Mother Pelican
A Journal of Sustainable Human Development

Vol. 7, No. 6, June 2011
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Status of Gender Equality in Religion


This supplement is a digest of recent events and significant contributions to fostering gender equality - and human development - in various religious traditions and institutions. With so much going on, the selected items are the editor's choice. The following sections are included in this page:

1. The Religious Roots of Gender Violence
2. The Status of Women in the Bible and in Early Christianity
3. When Pastors and Priests Prey - WSCF
4. Review of "The Lost Moonflower" by Isaac Karoor
5. Review of "Inside the Gender Jihad" by Amina Wadud
6. Teach Your Children Well: Challenging Religion-Based Sexism
7. Encounter in the Garden (Jesus and Mary Magdalene)
8. Empowered Faith, Empowered Women
9. The Bishops and Sister Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ

The promotion of gender equality in religion is a slow and painful process, and it is barely beginning to unfold worldwide. But it is a dynamic process, one in which progress begets progress. It is important to stay tuned to relevant news coming from all world regions and all world religions. The Google News box displayed to the right may be helpful. Readers can enhance their web sites with their own version of this box, which is continuously refreshed as significant events are reported, by going to Google News, clicking on "Add a section," and follow simple instructions under "Create a custom section." This is a free service, but you must register in order to use the customization tool.

If you know about recent developments that should be mentioned in this page, please write to the Editor.

1. The Religious Roots of Gender Violence

Source: The Religious Consultation
Violence Against Women
in Contemporary World Religion:
Roots And Cures

Daniel C. Maguire
Professor of Moral Theology & Ethics, Marquette University, and President, The Religious Consultation On Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics

Note: The following is quoted (with permission) from the Introduction to Violence Against Women in Contemporary World Religion: Roots And Cures, Daniel C. Maguire and Sa'Diyya Shaikh (Editors), Pilgrim Press, 2007, 248 pages.

Excerpts from pages 3-8:

"For a long time, I was able to avoid moral shock that my beloved Thomas Aquinas joined Aristotle in teaching that women were a biologicl mistake. In the process of generation, these men averred, nature intended male perfection but obviously that does not always happen - there are women. This is due to accidents in the conception process. Thus a woman in aliquid deficiens et occasionatum, as Thomas put it, something deficient and misbegotten. Thomas followed through on this. He taught that children and even the insane could be validly ordained as priests - but adult and healthy women could not be!

"It is the role of religious scholars to identify the noxious debris that has accumulated in the passage of time. The narratives, myths, and scriptures of the religions never filter out all the accrued errors. Therefore, religious scholarship proceeds most effectively by looking for the mistakes and then finding correctives, when possible, right within the same tradition. This is illustrated in Christian scriptures by the contrast between two epistles: Ephesians and Galatians. The Epistle to the Ephesians tells women: "Be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church ... wives ought to be [subject], in everything, to their husbands" (Ephesians 5:22-24). Much in the literature of religions is descriptive of the way things were, not prescriptive of the way things ought to be. Ephesians' instructions on the servile status of women accurately described the customs and gender injustice of that day. The value of scriptures is in their prescriptive breakthroughs, which represent a correction of the status quo. Thus, in Galatians 3:38, the announcement is made that in the new and revolutionary perspectives of the Jesus movement all hostile divisions between male and female, slave and free, Greek and Jew are washed away. There is no longer any need to be "enslaved to the elemental spirits" of the time (Galatians 4:3). It is these creative discontinuities that are the main targets of creative religious scholarship.

"The Buddhist saying that all belief systems are illnesses in need of a cure may overstate the case but it has a point. Religions that cannot admit and work to correct their lethal errors and flawed heroes do not deserve to survive. ... The world's religions are classical, though flawed, efforts to develop in humanity the essential art of cherishing. The respect they deserve is candid criticism and then a retrieval and application of their moral energies and healing powers."

2. The Status of Women in the Bible and in Early Christianity

Women of the Bible
Bible Gateway

Review of
"The Status of Women in the Bible
and in Early Christianity"

B. A. Robinson
Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance

This web site offers an excellent synopsis (with passage quotations, annotated citations, and links to other web sites) about the status of women in the Bible and in early Christianity. It is structured as follows:

NB: By following these lists of biblical and post-biblical statements, the reader is able to verify the descriptive versus prescriptive passages about women, and the significant discontinuities that must be researched, as pointed out by Daniel Maguire in Section 1.

