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US bishops reaffirm critique of controversial theologian's work
Sr. Elizabeth Johnson and her book "Quest for the Living God"
Sr. Elizabeth Johnson and her book "Quest for the Living God"

.- The U.S. bishops have confirmed their criticism of a controversial theology book, after the author insisted they had “misunderstood” and “misrepresented” it.

In an October 11, 2011 statement made public yesterday, doctrinal authorities at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said their committee “finds itself confirmed in its judgments” about Sister Elizabeth Johnson's “Quest for the Living God,” which it previously criticized in March 2011.

After reviewing the Fordham University professor's defense of her work, the Committee on Doctrine said it “remains convinced that the book … does not sufficiently ground itself in the Catholic theological tradition as its starting point,” and “does not adequately express the faith of the Church.”

In her response to the bishops' first critique, Sr. Johnson sought to remind them that theology “does not simply reiterate received doctrinal formulas but probes and interprets them in order to deepen understanding.”

The committee agreed with Sr. Johnson's insight about theology, but insisted she had not accomplished this task appropriately.

“It is true that the task of theological reflection is never accomplished by the mere repetition of formulas,” they noted, saying they did not object to Sr. Johnson's attempt “to express the faith of the Church in terms that have not previously been used and approved.”

Rather, they objected to “Quest for the Living God” because “the 'different' language used in the book does not in fact convey the faith of the Church.”

“The real issue is whether or not new attempts at theological understanding are faithful to the deposit of faith as contained in the Scriptures and the Church’s doctrinal tradition,” they said. “All theology is ultimately subject to the norm of truth provided by the faith of the Church.”

Sr. Johnson's treatment of the Trinity raised particular concerns for the committee.

They noted that her way of speaking about the three divine persons “leaves the door open to modalism,” an ancient heresy which rejected any real distinction between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

“The book's misunderstanding of the incomprehensibility of God has effectively ruled out even divinely revealed analogies for the relationship among the persons of the Trinity,” they noted. “The result is that the book can only speak in vague terms about the Trinity.”

While refraining from any judgment of Sr. Johnson's motives, the committee said her book had become a “particular pastoral concern” as a work intended for a popular, non-scholarly audience.

“Furthermore,” they stated, “whether or not the book was originally designed specifically to be a textbook, the book is in fact being used as a textbook for the study of the doctrine of God.”

Bishops, they said, have a responsibility “to judge works of theology … in terms of how adequately they express the faith of the Church.”


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