USCCB doctrine committee confirmed its position on the theological work of Sr. Elizabeth Johnson

Remember Sr. Elizabeth Johnson?  Teacher at the Jesuit-run Fordham University?  She wrote some things about the Holy Trinity that seemed to the US Bishops not to be exactly in line with Catholic doctrine and was called on it.  She objected. The US Bishops respond.

From CNA comes this update.

US bishops reaffirm critique of controversial theologian’s work

Washington D.C., Oct 29, 2011 / 06:19 pm (CNA).- The U.S. bishops have confirmed their criticism of a controversial theology book, after the author [Sr. Elizabeth Johnson] insisted they had “misunderstood” and “misrepresented” it.In an October 11, 2011 statement made public yesterday, doctrinal authorities at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said their committee “finds itself confirmed in its judgments” about Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s “Quest for the Living God,” which it previously criticized in March 2011.

After reviewing the Fordham University professor’s defense of her work, the Committee on Doctrine said it “remains convinced that the book … does not sufficiently ground itself in the Catholic theological tradition as its starting point,” and “does not adequately express the faith of the Church.”

In her response to the bishops’ first critique, Sr. Johnson sought to remind them that theology “does not simply reiterate received doctrinal formulas but probes and interprets them in order to deepen understanding.”

The committee agreed with Sr. Johnson’s insight about theology, but insisted she had not accomplished this task appropriately.

“It is true that the task of theological reflection is never accomplished by the mere repetition of formulas,” they noted, saying they did not object to Sr. Johnson’s attempt “to express the faith of the Church in terms that have not previously been used and approved.”

Rather, they objected to “Quest for the Living God” because “the ‘different’ language used in the book does not in fact convey the faith of the Church.”

“The real issue is whether or not new attempts at theological understanding are faithful to the deposit of faith as contained in the Scriptures and the Church’s doctrinal tradition,” they said. “All theology is ultimately subject to the norm of truth provided by the faith of the Church.”

Sr. Johnson’s treatment of the Trinity raised particular concerns for the committee.

They noted that her way of speaking about the three divine persons “leaves the door open to modalism,” an ancient heresy which rejected any real distinction between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

“The book’s misunderstanding of the incomprehensibility of God has effectively ruled out even divinely revealed analogies for the relationship among the persons of the Trinity,” they noted. “The result is that the book can only speak in vague terms about the Trinity.”

While refraining from any judgment of Sr. Johnson’s motives, the committee said her book had become a “particular pastoral concern” as a work intended for a popular, non-scholarly audience. [Read: It confuses people and leads them into error about a foundational article of the Faith, without which we are not really Christians.]

“Furthermore,” they stated, “whether or not the book was originally designed specifically to be a textbook, the book is in fact being used as a textbook for the study of the doctrine of God.”

Bishops, they said, have a responsibility “to judge works of theology … in terms of how adequately they express the faith of the Church.”

CNS has more.

UPDATE: Cardinal Wuerl responds to charge bishops never were willing to meet with theologian.

Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson, professor of systematic theology at Fordham University, responded this morning to the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine latest statement on her book “Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers of the Theology of God.” Here is her statement, which as of this writing is not available online. Go here to read our story detailing the bishop’s latest response to the book, and here to read their full text.


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  1. Marc says:

    The Fishwrap is going to have a nutter over this. I can hear them now.

  2. Dr. K says:

    I wonder if she receives an award at the CTA convention this month.

  3. mrose says:

    Bishops charitably doing their jobs!!!

    What misunderstanding (at least) is shown by Sr. Johnson about how the hierarchy is to function. Her complains of misunderstanding and misrepresentation come off as shrill and unrepentant cries that fail to acknowledge that the Bishops are the guardians of the faith.

    Hopefully we will soon be rid of theologians who think their job is new new new. Stop trying to improve upon the Deposit of Faith!

  4. PhilipNeri says:

    NB. Cardinal Wuerl says that he offered to meet with Sr. Johnson three times (via letter and email). She never responded. This appears to be S.O.P. for dissident theologians under the microscope for their dangerous deviations: ignore invitations for a meeting, whine to the media about how the bishops/Vatican never met with them personally.

    Fr. Philip Neri, OP

  5. From Dietrich von Hildebrand to Sr. Elizabeth Johnson: how Fordham has fallen.

    But at least the bishops are calling her on her errors.

  6. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:

    May we hope and pray that any school which uses this textbook receives notice that it can not claim to teach Catholic theology and use this textbook at the same time? May we further pray and hope that the bishops will ever more boldly enter the morass to cure what ails our Catholic culture?

    Thank you, Your Graces.

  7. Supertradmum says:

    Modalism is part of the New Age movement within the Catholic Church, and even this year, in the Spring, I heard a sermon in which the priest called Jesus a mode of the Trinity, an aspect, and this was at a Tridentine Mass. I did not have time to talk to him afterwards, as he rushed off, but it was obvious that he had some bad seminary training in the 1980s. NO, there are Three Distinct Persons in One God. The reason this modalism is so dangerous, besides denying the Trinitarian Doctrine in the Catholic Church is that is emphasizes the person who is believing, the believer, and how a person experiences God. New Age modalism puts the emphasis on how the believer and his or her experience of the Trinity. Some of the Pentecostals believe this, which is another reason why we must check out people’s baptismal formulas when they come into the Catholic Church, as this Baptism in the Name of Jesus stuff denies the Trinity as Three.

