Controversial Feminist Theologian Speaks at Nuns’ Final Assembly Without Vatican Oversight

The Outstanding Leadership Award at the LCWR’s last annual assembly without the direct supervision of Vatican overseer Archbishop J. Peter Sartain was presented to Sister Elizabeth Johnson, the feminist theologian whose writings exploring Christianity caused CDF head Cardinal Gerhard Müller to make a harsh public rebuke of the organization (and insist that Sartain review all speakers and conference materials going forward).

Following the assembly, the board met with Sartain to discuss the ongoing doctrinal assessment ordered by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), after which it reaffirmed its commitment to continued dialog with the Vatican.

In her acceptance speech (which Sartain skipped after briefly addressing the assembly), Johnson said she practiced a theology that encouraged others to “think, raise questions, make connections, learn the tradition, see for yourselves how beautiful the faith is, as a step toward encountering and living out the love of the holy mystery of God.”

At the same time, noting the absence of women’s voices in traditional theology, she said she was committed to “using the human dignity of women as one lens through which think about other religious and ethical subjects,” noting that the “submerged female half of the church, indeed of the human race, is rising, and the faith we pass on to the next generations will be poorer if women’s insights are ignored.”

Johnson directly addressed charges by Müller that the award was an “open provocation” against the Vatican because her book Quest for the Living God was criticized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for its “doctrinal errors.”

“From Cardinal Mueller’s statement it appears that neither he nor the staff advising him read the book or my written response to the concerns raised, but rather channeled the U.S. committee’s judgment,” she said. Johnson noted that the USCCB never specified “what doctrinal issue is at stake,” and that “[d]espite my efforts to give and get clarification,” the face-to-face meeting that she sought with the bishops was denied:

It seems the committee reduced the rich Catholic tradition to a set of neo-scholastic theses as narrow as baby ribbon, and then criticized the book for not being in accord with them. But as Richard Gaillardetz said in this year’s presidential address to the Catholic Theological Society of America, the committee’s assessment of Quest is itself theologically flawed. Indeed, the committee’s statement raises a multitude of issues in a confused way. It criticizes positions I take that are in accord with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In several instances it reports the opposite of what the book actually says, in order to find fault. I am responsible for what I have written, but not for what I have not said and do not think. In my judgment such carelessness with the truth is unworthy of the teaching office of bishop.

She went on to say that Cardinal Timothy Dolan told her that the reason her “book was singled out was because of its influence” and speculated that the hierarchy is now on a kind of autopilot that causes it to reject “works of theology that think in new terms about burning issues.”

Johnson said this “institutionalized negativity sheds some light” on how criticism of her book and the LCWR are related:

For the doctrinal investigation of LCWR gives evidence of a similar generalized negative pattern … While reluctant to examine the context in scholarship and in life of statements made at LCWR Assemblies, the investigation’s statements express more of a vague overall dissatisfaction or mistrust on certain topics. Judgments are rendered in a way that cannot be satisfactorily addressed.

What is evident, she said, is that the institutional church “has evolved a patriarchal structure where authority is exercised in top-down fashion, and where obedience and loyalty to the system are the greatest virtue…. In this framework the current CDF investigation appears to be an effort by certain ruling men to control committed, competent women whose corporate religious discernment makes them adult believers of conscience, silent and invisible no longer.”

Johnson said that the difference between the hierarchy and the women religious is that the women have genuinely embraced Vatican II and “vigorously renewed their lives in accord with the gospel.” As a result, “they moved toward the periphery, away from a cramped ecclesiastical center” and toward genuine engagement “with the poor, immigrants, battered women, LGBTQ persons, and even the wounded earth itself.”

She said that a similar process of “post-conciliar renewal has not taken place” at the CDF, adding that “criticism is almost inevitable” until such renewal takes place.

Patricia Miller is the author of Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church. Her work on the intersection of sex, religion, and politics has appeared in The Nation, Ms., and Huffington Post. She was the editor of Conscience magazine and the editor-in-chief of the National Journal’s health care briefings.

  • joeyj1220

    Patricia,
    I love your articles, but the title is a bit misleading. Elizabeth Johnson is hardly “controversial.” She is a world-renown scholar and theologian that every academic takes seriously. Her research is careful, erudite, and sound. She is only “controversial” to the herd-minded.

  • cranefly

    So far I’ve yet to see a negative review that doesn’t rely on appeal to authority. “Warning! This book was condemned by the USCCB!” As if we never had saints on the Index before.

  • cranefly

    There are plenty of Catholics who wish Vatican II had never happened. That might be the problem.

  • Jim Reed

    This story sounds so familiar. It is like from about 50 years ago the telling of the story of the Yellow Submarine.

  • SisterLea

    Whenever people speak truth to power, there is hell to pay, but especially in the case of women. BE BRAVE, ALL YOU “CONTROVERSIAL” SISTERS!

  • joeyj1220

    No kidding! Better title: “Bishops Feel Threatened by Educated Woman”

  • apotropoxy

    Good ol’ “Vatican oversight”. Where is Ireneaus when you need him? Liz Johnson’s complaint that “… the institutional church “has evolved a patriarchal structure where authority is exercised in top-down fashion, and where obedience and loyalty to the system are the greatest virtue…” was noted by Christians in the second century. The good sister is treading on the thin ice of Gnostic virtue.

  • Jim Reed

    But the methods that have always worked to solve the problem might not be allowed any more. About the only weapon the church has left is to attack the health care system.

  • Barry_D

    That’s what ‘controversial’ means. It’s never used to refer to priest/ministers/bishops/rabbis who’ve committed crimes of sex, money or abuse of power. For example, I believe that Cardinal Dolan would count as ‘controversial’ if all things were counted.