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.