On Friday, August 15, professor of theology at Fordham University, Sister Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, received the Outstanding Leadership award from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), and in her acceptance speech made several remarks criticizing members of the Church hierarchy.
The acceptance speech began with thanks and several acknowledgments, including an acknowledgement to Johnson’s general superior Sister John Raymond McGann, who in a letter told her, according to Johnson, “Don’t strive to be so orthodox and safe that you sell short the ministry of the theologian and lose your way.” According to the speech, the letter was written to encourage her to “find joy in the cross of criticism” when “some bishops were not happy with an article [she] had written.”
In March of 2011, the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine critiqued Johnson’s book Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God for its neglect of “divine revelation as the basis of Christian theology.” The bishops’ committee stated that Johnson’s book “completely undermines the Gospel and the faith of those who believe in the Gospel.” Johnson responded at the time that her book was misunderstood and misrepresented, but the committee affirmed the critique, releasing a response to Johnson which deepened the initial analysis of the book and included additional textual citations. However, Johnson maintained in her award acceptance speech at the LCWR conference that “to this day no one … knows what doctrinal issue is at stake.”
Johnson also addressed “criticism from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) directed at the LCWR for giving me this award.” During an April meeting between CDF prefect Cardinal Gerhard Müller and the LCWR president, concerning the congregation’s investigation into the LCWR, the prefect stated, “It saddens me that you have decided to give the Outstanding Leadership Award during this year’s Assembly to a theologian [Johnson] criticized by the Bishops of the United States because of the gravity of the doctrinal errors in that theologian’s writings.”
In her talk, Johnson said:
The CDF sees this award as an insult to the U.S. Bishops whose Committee on Doctrine criticized my book Quest for the Living God. From Cardinal Müller’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 also said, “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.” She cited a comment by theologian Richard Gaillardetz claiming that “the committee’s assessment of Quest is itself theologically flawed.” Additionally, Johnson said, “In several instances it reports the opposite of what the book actually says, in order to find fault” and that “such carelessness with the truth is unworthy of the teaching office of bishop.”
The next portion of Johnson’s acceptance speech sought to explain the situation between the LCWR and the CDF. Johnson diagnosed what she sees as a “strain” which “perdures between a prophetic charism that seeks radical living of the gospel and an administrative charism focused on order.” She suggested that “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 in conscience, silent and invisible no longer.”
Johnson also stated that women religious have responded to the mandates of the Second Vatican Council by moving “toward the periphery, away from a cramped ecclesiastical center” and standing “in solidarity with the poor, immigrants, battered women, LGBTQ persons, and even the wounded earth itself.” She asserted that “To my knowledge, a similarly vigorous process of post-conciliar renewal has not taken place at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a particular curial office at the center.” Johnson finished this portion of her speech by calling for a “reconciled diversity” and saying that “the waste of time and energy on this investigation is unconscionable.”
Johnson concluded her speech by inexplicitly likening the position of the LCWR to that of Nelson Mandela, with the hierarchical Church analogous to the apartheid South African government. She had previously quoted Clerissac in saying, “It is easy to suffer for the church; the difficult thing is to suffer at the hands of the church.” She finished by acknowledging the feast of the Assumption, saying, “in the spirit of the poor woman Mary singing for joy in God her Savior who puts down the mighty from their thrones and fills the hungry with good things—ON!”
Johnson delivered this speech to nearly 800 religious sisters, according to the National Catholic Reporter. Her entire speech can be read at the LCWR website.
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