Friday, April 1, 2011

A Reader Writes about Elizabeth Johnson Condemnation: What Are They So Afraid Of?

When I blogged yesterday about the condemnation of Elizabeth Johnson's book Quest for the Living God, MollyJ posted a great comment, asking, "What is the church so danged afraid of?"  Molly also notes that the bishops' response to Johnson sounds very "agendized."

And I agree.  I can't pretend to have a single scrap of information about what has gone on behind the scenes to produce this condemnation.  But my lack of inside information doesn't prevent me from piecing together the tidbits of information I've acquired over the course of some 30 years now as a Catholic theologian in the U.S. (albeit one shoved way to the margins), and, based on those tidbits, reaching some conclusions about why the bishops are making this statement about Johnson's work.  Conclusions that seem plausible to me, at least.

And here they are, for what they're worth to readers:

First and foremost, what the bishops are afraid of is loss of control.  But the fear of loss of control that they're voicing in the condemnation of this book is a broader fear than a specifically religious or specifically Catholic fear.  It's a fear that runs through patriarchal power structures in both faith communities and society at large at this point in history.  It's a quite specific fear that is particularly intent at our time in history, and particularly powerful in some communities of faith, notably the Roman Catholic church.

This is a fear among heterosexual (or heterosexual-posturing) men that they are on the verge of losing control of the key institutions and symbols of many societies and religious groups.  And in response to that fear, there's a ratcheted-up claim among heterosexual (or heterosexual-posturing) men that they exclusively and unilaterally own God.  And the central symbols of various religious traditions.

What the bishops are voicing in their condemnation of Elizabeth Johnson is, ultimately, ownership.  Ownership of God.  Of the symbol of God, which is fundamental to, indispensable to, the entire system of Catholic doctrine.  Ownership of all language about God.  Of all official language about God, which, they keep insisting (along with the Vatican) must always be filtered through their screening mechanisms and stamped with their divine seal of approbation before it's promulgated to the people of God.

As if ordinary layfolks and women and other ragtag people can't possibly know, understand, experience, and talk about God. Not in any official and meaningful way.  Not in any way that affects the allocation of power and structures of power in social groups and religious communities.

What is offensive about Elizabeth Johnson's approach to theology and to talking about God--what is offensive to the bishops, above all--is her method of doing theology as though the experience of ordinary layfolks and women and other ragtag human beings counts.  As if it is valid experience of the divine.  As if we need to listen intently to such experience in order to develop anything close to an adequate theological language about God.

Scan Catholic blog sites in recent days where there's discussion of this book and why the bishops have chosen to condemn it, and you'll notice an interesting sociological trend in the discussion: far and away the majority of those defending the bishops and their choice to condemn the book are men.  And over and over, those men's defense of what the bishops have chosen to do boils down to a language of sheer, raw power.

The bishops should condemn such books, the defensores fidei are saying, because they have the right to do so, and people forget who owns rights unless those who have them assert their rights.  Unless they assert their rights over others.  

The men defending the bishops' action with regard to Elizabeth Johnson's book are jubilant that the bishops have asserted their power over a feminist theologian who dares to write about God in any voice other than the official voice of a chancery office or episcopal palace.  The bishops' decision to condemn Elizabeth Johnson's work is being framed by these male defensores as a demonstration of episcopal muscle of which these defenders of the faith would like to see quite a bit more: more heretic bashing.  More imprimaturs.  More oaths and mandata.

More mechanisms of control to assure that there's only one voice--only one authoritarian voice--declaring The Truth to the world.  Declaring Catholic Truth.  Declaring The Truth that men know, own, and dispense as they wish to the rest of the world.

One of the most amusing responses I am now hearing at blog sites as power-brokering men chew over the "victory" of the U.S. bishops' muscular demonstration of power over Elizabeth Johnson is this: she herself admits she went to press, they say, before she had the full truth about God.  And now she wants to whine when those with more access to the truth--those who own the taps from which dribs and drabs of truth are dispensed to the rest of us--slap her hands for her sloppy work?

The spectacular misunderstanding of what theology is all about exhibited in that recurring statement on some Catholic blogs in the past day or so is mind-boggling.  Can anyone really be so ignorant of what theology is about at the most fundamental level possible--that it's a communitarian search, requiring many perspectives and many voices, for language and symbols to express our experience of the divine?  To voice an experience of the divine Who transcends any and all language?

The reflex to control runs directly counter to everything that the experience of the divine means if it's authentic, in the view of the classic religious traditions of the world.  Authentic experience of God, we're told repeatedly by the classic religious traditions of the world, inducts us into a life of faith in which we continuously experience a loss of control.  Because we've encountered God.  Who is utterly beyond all human control.  Who is utterly beyond all human language. The claim to own The Truth about God and a uniquely correct language in which to utter that truth is, on the face of it, a claim that places those making the claim beyond the pale of authentic experience of the divine, in the understanding of the world's classic religious traditions.

The spiritual life is about going where we never expected to go, walking along paths that lead somewhere we never intended to walk.  It's about letting go of control, and of ourselves, in ceaseless acts of self-giving to others and to God.  In ceaseless acts of self-giving to anyone and everyone in need--which is to say, to the whole world.  It's about Jesus going down into and under the waters of the Jordan River and letting himself be submerged in them as he begins his ministry--a ministry whose paths lead to Calvary, not to a royal throne or a military commander's palace.  Not to power and control, but to the renunciation of those alluring mirages that stand between us and the living God whose love burns away all desire to control, to exercise power over others.

As I think about what the bishops are doing and saying in condemning Elizabeth Johnson's work, I wonder what powerful men where are now pulling the strings for the Catholic bishops of the U.S. I wonder about whose money is changing hands behind the scenes to urge the bishops to attack federal policies designed to prevent discrimination against gay citizens in the area of housing, to remain silent when bullying of gay youths create epidemics of suicide, and when workers' rights are being assaulted in one state after another.  I wonder whose money urged the bishops to, well, lie about health care reform last year and claim that the new federal health care plan would subvent abortions.

I wonder who has bought and spurred on this ugly inquisitorial gesture against one of the most highly respected American Catholic theologians.  Who happens to be a woman.

I wonder about all of these matters as I see the bishops make yet another utterly doltish, bafflingly wrong-headed pastoral move that, in the minds of the men who are cheering them, demonstrates the bishops' magnificent power to all the world.  When what it really tells an increasing number of us, instead, as the abuse crisis continues to unfold and we learn just what the bishops have really been doing as all that money changes hands behind the scenes, is that the bishops are totally devoid of any power that spiritually or morally astute people would recognize as authentic, transformative religious power.

That kind of power is to be found now in the theology of Elizabeth Johnson--not in any words the bishops are uttering. 

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