Thursday, April 28, 2011

Donald Cozzens to Bishops Accusing Elizabeth Johnson: Step Up and Let Yourselves Be Seen

I'm struck today by a number of articles that seem to me to offer interesting perspectives on topics I've discussed here in the past.  And so I think I'll do one of those "in the news" series of postings, catching up on issues from previous postings.

First, I'm intrigued by Donald Cozzens' call for transparency on the part of the U.S. Catholic bishops in the case of Elizabeth Johnson.  As I have noted in a number of postings in the past several weeks, the U.S. Catholic bishops' committee on doctrine issued a condemnation of Sr. Elizabeth Johnson's 2007 book Quest for the Living God at the end of March.  The bishops claim that the book is doctrinally defective and is an imperfect guide to Catholic truth for those using the book in classrooms and other theological discussion groups.

As Donald Cozzens notes, this condemnation ostensibly reflects concerns raised by a number of U.S. bishops, whose identities we don't know.  Though the bishops have a policy that encourages bishops to engage in dialogue with a theologian whose work is under episcopal scrutiny prior to issuing a condemnation of this sort, in the case of Elizabeth Johnson, there was no such dialogue.  She was not informed of the ostensible defects of her work as it was being reviewed by the bishops' committee, not told who had made accusations against her, and not given a chance to defend herself and her work as it was being reviewed.

Hence Cozzens' call for transparency now: who is questioning Johnson's work, and why are those bishops doing so?  In Cozzens' view, an adult church demands adult techniques of handling dispute--not secrecy and top-down, authoritarian suppression of discussion:

For the bishops who accused Johnson, I have a thought. Step out from behind the sanctuary of your chancery desks and identify yourselves. Johnson is ready to sit down with you for a serious conversation about the mystery of the living God.

It seems to me that’s the adult thing to do.

Though I certainly don't know the identity of any of Johnson's accusers, I can well imagine the theological niche within the U.S. bishops' conference from which the accusations are emanating.  I can imagine that niche because I began to be aware that Elizabeth Johnson was on the radar screen of the Catholic fringe right by the early 1990s.  And when I became aware of that fact, I also became aware of several of the primary factors that were driving the attack on Johnson and other theologians who were beginning to be perceived as threats to Catholic truth in this period.

Here's how the attacks on Johnson came on my radar screen: not too long after I was given a terminal contract in 1993 by Belmont Abbey College, whose theology department I chaired, the Benedictine community of monks that own the college hosted a lecture by a popular American Catholic speaker, Fr. Alfred McBride, on the topic of the future of Catholic theology.  Curiously, though I was chairing the theology department of this Catholic college at the time, I wasn't invited to the lecture.

I found out about it only post factum, from some of the majors in the department who were potential candidates for monastic life and who had been invited to the lecture.  They told me that McBride's lecture was, in their view, a broadside attack on much of American Catholic theology in the wake of Vatican II--the kind of theology they was being taught in many of their theology classes at Belmont Abbey.

In particular, they told me, he lambasted Elizabeth Johnson, who was "tearing apart" the church with her feminist ideas of God.  How was she permitted to get away with this kind of thing?  Where were the theological controls that used to assure that anyone calling herself a Catholic theologian was a bona fide Catholic theologian, and not a maverick dangerous to orthodoxy?

When I heard the reports of my students about these attacks on Elizabeth Johnson in a quasi-secret lecture advertised as a public lecture, which was essentially a call for a purge of groups of theologians regarded as threats to an embattled clerical regime, it became clear to me that the monks of Belmont Abbey had invited Alfred McBride to give the lecture because of their own concerns--concerns that underlay my terminal contract--about issues of control in the theological realm.  I was the first lay chair of Belmont Abbey's theology department.

Throughout my troubled two years at this small Benedictine college, there was constant turmoil due to the palpable fear of many of the monks that the appointment of a lay chair of the theology department signaled the end of clerical control of the discipline of theology.  On more than one occasion, I had the unhappy experience of sitting through sermons in the abbey church in which the monk preaching told students that theologians were leading them astray, and that they needed to study theology on their knees, praying for God to hold them fast in the truth.  I also discovered after I received a terminal contract that, during my time at the college, one of my books had circulated through the monastery, where monks made marginal notes re: the "errors" of the text, to show that I wasn't qualified to teach theology.

Not long after I was issued a terminal contract with no explanation for why I was being fired, the monastery's abbot gave a public presentation to the college community in which he spoke of the need to lop off diseased limbs in order to restore the catholicity of the college.  He followed this with a statement to the media which was printed in the local paper, in which he said that the catholicity of Catholic colleges was waning as more lay faculty taught in these colleges.  He had assumed the presidency of the college, pushing out its lay president, in order to reassert catholicity, and he wanted the public to know this.

