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LPTS Faculty letter supports Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson

Jul 28, 2011
The U.S. Catholic bishops’ public critique of a book by Roman Catholic theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson has motivated the faculty of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary to write and sign a letter professing solidarity with Johnson and affirming her constructive use of theological tradition. Johnson received the Grawemeyer Award in Religion at Louisville Seminary in 1993.

“We realize, of course, that a Protestant seminary can have no formal standing to speak about relations between a Roman Catholic theologian and her church,” the letter, drafted by Seminary faculty members Kathryn Johnson and Amy Plantinga Pauw, states. “We do, however, begin from a position analogous to yours. We also seek to pursue academic insight within the context of and in the service of the Church, and so we believe that we can appreciate something of the faithful tensions which your work has sought to maintain.”

In March 2011, the Committee on Doctrine of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops denounced Johnson’s 2007 book, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (Continuum), charging that it is marred by “misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors” and fails to “accord with authentic Catholic teaching on essential points.” The bishops’ action was prompted in part by the book’s frequent use as a teaching text “for undergraduate students, many of whom are looking for grounding in their Catholic faith.” Among seven specific citations, Johnson’s theological treatment of the Trinity and her chapter on language for God received the Committee’s strongest comments.

Despite its harsh criticism, outlined in a 21-page document and released to the public without prior conversation or dialogue with Johnson, the bishops did not call for any disciplinary measures against Johnson, such as a ban on teaching or publishing. Johnson, 69, is a distinguished professor of systematic theology at the Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York, and she is a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood, New York.

“The U.S. Bishops have investigated and disciplined other women theologians in conjunction with their positions on ethical issues and women’s ordination, but this appears to be the first time they have investigated a woman theologian on account of her writings,” stated Pauw in an essay published by The Christian Century (“Catholic Crackdown: Elizabeth Johnson and the bishops,” July 26, 2011).

Pauw defends Johnson’s approach to theological tradition and praises her inclusion of Christian reflection from various cultures and contexts around the world: post-Shoah, feminist, Black, Latino, Asian, interreligious, and ecological theologies, among others. “Despite this official expression of disapproval by members of the hierarchy, Johnson clearly remains a prophet with honor in the American Catholic world. She dares to speak out in order to keep the church accountable to its own best principles and commitments,” wrote Pauw. “….If she presents a problem for the Catholic hierarchy, it is a problem of their own making. Johnson's exclusion from the priesthood ironically has ensured her freedom as a prophetic voice for a transformed church leadership.”

Pauw’s essay also suggests there is much Protestants can learn from Johnson’s example in appropriating theological tradition and cultivating a prophetic voice across differences of gender and race. Quoting Johnson, Pauw said women and persons of color have been "long silent and invisible in shaping the public culture of the church." In mainline Protestant bodies, Pauw noted, “clergy who are women or members of racial-ethnic minority groups remain heavily concentrated in associate positions, in small and struggling churches and in alternative ministry settings. Yet since they have not been barred from ordination altogether, these members of the clergy face the temptation to protect their modest gains by deferring to established patterns of church leadership.” Johnson's example challenges all Protestants to find ways of "living corporately the prophetic charism."

Read the LPTS Faculty letter online.

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