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Elizabeth Johnson and the U.S. Catholic Bishops: Lessons for Moral Theology?

Strictly speaking, the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine statement critiquing professor Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ’s, 2007 book, Quest for the Living God, has nothing to do with moral theology.  The seven main points which they critique bear more on systematic theology, the nature of revelation, and the language that we use to speak about God.  Nor, to be fair, am I qualified to speak about the details of Johnson’s work or to adequately defend it.  (For some interesting, and much more theologically in-depth comments on the specific issues, I recommend the discussions on the Women in Theology blog, or reading her book and/or the bishops’ statement.) 

But the issue of the relationship between the professional theologian, whether religious or lay, and the Magisterium of the Church is a hot-button topic that has had a profound impact upon the field of moral theology in the latter half of the twentieth century, and is still felt by those of us entering the field in the twenty-first.  Most of us can probably immediately conjure up a scenario in our departments, at conferences, or in personal conversations where the topic quickly switches from substantive debate on ethical issues to finger pointing – either at dogmatic bishops who are trying to stifle conversation and genuine theological inquiry, or professional theologians who are trying to water down the doctrine of the Church and lead people astray.  At this point, in my experience, sides are drawn and the conversation is over.  (For those of us present at Trent last summer, think of how the tone and substance changed toward the end of the conference once the finger pointing started.)

In this light, it is interesting to step back and look at how this particular scenario is playing out, and what significance it has for theology as a whole, and perhaps moral theology in particular.  First, no matter what one may think about the bishops’ decision to write the statement or the details of comments themselves, and regardless of what their intentions are, it has at least created an opportunity for dialogue.  If the bishops’ intent was to discourage conscientious Catholics from reading Johnson’s work, that seems to have backfired.  Given my narrow research focus of the last few years trying to finish my dissertation, I hadn’t even heard of Johnson’s most recent book until I heard it being passionately discussed by students after a doctoral seminar on feminist theologies (and frankly, it just got moved near the top of my reading list).

Secondly, it is worth noting what the bishops did not do – they have taken absolutely no action to sanction either Johnson herself or her work.  If we compare this to some other responses to the work of theologians like Charlie Curran, Roger Haight, or Jon Sobrino, all of whom have received some form of official sanction from the Magisterium, once again things do not look quite so extreme.  Moreover, the bishops’ letter is a response from a local bishops’ conference, rather than from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome.  Perhaps the bishops did not feel that the book warranted such a response, but it is also possible that they are realizing that professional theologians and lay Catholics in the pews alike are no longer willing to be told to sit down and stop asking questions that lead into that gray area of heterodoxy.  Questions lead to insight, and they also sometimes lead first into the liminal margins.

On this last point, I am reminded of the description of religious belief in modern, secular life provided by the Catholic philosopher, Charles Taylor.  In his most recent tome, A Secular Age, Taylor writes about what he calls a “nova effect” in modern religious belief, and by this he seems to mean that there are literally countless available options for religious believers today.  Even the most devout followers of any particular religious tradition are likely to encounter those of a wide array of religious, philosophical, and/or atheistic beliefs and practices in their daily lives.  From a doctrinal standpoint Taylor’s work seems relatively safe, and this is because he remains on the phenomenological (i.e. descriptive) side of the discussion.  But what Johnson has done is to take this reality of pluralism, and the very real questions that is poses to religious believers, and then to consider how this affects the way we perceive, interpret, and engage our own, Catholic tradition.  And here is where I see the relevance of her situation for what we typically do in moral theology.

Given the practical nature of moral theology, most of us have at least a few areas outside the purview of theology proper in which we engage in dialogue in order to facilitate our analysis of ethical issues.  For example, my own research on the virtue of justice brings me into contemporary discussions of political philosophy, and Catholic social thought is by nature an interdisciplinary enterprise.  But where this gets tricky is in the move from the descriptive to the normative – that is, it is one thing to draw upon social scientific or other research to help us accurately describe the way things are (the descriptive), and it is quite another to use such information to provide an answer to the question of how we believe things should be (the normative).  Taking accurate stock of the reality in which we live today, and suggesting answers to ethical issues that are both consistent with Scripture and the tradition, and practically effective seems to be the goal of moral theology.