The underlying implication of these remarks was clear: lay theologians cannot be controlled in the same way that clerical theologians can be controlled.  Theology had always been and should remain a clerical discipline, tightly controlled by church officials.  Those calling the shots at this particular Catholic college were eager to use the latest mechanism of control on the horizon at that point in time--the mandatum, a "permission" to teach theology granted by the local bishop to theologians after those theologians have taken an oath of loyalty--as a mechanism assuring continued clerical control of the discipline of theology, in an age in which theologians are increasingly lay persons and not priests.

(Unfortunately--an aside, but a pertinent one--the priest that Belmont Abbey was eager to hire to replace me in order to restore the catholicity of the theology department came with some embarrassing baggage.  He disappeared mysteriously halfway through an academic year, while college officials remained mum about the disappearance.  In 2002, the reason for his disappearance became evident from information released during the disclosure process in the Boston trials about clerical sexual abuse: he had come to the college with well-known and proven allegations of sexual advances to seminarians at his previous place of employment.

When this information became public, the then abbot, a monk who had hired me to teach theology and then ditched me with great alacrity when he saw that the prevailing winds were against having a lay chair of the theology department, told the media that he had not known of the priest's messy past at the time he was hired.  The bishop of Charlotte made a similar statement to the media.  Both then had to admit that they had lied a few days later, when Cardinal Law released documents showing he had telephoned and written the abbot and the bishop to tell them about the priest's history of sexual approaches to students when Belmont Abbey College hired him.)

What was of supreme importance to the monks who sought to unseat me as the first lay chair of this college's theology department was, as I have noted, to find mechanisms to assure continued clerical control of the discipline of theology in an age in which theologians are increasingly lay persons and not priests.  And increasingly laypersons and nuns: the growing number of religious women obtaining academic degrees in the field of theology, teaching theology, and writing theological works is also of serious concern to those who imagine that waning clerical control of theological discourse represents the end of catholicity in the church.  Elizabeth Johnson is a lightning rod for these concerns, I began to realize as I worked through my own painful experiences with this small Catholic college, for precisely the same reason I was a lightning rod as a lay theologian.

She's a lightning rod because she's not a priest.  And not a man.  And she is beyond the control of those who equate catholicity with male clerical control.  She's a lightning rod for those who imagine that the church is somehow falling apart when men are not completely in control of it and all that it says and does.

And that's ultimately what the recent condemnation of Elizabeth Johnson's work is all about, and what the U.S. bishops intend to communicate with this condemnation: theology belongs to us.  It belongs to clerics.  It belongs to clerics who also happen to be men.  It belongs primarily to clerics because the church itself belongs primarily to clerics.  They determine the meaning of catholicity, of its symbols and doctrines.   And we can control clerics teaching theology in ways we cannot control lay persons or religious women who teach theology--and this lack of control concerns us and many others who are concerned about the waning of mechanisms of male control in culture at large.

The bishops who have raised concerns about Elizabeth Johnson?  This is where they're coming from.  And we will not ever know their identities, I suspect, because they do not want their identities disclosed.  They don't want their identities disclosed any more than the powerful men in back rooms with whom these bishops collude to keep patriarchal control mechanisms in place in society at large want their identities known.  What they're doing in the case of Elizabeth Johnson is all about reasserting a sense of control that they imagine is threatened by people like Elizabeth Johnson, which does its work within church structures precisely by remaining hidden and unaccountable.

(P.S. I've noted that the fact that Steve and I are a gay couple and were hired together to teach theology at Belmont Abbey played a definite role in the choice of the school to give me an unexplained terminal contract  after two years.  I know this because the president of the college told a student this, when the student expressed his concern about the terminal contract in a conversation with the president.

But this was, I suspect, not the primary reason the monks and bishop of Charlotte wanted me to be terminated.  It was very clear to me--and I have quite a bit of evidence to back up this claim--that the primary movers in the decision to give me a terminal contract were the then abbot Oscar Burnett and the then bishop of Charlotte John Donoghue, who were also being pressured by some very powerful and wealthy right-wing Catholics in the area to fire me.  Though Belmont Abbey refused ever to provide a reason for the termination, before the president of the college was himself fired, he told me that the bishop and abbot were pushing for my firing because they wanted direct control over the theology department, which they felt they had lost with a lay department chair.

The gay issue was simply a convenient way to frame the grab for control and to make it seem palatable to the public--and it proved a very effective way for the monastic community and key players in the old boys' club that dominated the faculty at that point in time to spin my expulsion from the college, which was, in effect, also my expulsion from the Catholic theological academy itself.)

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