3. When Pastors and Priests Prey

World Student Christian Federation
When Pastors and Priests Prey

New book breaks silence on sexual abuse of women by clergy

Stephen Brown, Ekklesia, 20 May 2011
Creative Commons License

In an energetic book launch featuring Jamaican drummers and an Indian 'Bollywood' dance lesson, the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF) released a new publication seeking to break the silence on sexual abuse of women by clergy within the church.

The launch took place on 19 May 2011 at the World Council of Churches (WCC) sponsored International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC) that took place in Kingston, Jamaica, 18-25 May 2011.

Titled When Pastors and Priests Prey, the book aims to raise awareness about identifying, preventing and overcoming clergy sexual abuse of women, according to Christine Housel, General Secretary of the WSCF. "We hope that this effort will begin a cultural transformation within the worldwide church."

The book, which was supported by the WCC Women in Church and Society project, offers insights from researchers, advocates and survivors. Also included is a speech by former President Jimmy Carter to the Parliament of the World Religions in which he states: "The truth is the male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter."

Dr Fulata Lusungu Moyo, WCC programme executive for Women in Church and Society, called the compilation "a prophetic project."

For many of the book's contributors, sharing their story became a form of therapy, said Moyo. "When we read their stories, we realise they have moved from being victims to survivors. They have become healers – wounded healers."

One of the book's contributors described the manipulation her pastor used against her after sexually abusing her: "He taught that to follow Jesus Christ meant we must forgive each other every sin against us. He begged me for forgiveness. He blamed me for causing his temptation. I blamed myself and tried to avoid being attractive. Nothing worked."

Even as the book's contributors detail painful stories of abuse, they also acknowledge the clergy themselves can help lead the battle against future sexual abuse by pastors and priests.

In her essay about clergy abusing women in Congo, Esther Lubunga Kenge writes that the abusive acts shrouded in secrecy must be brought into the light. "Those who were hiding behind the silence of victims should face the exposure of their actions to the public. Thank God not all clergymen are rapists," she writes. "God has genuine shepherds of the flock ready to sacrifice their lives for the sheep."

Dr Valli Batchelor, the project's coordinator, said that if the silence surrounding abuse is broken, only then will there be change.

"Victims are often so trapped in confusion, guilt and self-blame," she said. "Women victims are likely to remain silent and, as a result, suffer severe depression and higher rates of suicide."

Inviting women to talk about their trauma was an integral part of compiling the book, said Batchelor, who was born into a Hindu family and then baptised in the Christian faith.

As Batchelor invited IEPC participants at the book launch to dance, she told them she finds that physical movement helps people relax and release trauma. In the book, she writes: "I have found that the dance medium is both expressive of the emotional hurts and needs of violated women and children as well as being cathartic and liberating for the individual in participation in group dramatic dance."

Batchelor believes that the collective global church community needs to face the fact that clergy abuse of women might be taking place in their own community, wherever that might be.

"Many people from churches say, 'Maybe it happens, but not in my church.' I'd like to challenge that."

She said she'd like to see a cultural transformation within the worldwide church. "Sexual abuse is a violent use of power," she said. "It is not an affair – because of that balance of power."

Links to more information:

4. Review of "The Lost Moonflower" by Isaac Karoor

Review of

The Lost Moonflower

A historical novel about Phoebe,
deacon of the church in Cenchrae,
late 1st century CE

By Isaac Karoor

Book Web Site         Book Flyer

Set against the back drop of the emergence of Christianity as a major world religion, the story follows the tragic love affair between Luke and Phoebe, whose lives would shape the world for generations to come.

The Story: "In the first century A.D., in the dawning of the Christian world, a young Greek named Luke seeks to prove his worth to his betrothed - Phoebe, the only daughter of a rich magistrate from Philippi - and sets out on a journey to Rome. He takes with him scrolls of papyrus given to him by Phoebe to make a journal of his travels.

"During his journey to Rome, Luke encounters a new sect of Christians who spread the word of Jesus by doing great humanitarian works in His name. Unlike his faith, these Christians accept everyone equally and encourage women to accept leadership roles.

"He discovers women are important members of the new sect, called "The Way," in large part because the initial gatherings were held in private homes and not in churches or synagogues. Since women hosted these gatherings, it was only natural that they be church leaders.