What this means for us is that theological ethicists are by their very nature always on what John Courtney Murray called the “growing end” of the tradition, living where the rubber hits the road.  In fact, Murray himself was forbidden (by his Jesuit superiors under pressure from Vatican officials) from researching, teaching, or writing on the topic of religious freedom in the 1950’s, only to have his view endorsed by the fathers of the Second Vatican Council in “Dignitatis Humanae,” in 1965  It seems, then, to be in the  nature of the professional theologian, and the ethicist in distinctive way, to risk living within this growing end of the tradition, where the most critically engaging, difficult, and often potentially divisive questions are being asked.

Given the description and analysis I have provided here, I suppose it falls to me now to eat my own words and provide some kind of normative lesson from all of this.  On the one hand, the lesson to be drawn is rather banal: keep seeking diligently, intelligently, and humbly for the ways that make our tradition come alive for Christians and others today, such that they can see how the basic tenets of our faith are still practical, beautiful, and effective for living a morally fulfilling life.  Certainly, no one that I know of seeks out the criticism of the bishops or Magisterium (nor do I believe Johnson sought to do so), but I for one would hope to be so fortunate that enough people are reading my work in the future that the bishops would find it necessary to respond – either positively or negatively.  The point is, like the poet Rilke wrote to a young, aspiring poet in the early twentieth century, to keep living the questions, regardless of where it takes us, until we perhaps one day live into the answers.  Whatever side of the debate(s) we fall on, this certainly takes courage and and openness to dialogue, no matter how vehemently we disagree.



  1. I agree that dialogue is a good thing – but what concerned me in reading all this was Elizabeth Johnson’s statement, in which she stated that the bishops had not informed her they were examining the book nor asked her for a response. That sounds more like maintaining the two “sides” than seeking conversation.

    Moral theologians, too, have recently had their worked commented on: Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler, to name two who were in the news last fall. Their book was risky in a number of ways, and while I disagree with much of what they wrote, I appreciate that they took a risk in writing it.

    I’d also say, it seems that the bishops themselves are taking some risks, too, in commenting on any of these theologians. Broad popular opinion is not with the bishops, collectively speaking, and they’re making rather unpopular claims. They have stated that they’re particularly interested in books that are read by non-academics – books that could impact the lives of the “lay faithful.” Is this less about the individual theologian’s work and more about attempting to have some impact on lay people? This is authority they have in some quarters of the church, but I would dare say, not most of the American church. Will the laity listen or will they do what you say you’ll do: push Johnson’s book to the top of the list?

    So, we’ve got the bishops who are concerned about the state of the church on a number of levels, including and especially reaching lay people who are rejecting Catholicism at ever higher levels (see Pew Forum report); and we’ve got theologians who are concerned with the state of the church on a number of levels too, including reaching out to lay people who are rejecting Catholicism at ever high levels.

    Same goals – but maybe the bishops are more normative and the theologians are more descriptive? Or is it vice versa? Or is it the case that the dichotomy is not helpful? I’d like to see the two ‘sides’ “risk” talking to each other about the state of Catholicism today….

  2. Jana,

    I agree that the most unfortunate aspect of this situation is that we still do not have the actual “dialogue” that most of us would like to see – which would entail direct conversations between Johnson and others and Church leaders who are critiquing their work (preferably before, during and after). Unfortunately, it just adds to the problems regarding the credibility of Church in our age.

    Ironically, what may seem to be a “risk” on the part of the bishops in undertaking such a dialogue would actually probably lend greater credibility to any subsequent comments that follow.

  3. Tom,
    Thanks for this commentary on what, in many ways, is a very confusing and painful issue for so many. I admit, it does make me nervous, especially since I am interested in what disciplines like evolutionary biology and neuroscience tell us about human nature and ethics. It is not always easy to know how to prudently engage different disciplines in a way that deepens the faith.

