Earlier this spring, the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine issued a critique of St. Joseph Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson’s 2007 book “Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God.” 

The committee’s critical assessment of the book, which the statement pointed out is “directed primarily to an audience of nonspecialist readers and is being used as a textbook for study of the doctrine of God,” spurred Sister Elizabeth, who is a theology professor at Fordham University, and the Catholic Theological Society of America to respond, which then prompted an April 18 statement from the committee’s chairman, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., on the role and responsibility of the bishops to teach the faith. 

Here is a look at how the controversy developed. 

Initial critique 

On March 24, the bishops’ doctrinal committee authorized a 21-page statement asserting that “Quest for the Living God,” which won a first-place award from the Catholic Press Association in the academic theology category in 2008, differs from authentic Catholic teaching in seven key areas: 

◗ Misrepresentation of the traditional scriptural and Catholic understanding of God. 

◗ False presupposition that all names for God are metaphors, including the claim that human language does not attain to the reality of God. 

◗ Views of suffering that undermine God’s transcendence. 

◗ Failure to take into account the authority of divine revelation and the biblical and traditional theological language used to speak of God. 

◗ Undermining the uniqueness of biblical revelation and denial of uniqueness of Jesus as the Incarnate Word. 

◗ False representations of God as creator and evolution. 

◗ Misrepresentation of the Trinity, reducing it to a “symbolic expression of what ultimately cannot be known.” 

The statement concludes that “the basic problem with ‘Quest for the Living God’ as a work of Catholic theology is that the book does not take the faith of the Church as its starting point. Instead, the author employs standards from outside the faith to criticize and to revise in a radical fashion the conception of God revealed in Scripture and taught by the magisterium.”

Theologians’ response 

In response to the critique, Sister Elizabeth issued a statement March 30, raising two concerns: “First, I would have been glad to enter into conversation to clarify critical points, but was never invited to do so. This book was discussed and finally assessed by the committee before I knew any discussion had taken place. Second, one result of this absence of dialogue is that in several key instances this statement radically misinterprets what I think, and what I in fact wrote. The conclusions thus drawn paint an incorrect picture of the fundamental line of thought the book develops.” 

Likewise, the board of the Catholic Theological Society of America issued a statement, which raised concerns about three issues: 

1. That the bishops’ committee did not follow the procedures set forth in the “Doctrinal Responsibilities, Approaches to Promoting Cooperation and Resolving Misunderstandings Between Bishops and Theologians” approved by the USCCB in 1989, which states “informal conversation ought to be the first step toward resolution” between the bishops and theologians. 

2. That the bishops’ statement is “deficient in the way it presents” the book. 

3. That the statement has a narrow definition of the theologian’s task.

Bishops’ role 

In response to the criticisms, Cardinal Wuerl issued a resource for bishops April 18 to explain the prelates’ “very clear and defined role as the authentic teachers of the faith.” 

Acknowledging that theologians are teachers of the faith as well, the cardinal wrote: “The Church cannot exist without the teaching office of the bishop, nor thrive without the sound scholarship of the theologian. Bishops and theologians are in a collaborative relationship. Bishops benefit from the work of theologians, while theologians gain a deeper understanding of revelation under the guidance of the magisterium. The ministry of bishops and the service rendered by theologians entail a mutual respect and support.” 

Responding to claims that the committee failed to follow the procedures set forth in “Doctrinal Responsibilities,” Cardinal Wuerl pointed out that the guidelines are intended to aid diocesan bishops in dialoguing with theologians, and does not address the responsibilities of U.S. bishops’ doctrinal committee. 

“The doctrine committee,” he added, “does not wish to stifle legitimate theological reflection or to preclude further dialogue, but it does want to ensure that the authentic teaching of the Church, concerning doctrine and morals, is clearly stated and affirmed. While dialogue between theologians and bishops is very important, it should work alongside of the bishops’ primary teaching and sanctifying mission.” 

However, any theological book, particularly one that is used and accepted as authentic Catholic teaching, is open to response from bishops, he wrote. 

CNS contributed to this story

What is an Imprimatur?

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, in responding to criticisms over the doctrine committee’s critique of “Quest for the Living God,” encouraged theologians to seek an imprimatur, even if they are not required to do so under canon law. 

An imprimatur, Latin for “let it be printed,” is permission from the bishop prior to publication. 

“When a work is published and, particularly, if it is being used and accepted as authentic Catholic teaching, the bishops have an obligation to address it. Thus the initiation of dialogue by an author is not only welcome but recommended, before the work is published and the bishop may be constrained to make a public appraisal of it.”