"Luke was drawn to the new sect in part because of his fiancée, Phoebe, who was not satisfied with the confining role of women in her world.

"Luke arrives in Rome and is stuck by the violence and cruelty of the gladiator games. He ends up giving medical aid to an injured gladiator, the brother of a follower of the New Way and through him discovers a remedy for the violence that he has seen.

"Eventually, Luke gains employment as an assistant physician in the imperial palace and there he is tempted by his boss' daughter Diana. An accomplished artist, Luke paints a detailed portrait of her but in the end he resists the temptations, vowing himself to his one true love, Phoebe. Later even the emperor Claudius' wife Messalina tries to endear herself to Luke but when he resists her charms, she vows revenge on him for the humiliation of rejection.

"All around Rome, the world is rapidly changing as the conflict between Jews and Romans spill out into the streets, prompting Claudius to expel all Jews from Rome, even those of the new sect of Christians. Being a new follower, Luke is forced out of the city. In the confusion, Messalina's greed turns Claudius against her and she is put to death as a traitor. The Emperor decrees that any man who shared her bed to be sentenced to his wife's fate. Luckily for Luke, his expulsion from Rome protected him from being arrested and put to death.

"Luke sets off for home and along the road meets Paul, an Apostle of Jesus and invites him to come to Greece. The two then travel together to Philippi.

"Back home, Phoebe hears of Luke's sentence of death and not knowing his fate, she consults the Oracle of Delphi. As fate would have it, Luke arrives not long after Phoebe leaves and the two barely miss each other and Luke follows her to the Oracle.

"Phoebe's experience at the temple is thrown into chaos when Luke arrives and the medium shrieks – claiming she had a vision of Luke believing and serving one God. Phoebe and Luke try to make sense of their newfound faith and the idea that it encourages favorable treatment of women.

"Because of his beliefs, Paul is put on trial by Phoebe's father and despite this, Luke and Phoebe are secretly married in a private ceremony. On his wedding night, however, Luke is arrested and put on trial for entering Delphi. During the trial, Diana appears and shows Phoebe the portrait Luke painted of her. Phoebe rejects Luke and seeks counsel with Paul, who tells her to find her place in the new movement.

"Phoebe finds more than that and becomes a leading deacon in the new movement and eventually is to be sent to Rome as Paul's pilot. She is not accepted by everyone as the evil Nimrod opposes the involvement of women in religious matters. In his rage, Nimrod rapes and murders Phoebe, destroying the exulted role of women in the Church at the same time.

"The story ends where it begins, with Luke looking out over the Harbor of Neapolis where, as a recent graduate, he recalls the gift of a moonflower given to him by Phoebe. That moonflower – which opens at dusk and closes before the break of dawn – sits behind Luke now as he contemplates his future and future of the moment, and of the tragic loss of his great love.

"A gripping story that sets a tragic love story against the epic events of history, The Lost Moonflower is a journey about love, loss, betrayal and most of all, faith. A cautionary tale of our cruelty and unfairness, it is all an important story for our times and one that might – like Luke and Phoebe – once again change the course of human events."

5. Review of "Inside the Gender Jihad" by Amina Wadud

Amina Wadud
Islamic Feminist Scholar
Photo: Wikipedia
Inside the Gender Jihad:
Women's Reform in Islam

Book review by Amie McKie
Amy Reads Blog, 13 August 2010

In this book Wadud takes a critical look at Islam and it’s treatment of women and gender relations from a distinctly pro-faith starting point. Wadud converted to Islam while at university in the early 1970s, and since then has grown in her faith and worked in different parts of the world including Malaysia and Sudan. She has come under fierce controversy from fundamentalists for her treatment and discussions about Islam, including the fact that she led a prayer in South Africa and in New York. The book, however, is about a lot more than those events and should be read for more than simply to find out more about the controversies.

What I really loved about Wadud and this book is that she clearly identifies as Muslim and loves the religion and her God. Unlike the other memoirs and discussions by feminists about Islam, this one is very pro-faith and talks about how Islam is a feminist religion and how to reinterpret it and re-read the Koran in a feminist light. It is a very compelling and interesting book.

