“The Different Pace of Renewal”: Powerful Insight from Sr. Dr. Elizabeth Johnson

One of the significant events in the Catholic world this past month was the annual meeting of the LCWR (Leadership Council of Women Religious): the leadership body of vowed women religious (sisters, nuns) in the US. This year, they bestowed their annual leadership award on Sr. Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, a feminist theologian whose work is deeply rooted in Catholic tradition. Her remarks accepting this award are well worth reading in their entirety. Here, I will excerpt a few of my favorite bits and expand on the particularly ecclesiological insight I find in them.

Describing her work as a theologian as a “vocation within a vocation” to which she was called by her religious leaders, she shares an inspiring letter received from her General Superior Sister John Raymond McGann when the faculty at Catholic University approved her application for tenure, but it was not granted in the ordinary way because some bishops were unhappy with an article she had written, and wanted to further scrutinize her:

“Don’t do this if it kills you. But try to find joy in the cross of criticism. Don’t strive to be so orthodox and safe that you sell short the ministry of the theologian and lose your way. The real victory is your integrity.”

And in a PS: “Put more money in your budget for recreation.”

She still keeps the letter in her bible.

On the purpose of theology:

Rooted in the Christian tradition and equipped with scholarly tools, those of us in the theological guild think about the meaning of faith and the way it is practiced. The purpose is to shed more light on the gospel, so it can be lived out with deeper understanding and vibrant love of God and neighbor.

She reflects with gratitude on all those who supported and sustained her own work, including the significant influence of Vatican II. But then she goes on:

Normally I would stop here. But it would be disingenuous to ignore the criticism from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith directed at the LCWR for giving me this award. Note that I would not be speaking about this if Cardinal Gerhard Mueller had not made his remarks public.

Cardinal Mueller seems to have interpreted the LCWR’s bestowal of its leadership award to Sr. Dr. Johnson as something between disrespect and defiance for the USCCB, whose Committee on Doctrine had criticized her book Quest for the Living God.

[B]ut to this day no one – not myself, nor the theological community, nor the media, nor the general public – knows what doctrinal issue is at stake. Despite my efforts to give and get clarification, none was forthcoming; the face-to-face conversation I sought never came about. . . . 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 goes on to point out similarities between the critique of her book and the critique of the LCWR in terms of an institutional expression of “a vague overall dissatisfaction or mistrust on certain topics,” which is insufficiently clear and specific for it to be capable of refutation. (I originally wrote “irrefutable,” but that term is often used as if it means “it can’t be refuted because it’s true,” rather than “it can’t be refuted because of how it is formulated.”)

From the perspective of mimetic theory, such vague dissatisfaction and mistrust typically surrounds scapegoat candidates during a mimetic crisis. I have suggested before that the LCWR, Sr. Dr. Margaret Farley, and Sr. Dr. Johnson are all women who have been scapegoated by the bishops for dissent among the laity.

Sr. Dr. Johnson suggests three analytical frameworks for what is going on here: the historical tension between religious communities and bishops; a sociological gendered framework in which “certain ruling men” are attempting “to control committed, competent women”; but most interesting to me of course was the ecclesiological analysis.

Implementing council’s mandate, women religious vigorously renewed their lives in accord with the gospel and the spirit of their founders. Consequently they moved toward the periphery, away from a cramped ecclesiastical center which Pope Francis calls “unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security” (Evangelii Gaudium 49). . . . 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. It has become common knowledge that Pope Francis was elected with a mandate to reform the Curia. This mandate, of course, includes the CDF. Until such reform happens, criticism is almost inevitable because the different pace of renewal has resulted in different ways of being church.

Emphasis mine!! With exclamation points, because I think this is such an insightful observation. I’ve spent the last year writing a thesis on ecclesiology, and I never saw this point made in just this way. It somehow never even occurred to me that the CDF might need to engage in a process of reform similar to that which the congregations of vowed religious undertook, quite reluctantly in some cases, out of obedience to the explicit mandate of the Second Vatican Council.

One of my professors suggested that, in terms of ecclesiology, Vatican I focused on the pope, and Vatican II focused on the bishops — a topic which Vatican I might have gone on to treat had it not been prematurely ended due to war; and that the unfinished ecclesiological business that should be taken up by the next council (“Vatican III”) was reflection on the Curia, and how it could and should be placed more explicitly at the service of all the local churches (ie, dioceses, and their bishops) that make up the universal church, rather than being focused so narrowly on Rome and its bishop (ie, the Pope).

In class that day, I thought that sounded reasonable. Today, I think it seems overly institutional, and I wonder how realistic it is to think that an ecumenical council can properly formulate the ecclesiological role of the Curia as long as the role of preparation for an ecumenical council is firmly held by that same Curia.

Especially since there is, so far as I am aware, absolutely no theological grounding for its existence and influence. It appears to be part historical accident, as the church was the only substantive institution to survive the fall of the Roman Empire in the West and therefore took on governing authority; and part inevitable bureaucracy, as the increasing centralization of the Catholic church which occurred throughout the second millennium (in response to various historical pressures, not least the Great Schism and the Protestant Reformation) increasingly amplified not only the juridical authority of the bishop of Rome, but also the influence and authority of that bishop’s local church bureaucracy.

Sr. Dr. Johnson goes on to imagine and hope for a reconciling framework grounded in a willingness to “go below the surface to see others in their deepest dignity (EG 227-228),” ordered towards a mutual commitment to “solidarity with the marginalized of this world.”

She closes, as is customary for award recipients, on an inspiring note, referring to a photo she took in South Africa in 1987, when she had been invited to the South African Catholic Bishops Conference to present on Christology at their annual Winter School:

The photo’s context is political: the wretched system of apartheid was in effect; Nelson Mandela was still in prison; the government had declared a state of emergency; troops patrolled the streets; danger was in the air. Supporting the violent status quo, an unknown hand, no doubt white, had used thick black paint to scrawl this graffiti: HANG MANDELA! But wait – someone else, probably with a darker hand, had come along and penciled the word ‘on’ between the two painted words. This completely subverts the message! To see the resilience of the human spirit under threat of harm (the pencil writer could have been arrested), to watch how an imaginative person turned a curse into a blessing – this has humbled, delighted, and inspired me ever since.

Do go read the whole thing.

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