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WFF Statement on Bishops and Theologians and the Quest for Truth

Statement - April 19, 2011 | Update on Statement November 2, 2011

Update on Sister Elizabeth Johnson and US bishops – November 2, 2011

In the months since the US Bishops’ Doctrine Committee issued a statement critical of feminist theologian Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s most recent book,  Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers of the Theology of God, there have been further exchanges.  The bishops’ statement was released March 24, 2011, and Women for Faith & Family’s statement (below) supported the bishops critique.

In April, 2011, the officers and directors of the Catholic Theological Society of America, of which Sister Johnson is past president, issued a statement critical of the bishops, which was posted on the CTSA web site:

On June 1, Sister Johnson responded to the bishops’ March 24 statement with a 38-page defense titled “To Speak Rightly of the Living God: Observations by Dr. Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSJ, on the Statement of the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops about Her Book Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God.”

In her “Observations,” Sister Johnson asserted that the Committee on Doctrine had “thoroughly misunderstood and consistently misrepresented” the book. Her “Observations” response was published in Origins, July 7, 2011.

On October 11, the Doctrine Committee, after reviewing her “Observations” arguments, reaffirmed its original critique in a more detailed statement, “Response to Observations by Sr. Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J., Regarding the Committee on Doctrine's Statement about the Book Quest for the Living God”. This was posted on the USCCB web site:

On October 28, Sister Johnson’s reaction to the bishops was published by the Catholic News Service blog:  Sister Johnson again accused the bishops of misrepresenting her book, and said she had raised important issues, but “the committee did not engage these questions. No invitation was forthcoming to meet and discuss with the committee in person. Moreover, in its new document the committee addresses none of these issues — not a single one. The opportunity to dialogue was bypassed”.

Later that same day, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Chairman of the Doctrine Committee, contradicted Sister Johnson’s assertion. This announcement (which follows) was published on the USCCB web site:

Doctrine Committee Chair, Cardinal Wuerl, Highlights Multiple Offers to Meet With Fordham Professor Sister Elizabeth Johnson

October 28, 2011

WASHINGTON—Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Chairman of the Doctrine Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has offered to meet with Sister Elizabeth Johnson three times to discuss her book Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers of the Theology of God – most recently on October 26.

The Cardinal spoke of the offers after reading Sister Johnson’s complaint that the Doctrine Committee has refused to meet with her. She made the complaint after seeing the Committee’s response to her observations on their March critique.

Cardinal Wuerl said that he offered to meet with her in correspondence dated July 22 and October 11, and in a telephone call and follow-up e-mail on October 26. Sister Johnson did not respond to any of the offers.

“I reiterate my offer as chairman of the Doctrine Committee to meet with Sister Johnson,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “As a woman religious and theologian, she is a valued member of the Church. Her goal of helping people come to an even better understanding of Who God is, is a goal we share.”

DATE: April 19, 2011

FROM: Women for Faith & Family
Ph: 314 863-8385
Helen Hull Hitchcock
Email: Editor


Statement on Bishops and Theologians and the Quest for Truth

Women for Faith & Family strongly supports the recent statements of the US Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine concerning a book used in teaching Catholic students that conflicts with authentic Church doctrine.  The book, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, by Sister Elizabeth Johnson, professor of theology at Fordham University, was published in 2007. It is the latest of her works on theology aimed not at deepening the understanding of Catholic teaching, but at radically reformulating essential doctrines concerning God, the Trinity and creation, in order to make them conform to contemporary feminist ideology.  In an earlier book, “She Who Is” (1993), Sister Johnson proposed re-naming God in “justice” to women. The speculative theology in Quest for the Living God was not intended primarily for other professional theologians, however, but for use in classrooms of colleges and universities to instruct students in core theological concepts.

This fact prompted the March 24 statement of the Committee on Doctrine — a thorough commentary on the serious deficiencies of Quest for the Living God.  A group of theologians publicly objected to the interference of bishops and declared the bishops’ statement inaccurate. On April 18, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, sent to every bishop a document, “Bishops as Teachers: A Resource for Bishops”. (Online: - broken link)

This document reaffirms that “the bishops have a very clear and defined role as the authentic teachers of the faith”, and that there is an “overriding need for a clear and faithful proclamation of the faith”.

“It is essential for the health and progress of theology”, the document stresses, “that it take place within the context of a clearly articulated community of faith, that its creativity be channeled and maximized by boundaries delineated by the received revelation. Identifying these boundaries of authentic faith constitutes the bishop’s contribution to the flourishing of the theological sciences”.

Women for Faith & Family is grateful for the recent action of our bishops. We are deeply concerned about formal teaching at Catholic colleges and universities that conflicts with Church teaching, undermines the formation of authentic Christian understanding of God and the world, and endangers the faith of Catholic students. 

On August 15, 1990, Pope John Paul II issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae (from the heart of the Church), an Apostolic Constitution on Catholic higher education.  It responded to the widespread challenges to genuine Church teaching that had developed within Catholic institutions of higher learning, especially in the teaching of theology, and to the danger this poses for the formation of young Catholic students.


 At the opening of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, we read:

Born from the heart of the Church, a Catholic University is located in that course of tradition which may be traced back to the very origin of the University as an institution. It has always been recognized as an incomparable center of creativity and dissemination of knowledge for the good of humanity.… A Catholic University’s privileged task is “to unite existentially by intellectual effort two orders of reality that too frequently tend to be placed in opposition as though they were antithetical: the search for truth, and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth” [St. Augustine].

The US bishops, in their implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae a decade later, also emphasized the necessity to ensure authentic teaching of theology entirely consistent with the Church’s moral and doctrinal teaching. (Online: - broken link)

Following are brief excerpts from this document that expressly concern the teaching of theology, and theologians’ obligation to Catholic students.

·  Catholic theology should be taught in every Catholic university, and, if possible, a department or chair of Catholic theology should be established. Academic events should be organized on a regular basis to address theological issues, especially those relative to the various disciplines taught in the university.

·   Both the university and the bishops, aware of the contributions made by theologians to Church and academy, have a right to expect them to present authentic Catholic teaching. Catholic professors of the theological disciplines have a corresponding duty to be faithful to the Church's magisterium as the authoritative interpreter of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.

·  Catholic students have a right to receive from a university instruction in authentic Catholic doctrine and practice, especially from those who teach the theological disciplines. They also have a right to be provided with opportunities to practice the faith through participation in Mass, the sacraments, religious devotions and other authentic forms of Catholic spirituality.

As Catholic women we accept our own responsibility for the spiritual well being and sound instruction of a new generation of Catholic young people in their quest for truth. Theology is described as fides quaerens intellectum — “faith seeking understanding”. This is also a concise description of what Catholic college students are actually doing. It is vitally important that the teaching they receive at Catholic colleges and universities does not endanger that faith, but in fact deepens and strengthens it. 

Catholic women, mothers and teachers of a new generation, entrust to our shepherds the faith of our children.  We rely on the assistance and support of bishops and Church authorities to ensure that the theology that is taught to students at Catholic institutions of higher learning is fully, wholly, and indisputably consistent with — and explains more fully and promotes deeper understanding of — the authentic moral and doctrinal teachings of the Catholic Church. 

Women for Faith & Family is a St. Louis-based Catholic women’s organization.

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