    This heresy is New Age in its emphasis on the believer rather than God, which is a form of anthropocentrism. Egotists love this sort of me-centered “theology”. Sister’s book is yet just another fuzzy book which, I am glad, is condemned, but more like this should be.

  8. Bryan Boyle says:

    @Miss Moore, OP: The rot at my alma mater started way before this ‘sister’ ever showed up at Universitas Fordhamensis. It has been dissident and unfaithful to the Church since the 60s and they decided to become a private university (it’s not a Catholic university, it’s a private, non-sectarian university in the ‘Jesuit Tradition’). Confusing it with a Catholic university is a misnomer. It’s only “Catholic” when Ma and Pa Bagodonuts bring their little prides and joys to visit to see if they want to go there.

    The theology department was rife with ‘out there’ professors when I attended. One, whose class I happened to take, I didn’t even know was a priest from his clothing, use of colorful language (this from a theology prof…), or being surrounded by worshiping coeds until one Sunday, I went to Mass in the University Chapel, and was floored to see who the main celebrant was.

    ‘Sr. Johnson’ is only the visible symptom of the rot in the Bronx. There are many others (Watergate, for instance, was heavily influenced and controlled by FU alumni…;))

    God bless.
    (Full disclosure: Fordham College class of 1978)

  9. Supertradmum says:

    Bryan Boyle,

    St. Louis University is no longer Catholic either but private in the Jesuit Tradition. Ugh. Thank God for Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Thomas More College, Wyoming Catholic, Christendom, etc. for saving Catholic higher ed from disappearing…..

  10. Bryan Boyle says:

    @Supertradmum: Amen.

  11. Speravi says:

    I thought the USCCB published a document on her some time ago, last year I think…?

  12. Fr Martin Fox says:

    I read her statement, with its hand-wringing about “process.” The mean bishops didn’t have tea with her, how rude!

    Then I had a wicked thought: wouldn’t it be hilarious if someone wrote a statement, following her style, that poor, misunderstood Arius might have issued at one point in his travails?

    Alas, I have no time to do it, but perhaps some enterprising person will give it a go?

  13. Margaret says:

    Oh my gosh, Fr. Fox– that could be a weekly blog feature someplace. Arians, Donatist, Manichaeans… the possibilities are endless. And using satire to highlight the particular errors (“misunderstood” and “misrepresented” points, excuse me!) could make it easier to commit said errors to memory.

  14. Art says:

    @Fr. Fox, Margaret:

    Pelagius already has a supporter in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta.

  15. wmeyer says:

    As I believe I wrote when this subject arose weeks or months ago, I would think it is incumbent upon an author to seek the imprimatur and nihil obstat, and therefore the approval of the bishops, and not for the bishops to apply to her. If these were denied, I would guess that some communication would be forthcoming, and that the reasons would have been communicated at that time. The ball would then be in her court. Instead, we see noise and nonsense, from someone whose intentions can only be inferred from her prose.

  16. Supertradmum says:

    Neo-Pelagianism and Pelagianism, are, I think, the most common heresies alive and well in the British Isles. Just for the record…

  17. robtbrown says:


    . . . as this Baptism in the Name of Jesus stuff denies the Trinity as Three.

    The formula itself doesn’t–it is found in Scripture. Because it is not an explicit expression of the Trinity, however, intention becomes important.

  18. Supertradmum says:


    This form of Baptism is not accepted by the Catholic Church as valid, regardless of intention. This was discussed by the Early Church Fathers.

  19. robtbrown says: The formula itself [Baptism in the Name of Jesus] doesn’t–it is found in Scripture. Because it is not an explicit expression of the Trinity, however, intention becomes important.

    Yet even with the right intention, the wrong formula would not work, even if it comes from Scripture. Hence, for example, the invalidity of baptisms done in the name of the “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier” that the Church ruled on some years ago.

  20. robtbrown says:

    Miss Anita Moore, O.P.,

    Of course. Reducing the goodness (here, the validity) of human acts to their Intention was the error of Abelard and hundreds of years later, the Proportionalists.

    My point is that the formula itself is not invalid, but its ambiguity about the Trinity makes it not suitable for contemporary use. But St Thomas’ position is a bit more complex.

  21. AnAmericanMother says:

    Color me not particularly surprised. Just another one of the thousands of reasons I left the Diocese of Atlanta and the ECUSA.
    Went to the diocesan website just to see who the . . . person . . . was that proposed this, and found:

    Contributions of Pelagius
    . . . .
    Submitted by the Rev. Benno D. Pattison, Rector, the Church of the Epiphany

    This guy took over Epiphany in 2005 from a priestess that had been there since the 80s. I don’t know him from Adam’s housecat, there’s no sign of a biography anywhere on the internet (including the parish’s own website, which in the only phrase that refers to him says he has “an infectious and exuberant enthusiasm for the work God calls” but never finishes the sentence). Degree from General Theological in NYC, the usual suspects. Used to be at St. Luke’s which is a downtown and very “out there” parish. He’s active in ‘peace and justice’, immigration reform, and the parish is now billed as an “inclusive community”. He is apparently a triathlete. He has shoulder length hair and his collar doesn’t fit.


  22. robtbrown says:

    Supertradmum says:

    Neo-Pelagianism and Pelagianism, are, I think, the most common heresies alive and well in the British Isles. Just for the record…

    Also in the US–but I would add semi-Pelagianism.

  23. sanctasophia says:

    Simple answer – I have not read the book – but I bet she does ot have a veil – I knew a professor of dogmatics and she was a nun and quite liberal -but she knew waht the catholic faith was – and she dressed as a domincan at ushaw

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