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.