The author begins by stating that her vision of Islam is not the only or the true Islam. There are many Islam’s as there are many interpretations, and that is how Allah meant it. She says on page 6 in her introduction:

It is just as easy for liberal Muslims to dismiss Muslim terrorists by saying that they are not “true” to Islam. When I engaged in such oversimplification and reductionist claims, I inadvertently implied I actually had the power to express and posses the “true” Islam. The arrogance of this claim allowed me to remove myself from the responsibility of standing against certain evils performed in the name of Islam. … We are all part of a complex whole, in constant motion and manifestation throughout the history of multifaceted but totally human constructions of “Islam.”

Through recognizing the numerous different interpretations and that no one can truly claim the “true” Islam, she says, she was able to grow and learn more and truly express herself and her views. I think this is something that a lot of religions are guilty of, expressing themselves as the only or the perfect interpretation of a certain faith (think Catholic vs Protestant vs United and so on) .

I have to say that with no prior religious study experience some of the book was slightly technical and advanced to me, but it was still very interesting and accessible. The author talks about a lot in this book, and I will really only be able to give a quick overview of some of what I got from this book. I do highly recommend it as a great feminist book about Islam.

A main point that Wadud starts with is language and definitions. With so many definitions out there for some words, she says, how can we truly know where an author is coming from. She says a good definitely for Islam is “engaged surrender”. If the term submission is used that erases human will and consciousness from the faith, but it is obvious that not every Muslim is perfect, so there must be a human will part. By calling it engaged surrender you acknowledge the unique gift that Allah gave to humans which is free will. It is through free will that humans choose to surrender to Allah – though they must have that free will.

Compulsion is listed as a sin in many places through the Qur’an, and Wadud uses this, and her engaged surrender definition, to show how women must be given full agency to make their own decisions in order to be true Muslims. If Allah meant for all to surrender, they must be given the same rights. She, of course, says it so much better than I can summarize!

The other key point that really jumped out at me and made me think was the discussion of language. Language, Wadud says, is not perfect. Think, for example, of the verses of the sun rising – the sun doesn’t actually rise, the earth moves around the sun which gives the appearance that the sun rises. Allah of course already knew that the sun didn’t rise, but he was limited by the language and knowledge of the time. This means that what the Qur’an gives us are guideposts and signs that we must use to point our way forward as science and knowledge surpasses that of the time of revelation. She says on page 214:

Human language limits Allah’s Self-disclosure. If revelation through text must be in human language, in order for humans to even begin to understand it, then revelation cannot be divine or Ultimate. This is distinguished from the idea that revelation is from a divine source; rather, it indicates how the source availed itself of the limitations of human language to point toward the ultimate direction for human moral development, otherwise known as guidance.

That really resonated with me as an interesting point that I had never thought of. Of course our sacred texts must confine themselves to our language. Our language isn’t perfect. As we learn more we see the clues.

Overall this book had a lot of really interesting points that made me think about a lot in Islam differently, and in a more positive light (though I had always seen it more positively than many). There were parts of the book that I didn’t like as much and those were where the author discusses the controversies surrounding some of her speeches and public appearances, which were interesting, but the religious discussion was more interesting to me. A great, but heavy book, that will stay with me for a long time.

For more information on Islamic feminist scholarship:

6. Teach Your Children Well: Challenging Religion-Based Sexism

Photo from Los Angeles' Womens Leadership Project
Teach Your Children Well:
Challenging Religion-Based Sexism

Sikivu Hutchinson
Senior Fellow, Institute for Humanist Studies
Religion Dispatches, 7 May 2011

Last week I traveled to Mobile Alabama, the heart of the Bible Belt, to a leafy, green college town replete with billboards for megachurches and imminent apocalypse (according to Christian broadcaster Family Radio Worldwide, May 21 is the new time and date). I had been invited by the Secular Students Alliance and the Gender Studies Department of the University of South Alabama to talk about my new book.

During my lecture I faced a standing room crowd of heretics, fence sitters, curiosity seekers, and true believers bracing for a circus sideshow. Traveling across America to speak on freethought and abolitionism during the 19th century, white feminist atheist Ernestine Rose was smeared as being a “thousand times below a prostitute.”

Centuries after Rose, the association of faith with female virtue and morality is still pervasive in our post-feminist post-racial Christian nation. Indeed, for some women of color, being “married to Jesus” is the only lifeline to genuine personal and spiritual validation. As Anthea Butler has noted, “having a husband meant that they could not give their ultimate all for the number one man on most African-American womens’ lips, and it’s not Denzel.”

Read the entire article ....

