism’ is problematic for two reasons — it gives the progressives an unnecessary stick to beat the Church with for being medieval or anti-modern, and it gives the farthest right/sedevacantists again an unnecessary stick to beat the Church with for affirming things called ‘modern’ in the more general sense of ‘recent’.

    But the problem is hardly unique to St Pius X — the doctrine of papal infallibility really ought to be called something like ‘ex cathedra infallibility’, since the vast, vast majority of papal statements don’t involve it.)

  16. Athelstan says:

    Hello wmeyer,

    Interesting that one of the comments made on NCR accuses the bishops of not engaging any of Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s statements in the book.

    Well, after sifting through those comboxes long enough, I must conclude that any “engagement” that did not result in an endorsement of Sr. Johnson’s positions – or something mushy to that effect – would not be satisfactory to these commentators. Just as no “dialogue” that does not result in a surrender to a dissenter is never considered to be adequate dialogue. In the end, “engagement” and “dialogue” must always affirm in some way the new theology or rule being advanced. Always.

    I heard the same complaint made by at least one of his students after Fr. Roger Haight was rebuked a few years back. Same problem. If you don’t agree with him, it’s because you didn’t understand him. Probably because you’re too dumb or ignorant to get it.

    Further – sad to say – it i shard not to read many of the folks at NCR – scribes and commentators alike – and not conclude that, for all intents and purposes, they are no longer Catholic in any meaningful sense at all. The Catholic Church they favor has very little in common with its historical lived reality for the first nineteen centuries of its existence, virtually of which (save some imagined idyllic mythical apostolic dawn) is something they are gravely embarrassed by. So why stick around? There are reasons, and you can guess at a few of them.

  17. @Athelstan: “So why stick around? There are reasons, and you can guess at a few of them.”

    Actually, I can’t (beyond possibly the kind of misunderstanding of Tradition and/or Papal Infallibility and/or Councils that would make them think the Pope or Vatican III could infallibly declare the moral acceptability of condoms or toss out the Trinity as outmoded tomorrow.)

    Those with the sort of worldview you describe probably don’t believe any form of extra ecclesiam nulla salus, so… beyond a fear of the consequences of leaving, or a misunderstanding of what the Church is to the point that they don’t realize they are “no longer Catholic in any meaningful sense at all”, what’s left? Apathy?

  18. BaedaBenedictus says:

    What’s left? Money, prestige, comfortable positions in Catholic academia, sense of victimhood, quasi-Marxist struggle-against-the-patriarchy mentality. Why else would they stay? As Episcopalians they would have none of these things.

    They are like termites gnawing on Peter’s Barque: feeding off the Church while undermining Her.

  19. Bryan Boyle says:

    Suppress.The.Jesuits.
    Close.Their.Schools.
    Cancel.Their.Retirement.Funds.
    Throw.Them.Out.

    Now I feel better
    (Fordham University Class of 1978)

  20. robtbrown says:

    biologistforlife says:

    This strikes me as Modernism, in the actual, using-Catholic-terms/categories-while-giving-them-totally-different-meanings-or-none-at-all, Pascendi Dominici Gregis sense. of course, I haven’t read the book, but that’s what it SOUNDS like.

    (I really wish St Pius X had chosen a more specific term, like ‘Theological Relativism’ or something. Calling a heresy ‘Modernism’ is problematic for two reasons — it gives the progressives an unnecessary stick to beat the Church with for being medieval or anti-modern, and it gives the farthest right/sedevacantists again an unnecessary stick to beat the Church with for affirming things called ‘modern’ in the more general sense of ‘recent’.

    Although you might have point about the use of the word “Modernism”, nevertheless:

    1. It was chosen for good reason–generally, modern means contemporary. And so Theological Modernism reduces Revelation to being merely a product of whatever era produced it.

    2. In scholarly circles the Modern Age is usually considered to have ended in the 20th century, and we are considered to be living in the Post Modern Age.

    But the problem is hardly unique to St Pius X — the doctrine of papal infallibility really ought to be called something like ‘ex cathedra infallibility’, since the vast, vast majority of papal statements don’t involve it.)

    Not really correct.

    Ex cathedra refers to new dogmatic definitions, but acc to both Vat I and Vat II Infallibility goes beyond those new dogmas. This makes sense because it would be silly to say that the pope is infallible in proclaiming new definitions, but that he could definitely say something that would be an a priori contradiction of what he (or any pope or Council) would have already established as dogma.

  21. Athelstan says:

    Hello “A Biologist For Life,”

    Actually, I can’t (beyond possibly the kind of misunderstanding of Tradition and/or Papal Infallibility and/or Councils that would make them think the Pope or Vatican III could infallibly declare the moral acceptability of condoms or toss out the Trinity as outmoded tomorrow.)

    That’s all right. Consider the most likely reasons:

    1) They can get far more attention and fight for much higher stakes by keeping their identity (claimed or otherwise) as Catholics than they can in just another splinter group or mainline Protestant church. “Episcopalians hold big ordination ceremony for women, gays.” That would be a dog bites man story in any normal outlet. Which is to say, no story at all.

    2) To the degree that it’s more sincere, I think they need the affirmation of the Catholic Church for their beliefs, their desires, their ideas, their lifestyles. It’s not merely that the approval of a small splinter church or liberal Protestant denomination isn’t big or resounding or warm enough. So long as there is this massive, ancient institution called Rome out there still speaking out against these ideas, they feel attacked and diminished. So long as it’s out there saying these things, and acting on them, it’s intolerable to them. As they see it, the Church’s size and influence risks further…discrimination against the lifestyles or beliefs in society at large. That can’t be allowed to stand.

    3) And yes, if you have an academic or bureaucratic sinecure (as Sr. Johnson does), giving that up could be a tough hit to take, financially and career-wise. If turfed, she might still get lucky and end up like Charlie Curran at a nice tenured job at a Protestant or secular school – but there’s no guarantee. But having said that, I think she’s sincere in her beliefs, and it’s not just job or money motivating her.

    P.S. I also notice that I had a couple of double negatives in my post which I failed to catch in my haste. I hope no one was too put off their feed.

  22. John Nolan says:

    Upholding the Church’s teaching and confirming the brethren are the pastoral responsibilities of the bishops and if collegiality and subsidiarity are to mean anything they need to speak out in individual cases and not leave everything to the Holy Office. We also need something along the lines of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum so that at least the authors and authoresses of suchlike drivel can be named and shamed.

  23. Nancy D. says:

    “Trinitarian Theology is pretty basic to Catholicism. Deny that, and you affirm…well, who knows what you end up affirming?”

    You affirm that three rocks that do not appear to be of the same substance, are not in any particular order, lack unity and thus there can never be a communion nor can they exist as ONE are like The Blessed Trinity. (see cover)