Thursday, March 31, 2011

U.S. Bishops Condemn Work of Leading American Catholic Theologian Sister Elizabeth Johnson: And Who's Still Listening?

I posted a link yesterday to Colleen Baker's commentary at Enlightened Catholicism on the glaring disparity between how Catholic church officials have treated Fr. Roy Bourgeois, who is being harshly punished for supporting women's ordination, and Fr. Donald McGuire, who was permitted to roam the world as a high-profile "spiritual director" for years, even when many church officials knew he was abusing minors.  Bouregois has been slapped hard by Catholic pastoral officials.  McGuire was long given a free pass by Catholic pastoral officials. 

And now I'm reading at National Catholic Reporter an article by John Allen which reports that the U.S. Catholic Bishops' Committee on Doctrine has just condemned Sister Elizabeth Johnson's 2007 book Quest for the Living God.  And here's my response to that report, which I see NCR has published along with other comments this morning:

The bishops are such assiduous and talented critics of the work of Catholic theologians who work very hard to make Christian notions of God accessible to the general public.

It would be interesting to see them try to move beyond their role of watchdogs savaging the pastorally significant work of theologians like Elizabeth Johnson, and offer something equally compelling about the doctrine of God to believers and the public at large.

What they've been selling recently doesn't seem to be doing the trick.  When they tell us that they speak on God's behalf and play an exclusive role in the church in mediating God to us and communicating about God to us, many of us think, instead, of what they've done in the abuse crisis.  Or of their attack this week on a proposed federal policy protecting gay citizens of the U.S. against discrimination in the area of housing.

No matter what the bishops tell us is wrong with Elizabeth Johnson's work and her notion of God, I think I'll continue turning to that and other works like it to deepen my understanding of who God is and what God means.

Not to anything the bishops say.

In one single week, the U.S. bishops have attacked a federal program, HUD, for its plans to protect gay and lesbian and transgendered citizens from discrimination in the area of housing assistance, and they've issued a condemnation of a creative, pastorally acute theologian who is seeking to make traditional Catholic ideas about God accessible to more and more people.

They are taking both of these actions while we are all able to walk through the door that the Philadelphia grand jury report (followed by the legal documents in the case of Fr. Donald McGuire in Boston) has opened, and see the little shop of horrors that they have made of the Catholic church, as pastoral leaders.  And when they've been totally silent about the attack on the rights of working people in Wisconsin and surrounding states.

And they expect us to listen when they tell us that they own God?  And we don't?  And gay folks don't?  And Elizabeth Johnson doesn't?

In my case, not a chance that they'll succeed in convincing me to listen to them.  I've long since decided to turn my ears in the direction of people who really exercise pastoral leadership--like Sister Elizabeth Johnson.  Reading that the bishops have condemned her book has made me decide to buy a copy and read it.

I prefer to receive my ideas about God from someone who seems actually to be in contact with God.  And wrestling with what God means in the world around us today.

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