April 18, 2011
— Martin E. Marty
We have not looked in on the Catholic press for some time, but a glance at the “liberal”—one is always obliged to say that!—National Catholic Reporter reveals many stories bidding for Sightings attention. We had to pass many candidates by, dealing as they do with, among many other stories, payments to abuse victims, arrested peace activists now in prison, Vatican oversight of financial affairs “stepped up,” the Vatican prohibiting the voicing of “interfaith prayers,” (Jesuit) Marquette University extending benefits to same-sex partners, religious women awaiting a report on a “visitation” by authorities, Dublin’s archbishop breaking codes of silence about priestly abuse, Charles Curran tracking down the large number of Catholics who walk away and into Protestant and Evangelical churches, Father Roy Bourgeois finding no future place in his religious order because of his controversial stands, etc.
Page one and many of the other 27 pages headline a very important incident: “Bishops critique theologian, ignoring their own guidelines.” True, they emphatically criticized Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, author of Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God for “failing to embrace authentic Catholic theology.” Also true, the bishops did ignore their own guidelines, and passed judgment without speaking to or notifying Johnson. This is no trivial issue. Whoever would canvass the Catholic and other theological communities, would find Johnson in any one’s “top five” list. I’d be in that canvassed company, though I am not a Catholic, a feminist, a systematic theologian, or anything else that would box me and my kind into a fan-club corner.
Johnson has been president of Catholic theological societies and earned many kinds of Catholic academic awards. No matter. The only consolation anyone who has read her can take from the condemnation is that it will add greatly to the sales of the book which is already popular on campuses and in parishes which discuss theology. Thomas C. Fox writes in the National Catholic Reporter, “Johnson is no flame-throwing radical.” Peers see her as “thoughtful, temperate and faithful to mainstream post-Vatican II theology.” What amazes Fox and other critics of the bishops’ action is their sense of breathless urgency. The bishops say she fails to begin with postulated truths and denial of Catholic faith follows.
Johnson, in turn, cites Thomas Aquinas’ word: “God surpasses whatever we can understand and account for in terms of our human categories of thought.” Whoever wades into the realm of such comments will encounter difficult and chancy subjects, and no one in the theological community should be exempt from criticism. Yet, one would have liked to overhear actual debates advanced through conversation, inquiry, and shared experience. To take one instance: she is condemned for witnessing to a suffering God. That will lead to a loss of witness to divine transcendence, say the bishops. Not in the experience of many twentieth-century theologians who see it challenging some Greek philosophical views of God but being closer to the biblical.
A host of twentieth-century theologians, Jewish and Christian, have spoken of God’s suffering. Suffering means weakness. Yet Christians on Good Friday as on other days will hear elaborations of the apostle Paul’s word (I Cor. 1:25) that “the weakness of God is stronger than men.” And not a few will find reason to ponder Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s word that “only a suffering God can help.” Many would line up to listen in on a colloquy between Sister Elizabeth and bishops on such themes. Too bad it can’t occur now.
Thomas C. Fox, “Theologians criticize bishops' handling of book critique,” National Catholic Reporter, April 8, 2011.
Joshua J. McElwee and Thomas C. Fox, “Bishops ignored own guidelines in Johnson critique,” National Catholic Reporter, April 7, 2011.
"'Only the suffering God can help': divine passibility in modern theology," Themelios 9/3 (1984) 6-12.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.