Monday, March 17, 2014

Sister Elizabeth Johnson Talks About Her Vocation As a Theologian: "There Were These Men and They Had All the Power"

At BuzzFeed, a marvelous article by Jamie Manson surveying the theological career of Sister Elizabeth Johnson, whose book Quest for the Living God was condemned by the U.S. Catholic bishops in March 2011--though they never met with Johnson to discuss the book before they chose to condemn it, and didn't even inform her that they were deliberating about the book and intending to condemn it. 

The condemnation spurred me to read the book (a fine, masterful historical study of the theology of God) the following year, and I posted a series of reflections about it starting here. If you want to read more than the initial posting to which this link points, please click Elizabeth Johnson's name in the labels below this posting.

In Jamie Manson's article, I'm struck, in particular, by her account of what happened when Elizabeth Johnson came up for tenure at Catholic University in 1987. Manson notes that Johnson had proven her academic worth very well by this point, and every committee within the school that vetted her for tenure rubber-stamped her application.

But then this happened: the head of the Vatican's watchdog agency for theologians, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, stepped in. From overseas. From far-off Rome.

Ratzinger sent Johnson a list of 40 questions to answer. They included questions like, 

"You say Mary is too passive. Isn’t obedience the greatest virtue?"

Manson writes, 

Though Johnson dutifully answered each query, Ratzinger was still not satisfied. He proceeded to take the extraordinary measure of calling every cardinal in the United States to come to Washington to interrogate her on the content of the article [i.e., an article Johnson had written about the traditional depiction of Mary as passive]. Johnson was the first female faculty member to come up for tenure at CUA, and the first to be subjected to an examination by the cardinals. 
At the initial meeting, the hall was filled with men in black garb, gold chains across their chests, and priests at each of their sides. Johnson was the only woman in the room. "There were these men and they had all the power. I was vulnerable and at their mercy," Johnson remembers. "There was patriarchy using its power against me, to deprive me of what, in fairness, I should have been given." Twenty-five years later, the recollection still brings waves of sadness and anger across her face. 
"I kept thinking that in another century, they would be lighting the fires outside."

As I say, this passage strikes me. Why?

1. Well, there's that point again about Ratzinger being in Rome. And Elizabeth Johnson being vetted in Washington, D.C. A powerful cardinal, the right-hand man of Pope John Paul II, who surely had a tremendous amount on his plate over in Rome, took it upon himself to micromanage the tenure process of a lowly nun, a faculty member, at far-off Catholic University?!

2. What does this say about Joseph Ratzinger (aka Benedict XVI)? What does it say about the Vatican of the JPII-BXVI era, and how it dealt with theologians?

3. What does this say about how the Vatican dealt with women, and with that rare breed of uppity women who have dared to obtain the credentials to become theologians--to step into a domain the Vatican wanted to preserve exclusively for men (and for ordained men, at that)?

4. What does it say about all the apologetics of papal cheerleaders in recent years who have maintained that Ratzinger was a scholar with his head in the clouds disconnected from the mundane, who couldn't possibly have known that any priest under his jurisdiction when he was  archbishop of Munich had been reassigned to a parish after the priest's propensity for abusing minors was known--and had once again committed acts of abuse?

5. What does it say about all the apologetics of papal cheerleaders who have excused the shocking, shameful inaction of the Vatican for so many years in the case of Legion of Christ founder Father Marcial Maciel by saying that the men at the top, including Cardinal Ratzinger, just didn't really know what was going on with Maciel? Not for the longest time . . . .

Towards the end of this article, Elizabeth Johnson tells Jamie Manson something that resonates strongly with me: she says that she never set out to be a reformer, to be in the limelight, to be seen as cross-grained, refractory, a mouthy, uppity woman. She set out simply to do her theology, to teach--something she loves to do. Something she was called by Divine Sophia to do. 

She set out to be a scholar, thinker, teacher. And then along came Joseph Ratzinger. And all those cardinals--every American cardinal!--that he called to Rome to burn her at the stake interrogate her. 

And a second, entirely unchosen career, opened up for her: she became a symbol of what Ratzinger and those cardinals and all the men running the church do to women, and want to keep doing. And that theology and teaching and scholarship she had been doing very quietly in university classrooms took on an unanticipated public caste.

Something the men hounding her, misrepresenting her theology, condemning it without even doing her the courtesy of telling her that they considered her work suspect or allowing her to defend herself--something the men doing all of this caused. Conditions they created . . . . 

Which allowed her academic work and her scholarly voice to reach far more people than they would otherwise have reached . . . . Deo gratias for all those obstinate, imperious men running things in the Vatican and in the bishops' palaces of the United States, whose God seems to work in exceptionally mysterious ways to lift up the lowly while casting the mighty from their thrones.

Something about which the "passive" and "obedient" Mary sings from the first moments we encounter her in the gospels . . . .

The photograph of Elizabeth Johnson is by Macey Foronda for BuzzFeed and is included in Jamie Manson's article.

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