Prof's book on God misrepresents Catholic faith

April 11, 2011
The U.S. Bishops' Committee on Doctrine has sharply criticized a 2007 book written by Fordham University professor Sr. Elizabeth Johnson.

CNS PHOTO | COURTESY FORDHAM UNIVERSITY

The U.S. Bishops' Committee on Doctrine has sharply criticized a 2007 book written by Fordham University professor Sr. Elizabeth Johnson.

DENNIS SADOWSKI
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON — The U.S. bishops' Committee on Doctrine has concluded that a 2007 book written by Sister Elizabeth Johnson "contains misrepresentations, ambiguities and errors" related to the Catholic faith.

The committee said in a detailed 21-page statement released March 30 that the book, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, failed to take the faith of the Catholic Church as its starting point.

It also chose to use standards from outside the faith to "criticize and to revise in a radical fashion the conception of God revealed in Scripture and taught by the magisterium."

The committee identified the book for review more than a year ago, said Father Thomas Weinandy, executive director of the Secretariat for Doctrine at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In a March 31 interview, Weinandy said the doctrine committee examined the book only when it was brought to their attention.

BROAD AUDIENCE

The statement from the committee, chaired by Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, indicated that the book was reviewed because Johnson, a Fordham University theology professor, is a well-known theologian and that the book is aimed at a broad audience of general readers.

The fact that it is used as a textbook in some theology classes at universities around the country also was a factor, the statement said.

In a statement released March 30, Johnson said her book "endeavours to present new insights about God arising from people living out their Catholic faith in different cultures around the world."

"My hope is that any conversation that may be triggered by this statement will but enrich that faith, encouraging robust relationship to the holy mystery of the living God as the Church moves into the future," she said.

Despite their criticism of the book, the bishops declined to take any disciplinary action against Johnson.

Johnson also expressed concern that she was never invited to discuss the concerns that committee members had with the book.

The committee's conclusions "paint an incorrect picture of the fundamental line of thought the book develops," she said. The statement did not elaborate.

Johnson said she would welcome a conversation with the committee.

In developing their statement, members of the doctrine committee decided not to seek a meeting with Johnson to discuss their concerns, Weinandy told Catholic News Service.

"They felt it was self-evident in the book what she was saying and that it was wrong. The bishops felt it was expedient, since this book has become so popular, to act upon it immediately," Weinandy said.

"The bishops felt that (meeting with her) would just prolong a process that they really didn't want to prolong."

NO IMPRIMATUR

Wuerl said in a statement that accompanied the committee's findings that he would have preferred that Johnson would have sought an imprimatur ("let it be printed") that would have signified official permission to publish a book that touches on matters of Catholic faith or moral teaching.

"By seeking an imprimatur, the author has the opportunity to engage in dialogue with the bishop concerning Catholic teaching expressed in the book. Thus, clarifications concerning the text can be made prior to its publication," he said.

Wuerl said the doctrine committee also welcomed the opportunity to discuss the book with Johnson.

Johnson has been president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and the Ecumenical Theological Society and has been honoured by numerous Catholic institutions with awards and honorary degrees.

The nine bishops on the committee raised seven concerns stemming from Johnson's book.

The first was that she misrepresented the traditional scriptural and Catholic understanding of God and offered instead "a thoroughgoing reinterpretation of the doctrine of God," by questioning central beliefs of Catholic theology.

The bishops then said that her view of religious language was inadequate. She held that the language used in the Bible and the Christian tradition to speak of God can only be metaphorical because God is an incomprehensible mystery.

However, the bishops maintained that while the faithful may not be able to comprehend fully the mystery of the one God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, it is possible to know that such is the case.

The bishops' third point revolved around Johnson's discussion about whether God within his divine nature is able to suffer. Johnson appeared to agree with those who say that God can and does suffer because of human failings.

GOD'S TRANSCENDENCE

Such a view, the bishops maintained, undermined God's transcendence. Johnson, the statement said, incorrectly suggested that God is a being whose existence only differs in degree and not in kind from that of created reality.

Fourth, the statement said Johnson maintains that because all human language about God is metaphorical, that human names for God evolved out of a particular sociopolitical context.

The bishops said that the theologian's view does not take into account the authority of divine revelation and the biblical and traditional theological language used to speak of God.

The bishops' fifth concern is that Johnson's work did not uphold the complete and definitive revelation of Jesus as Lord and Saviour. She argued that the fullness of truth can only be acquired by taking into account non-Christian religions.

In doing so, according to the statement, Johnson "denies the uniqueness of Jesus as the Incarnate Word" and that for the "fullness of truth about God, "one needs Jesus + Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc.," which is "contrary to Church teaching.

Pantheism

The statement also cited Johnson's pantheistic view of God, which undermined the traditional understanding of God as "radically distinct from creation."

Finally, the bishops said, the theologian "wishes to limit our understanding of God to the economy of salvation," reducing the traditional understanding of God as three persons to mere symbolism.

Such understanding undermined the Gospel and the Church's belief that Christ is God's Son, the statement said.