Friday, April 15, 2011

Bishops say feminist theologian should have sought dialogue before publishing

The U.S. bishops' doctrine committee has responded to concerns about their treatment of the feminist theologian Sister Elizabeth Johnson, pointing out that the “dialogue” she now wishes to have with the bishops should have taken place before the publication of her 2007 book “Quest for the Living God.”
On April 8, members of the Catholic Theological Society of America criticized the doctrine committee for its decision to raise objections to Sr. Johnson's book in a public statement. According to the society, the doctrine committee should have had an “informal conversation” with Sr. Johnson first. The author has also complained that she was “never invited” to “clarify critical points” with the committee.

But Father Thomas Weinandy, executive director of the doctrinal board, said that committee chairman Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl would have preferred to speak with Sr. Johnson before the publication of her widely-read book. “Cardinal Wuerl said that if a dialogue should be taking place, it should be before the publication of the book – not after,” recalled Fr. Weinandy.

The doctrine committee's executive director said that if theologians were concerned about the bishops' judgment of their ideas, they should have approached the committee with areas of possible concern prior to publication. He indicated that Sr. Johnson could have sought such a dialogue, but chose not to do so.

In light of that choice, he said, it was not reasonable to expect the bishops to restrict themselves to private discussion about a book that had already reached a large audience. “Otherwise, the bishops are always trying to play catch-up,” Fr. Weinandy said. “They're never given a chance to actually comment on something before it's published.”

Sr. Johnson's book “was already published, and being widely used,” Fr. Weinandy explained. “They felt obliged to make a statement, lest the teachers and the students who read this book think that what is being presented here is Catholic doctrine.” Several bishops had requested that the doctrine committee review the book, which has become a popular text in some Catholic universities' theology courses.

“So, the doctrine committee undertook a review of the book, and judged that the methodology, conclusions, and arguments in the book were not in accord with Catholic teaching.”

Several members of the Catholic Theological Society of America have expressed concern that Sr. Johnson might not have been treated according to the guidelines of a 1989 document entitled “Doctrinal Responsibilities.” It says that “informal conversation ought to be the first step” in cases of “misunderstandings about the teaching of the gospel and the ways of expressing it.”

According to Fr. Weinandy, however, that document was meant to suggest means of resolving a dispute between individual bishops and theologians teaching at the local level.

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