US sisters defy Vatican with leadership award
Sr. Elizabeth Johnson has been officially censured for controversial writings
Picture: National Catholic Reporter
The Vatican and women religious are caught up in a tension with historical, sociological and ecclesiastical roots, but a solution could be found, Sr. Elizabeth Johnson said.
The Fordham University theologian praised the sisters for their commitment to "meaningful, honest dialogue" and urged them to stay the course.
Johnson was honored Friday with the Outstanding Leadership Award by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the largest group of women religious leaders in the nation, representing about 80 percent of the 51,600 sisters in the United States.
Both Johnson and LCWR have been criticized by the church, and Johnson told the nearly 800 sisters gathered here for LCWR’s annual assembly that the criticisms of her writing and of LCWR are intertwined.
Johnson is widely admired by LCWR members, and she urged them to hang on despite an ongoing investigation by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
“I think both of us are caught in a situation not of our own making,” she said.
Johnson, a Sister of St. Joseph from Brentwood, N.Y., is considered one of the architects of feminist theology. She has published nine books and more than 100 essays in scholarly journals, book reviews, book chapters and articles; her work has been translated into 13 languages. She holds a doctorate in theology from The Catholic University of America and is a distinguished professor of theology at Fordham.
Johnson is a former president of both the Catholic Theological Society and the ecumenical American Theological Society, was a consultant to the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Committee on Women in Society and the Church. She was featured in a Library of Congress calendar called “Women Who Dare.”
She is also controversial. In April, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ordered that after this assembly, speakers at the group’s events must be approved by Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, who heads the congregation’s five-year reform agenda for LCWR. Müller cited LCWR’s selection of Johnson for the Outstanding Leadership Award as one reason for the mandate, noting that Johnson has been “criticized by the Bishops of the United States because of the gravity of the doctrinal errors in [her] writings.” Sartain attended each of the public events during the LCWR assembly except for Johnson’s presentation, as he was traveling Friday night.
LCWR communications director Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Annmarie Sanders said the assembly directed the board members to respond to the mandate but would not say what that response would be.
“They told the board to take the next steps,” Sanders said.
A statement on the action to be taken is expected sometime after the board finishes meeting Monday.
In 2011, the doctrinal committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said Johnson’s 2007 book, Quest for the Living God, is not in accordance with official Catholic teaching.
Johnson’s selection as a speaker, Müller said in April, “will be seen as a rather open provocation against the Holy See and the Doctrinal Assessment” and further alienates the LCWR from the bishops.
“It was clear from his statement that Cardinal Müller neither read the book or my response, but simply echoed the criticisms of the panel,” Johnson told LCWR members. “But the committee’s assessment of Quest is itself theologically flawed.”
Johnson reiterated her stance that the book does not say the things the panel claims it does and that she does not believe the things they say she wrote.
“It criticizes positions I take that are in accord with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and in several instances, it reports the opposite of what the book actually says in order to find fault,” she said. “In my judgment, and this is difficult to say, but I do believe such carelessness with the truth is unworthy of the teaching office of bishop.”
Johnson said the doctrinal congregation’s criticisms of LCWR are similar.
“The investigation’s statements express a vague, overall dissatisfaction and distrust on certain topics, and judgments are rendered in such a way that they cannot be addressed,” she said. “But your willingness to stay at the table and offer meaningful, honest dialogue is a powerful witness.”
Source: National Catholic Reporter
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