    This potentially points to a larger problem in my mind: the disconnect between the study of (moral) theology and the teaching office of the bishops. Even on points of non-contention, there is so much room for a more fruitful relationship. I am young and admittedly very naive, but wouldn’t it be great if we could have some representative bishops come to SCE or CTSA to deliver an address about the role of (moral) theology in the life of the church, and then stay to hear papers and engage in dialogue with (moral) theologians about their work. And wouldn’t it be great if the bishops, when drafting a letter about, say, health care and the Hyde Amendment or immigration, sent drafts around to senior moral theologians for feedback before promulgation? And wouldn’t it be great if more (moral) theologians pursued an imprimatur? This last one seems particularly important, at least from the bishops’ perspective. I have obviously never applied for one, but it seems that the application itself could start a lot of the dialogue we are looking for. And, as Tom says, it would invite a response, positive or negative, from the bishops regarding our work.

    I know that time and resources are two major challenges to the formation of more fruitful relationships with the bishops, but I wonder if WE as moral theologians might be able to think of other practices on our part like pursuing the imprimatur that might facilitate such relationships? What can we do to make it evident that we are willing and working for the dialogue that Tom and Jana refer to in such a way that might preempt the pain and confusion that has followed the Johnson case?

  4. Beth –

    I think you’re right to bring up the disconnect, and I think this happens more specifically in moral theology than in other theological disciplines (though that may be my bias). It strikes me that this disconnect comes about partly because of changes in the field – that most of us are now lay theologians rather than religious. The bishops have wanted to make a distinction between “academic” discourse” and teaching to lay people, a distinction that I think we ourselves have found hard to figure in writing this blog (for example) and a distinction that becomes ever harder to see in a) a world where moral theologians are lay people themselves and b) a world that now uses the internet, where people are exposed to all sorts of ideas.

    I don’t think it’s young and naive to want to see some bishops in conversation with moral theologians (but I may well be young and naive myself). In fact, I think that the moral theologians at Trento wanted to have conversation with bishops, but only a couple accepted the invitation to speak. And then the one that did speak had been scheduled in such a way that there was no time for dialogue so what happened was even more frustration and a sense by many there that the magisterium didn’t care about its theologians. That was a really sad experience for most at the conference, I think.

    I like the idea of deliberately entering into conversation by requesting an imprimatur. It reminds me of the “M” word – the mandatum, as well. The mandatum conversation is exactly representative of the distrust and suspicion that bishops and theologians have had of each other. If bishops were to attend CTSA, for example, and participate in those conversations, then perhaps seeking the mandatum wouldn’t be quite such a tense issue. But again, given that the internet is so full of information overload, I think any real use of the mandatum would be only a drop in the bucket in terms of the concerns bishops have about lay people and the information they’re receiving – but it might go a long way toward establishing some trust on the part of the bishops for having conversations with moral theologians.

  5. I have seen bishops at conferences. Unfortunately, they tend not to stick around (due to their schedules, oftentimes) to see and hear what theologians have to say. For example, most recently at a theological symposium out in Los Angeles a decent presentation was given by a bishop associated with Pax Christi USA, but he did not allow for any Q&A and did not stay for any of the other presentations by theologians.

    I’d be especially happy if any bishops with PhDs applied for membership in CTSA or SCE.

    Over the years, I have been fortunate to forge decent working relationships with the local bishop wherever I’ve taught (in the Des Moines and the Youngstown dioceses and now the St Louis archdiocese). My department chairperson gave the current archbishop here a copy of my book, and the archbishop said he’d read it. In Ohio, a bishop used to show me his stuff before he issued statements; his theology was very sound, but he admitted that he was not always confident with his limited theological training. All of these relationships have been informal and good.

    Regarding Elizabeth Johnson’s book here, I must confess that I have serious doubts, like Grant Gallicho over at Commonweal ( about whether the bishops’ committee actually read it–or if they did, whether they correctly understood it.

  6. Readers might be interested in this response from the CTSA Board, which is available in pdf form on their website:

  7. The idea of a “growing end” for the Catholic Church’s theology sounds good, and certainly has become a recurrently convenient trope in dealing with situations like this, but there is just one problem. It is not supported by the vast history of the Catholic Church. Period. There seems to be a definite desire on the part of Catholics these days to re-write their own history to make it appear what it simply was not. On the whole, the story is vastly more about quashing reform for good, and the tale is basically one of a series of retrenchments over time. If you are going to make claims otherwise, then you have a lot of history to counter indeed. And in light of the truly societally outrageous fact that a major Church is pursuing such backward tactics in dealing with a modern scholar, it is going to take more to contextualize it than referring to proverbial growing pains.


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