Diminished Quality of Catechesis as a Basis for Limiting the Role of a Catholic Theologian: An Examination of the Controversy Surrounding Elizabeth Johnson’s Book The Quest for the Living God By Michele Stopera Freyhauf

The biggest mistake people make is to use theology and catechesis interchangeably.  This is an important distinction that impacts the scholarly community of Catholic Theologians.  So what is the difference?  Catechesis in the Catholic tradition is an “echoing” of the faith.  Theology on the other hand, using St. Anselm’s definition, is “faith seeking understanding.”  Michael G. Lawler and Todd A. Salzman, in “Beyond Catechesis: What is the Proper Role of Theology”, states that catechesis can be included in theology, but theology is distinguished from catechesis because it “uses scholarly principles not only to communicate the truths of faith but also to explore the meanings of those truths and contemporary ways of articulating them.”  Also the theologians’ role is seen as mediator between the magisterium and the faithful. Richard P. McBrien states that the required role of a theologian is to investigate and examine the whole of the Christian tradition; what it means, how it fits, how it is developed, and how it relates to the outside the world in theory and in practice.   Ex Corde Ecclesiae also emphasizes community and dialogue, which is not always realized in practice. 

The failure to understand the role of a theologian is highlighted in the controversy surrounding Elizabeth Johnson’s book The Quest for the Living God.  There is a very public discussion of this subject between Catholic Theological Society of American (CTSA), College Theological Society (CTS), and the USCCB.  The USCCB issued a warning, stating Johnson’s book “contains misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors that bear upon the faith of the Catholic Church as found in Sacred Scripture, and as it is authentically taught by the Church’s universal magisterium.” Four years after the publication of this book, the USCCB is issues this warning on the basis that Johnson’s audience is broad, not written specifically for the scholarly community. This statement falls outside of the scope of who a theologian writes for. According to McBrien, the scholarly community is only a part of the intended audience.

In a follow-up to the response, the USCCB through Cardinal Donald Wuerl elaborated on why this broad audience is a concern.  Essentially it is the “diminished level of catechetical preparation of so many students” and because of this “special attention must now be given as to how to address theological works that are aimed at students and yet do not meet criteria for authentic Catholic teaching.” In essence, our catechetical system is not doing enough to educate children and adults in the faith and thus because of this unstable foundation, they cannot take the risk of allowing the faithful to read something that will challenge or explore their faith.

It seems the problem is with the catechetical system, not the theologians.  Johnson was well within her role as theologian, which is to wrestle with mysteries that are always complex in light of a growing and living tradition of the Church.  CTSA’s response  supports this: the theologian’s task is meant to venture in “new ways to imagine and express the mystery of God.”  The statement from CTS was similar credits Johnson “with plumbing the depths of the received Catholic tradition as found in diverse scriptural and historical witnesses of faith while investigating pressing issues and searching for ever deeper understanding.”

Moreover, a protocol exists when issues of disagreement between the Bishops (or body representing the Magisterium) and Theologians.  There is also an “approved procedures of Doctrinal Responsibilities which advocates that an informal conversation be undertaken” that was not followed.  Johnson, in her response, stated she was never contacted by the USCCB and would have been glad to discuss her writings.  Moreover, John Paul II, in Ut Unum Sint, requires such a dialogue with theologians occur without the threat of punitive or disciplinary action.

So what does this warning and action by the USCCB mean for Catholic theologians? In a word “trouble.”  According to CTS, “instead of cultivating a culture of open collaboration and mutual dialogue between bishops, theologians, and the people of God in the advancement of a deeper understanding of the faith,” the Committee “breeds disillusionment, fear, and mistrust among younger theologians in their relation to bishops and increasing sadness and fatigue among more seasoned scholars.” Fr. Anthony Ruff states that Wuerl’s comments, “insist on our authority” instead of looking at the arguments.  Ruff states that the contention between Theologians and Bishops is “depressing,” and “bad, very bad, for the future of theological inquiry in the Church.” In the end this statement mandates Catholic theologians follow the party line or risk warning, limitation in teaching/writing authority and even excommunication.

Was this a valid move?  In a word “no.”  I am not alone in my opinion. Stephen J. Pope believes this warning was political, “certain bishops decide that they want to punish some theologians and this is one way they do that.” Pope believes this “is nothing more than making an example of someone who’s prominent.”  Grant Gallicho states that the Bishops fail to present “an intelligible and convincing scenario” and address “a series of catechetical assertions that inadequately address the questions that animate the book.” Mollie Wilson O’Reilly states that the Bishops are being “oddly aggressive” and inaccurate in its representations.  Mary Hunt believes that “the Bishops were making an example of a feminist who taught in a Catholic University.”

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, before he died, echoes these concerns and calls for dialogue, “there are urgent questions that the church in the United States knows it must air openly and honestly but which it increasingly feels pressed or evade or, at best, address obliquely.” These issues call for a “constructive debate” by those with “different viewpoints” in dialogue expressed “in an atmosphere of mutual respect” where “all parties can listen, learn, contribute, wrestle with the insights that should be tested and refined.”  For Bernardin, theology is not only healthy but “ultimately builds up a vital future for the church.”  Because we are a living changing church, it is our responsibility to understand the faith that we ascribe our beliefs to, even if it means asking hard questions and exploring new interpretations.

Author: Michele Stopera Freyhauf

Michele Stopera Freyhauf is a Doctoral Student in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and a Member of the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University as well as an Instructor at John Carroll University’s Department of Theology and Religious Studies. Michele has an M. A. in Theology and Religious Studies from John Carroll University, and did post-graduate work at the University of Akron in the area of History of Religion, Women, and Sexuality. She is also a Member-at-Large on the Student Advisory Board for the Society of Biblical Literature and the student representative on the Board for Eastern Great Lakes Biblical Society (EGLBS). Michele is a feminist scholar, activist, and author of several articles including “Hagia Sophia: Political and Religious Symbolism in Stones and Spolia” and lectured during the Commission for the Status of Women at the United Nations (2013). Michele can be followed on Twitter @msfreyhauf and @biblicalfem. Her website can be accessed here and is visible on other social media sites like LinkedIn and Google+.

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