7. Encounter in the Garden (Jesus and Mary Magdalene)

Courtesy of America Magazine
Encounter in the Garden
Video by America Magazine

Jesus' meeting with Mary Magdalene outside the empty tomb is fraught with symbolic spiritual meaning. This is part of a series of reflections on the symbols of the Easter Season by the Editor in Chief of America Magazine, Drew Christiansen, S.J.

Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene

Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, "Woman, why are you crying?" "They have taken my Lord away," she said, "and I don't know where they have put him." 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. He asked her, "Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?" Thinking he was the gardener, she said, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him." Jesus said to her, "Mary." She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which means "Teacher"). Jesus said, "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.' Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: "I have seen the Lord!" And she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20:11-14)

ApostolaApostolorum-Iglesia Descalza
Mary Magdalene
Apostle to the Apostles
"Apostola Apostolorum"

Also available for view and embed in YouTube

8. Empowered Faith, Empowered Women

Courtesy of Gender Links

Empowered Faith, Empowered Women

Tonya Stanfield
Gender Links, 4 May 2011

"Your husband is king."

This was recently the group consensus at a ladies faith-based study in the informal settlement of Masiphumelele in Cape Town. Agreement was muttered around the room as heads nodded.

"His way is the only way. Even if he does not work, even if he drinks, even if he beats you, you must stay or you are not a real woman." None of the women present felt this was right, but none of them felt they could change it. They were trapped by a potent, twisted combination of culture and religious teaching. For these women, their perceived truth was not going to set them free.

While the Rainbow Nation is striving to support and empower women in many societal spheres, one wonders what is being done in churches, mosques and temples. Women are gaining seats in parliament, making strides in education and law reform; yet, domestic abuse, rape and incest remain at alarming rates.

How does one reshape biases passed down in time and cultivated by environment? How does one tackle a war against a world view? How does one change instinctual, rather than purposeful behaviours? The key is to address the root, not only the symptoms, of gender-based injustice. Bias and inequity lie in the heart of every man and woman, deep inside our core beliefs. Gender injustice is the tainted fruit of wrong beliefs. There is no institution on earth better designed to reach into the heart of humankind, to flush out wrong belief, than our religious and spiritual homes. We must empower the faiths to empower women.

"You are what you worship," says David Hamilton, author of Why Not Women?, a book championing women as equal partners in ministry. Faith shapes cultures, and culture plays a key part in shaping world view. Our world view is the grid through which we interpret all things; for example, right and wrong, success and failure, and the worth of humankind. Religious or not, no one can escape the impact of the major faith or traditional beliefs they were raised with. Faith is a cornerstone of society that must be taken into account.

Often a source of inequality is, sadly, the one place where women should be empowered the most -- their local church, mosque, temple or religious space. While women are empowered politically and educationally, they may be told each week their primary role is to serve their husbands and have children: their own contribution to society, outside of traditional roles, is undermined.

Traditional Christianity teaches a woman she is created to be her husband's helper and restricts women's roles in the church. Traditional Islam grants women equality at creation, but still teaches women are one degree short of a man and their primary role is in the home. Judaism historically taught that a woman is more intrinsically evil than a man. A traditional Buddhist proverb claims a person is born a woman as a result of 10 000 sins in a previous life. Until 1998, a woman in a customary marriage was considered a perpetual minor. And today, polygamy, eschewed by most women's rights groups, is not only legal, but South Africa's president is a partaker.

Do the faiths believe they teach such inequality? They would shout out a resounding NO! And they're right, but they're also wrong. The histories of all faiths have at some point intertwined with the biases of those interpreting their scriptures and perpetuating their doctrines. Thus, women across the globe are still battling the residue of false truth about their sex taught by ancient Greek philosophers, church fathers, rabbis, imams, gurus and tribal chiefs.

Two university-educated, ambitious girls in the religious study group had questions about their identity as females when it came to the question of marriage and lobola. One young woman found it offensive; the other found it a harmless custom to be honoured. But they asked the same questions: "Who am I after I get married? Do my ambitions and dreams dissolve after I am a wife?"

Both were taught by culture and religion that God created women primarily to serve their husbands. The empowerment of women is greatly compromised, if not defeated, when their places of worship settle for unchallenged traditional teaching, and do not make an effort to re-explore scriptures in light of cultural changes and modernisation.

So, do we turn our back on religion? Definitely not. The answer is to empower faiths to empower women. Spiritual institutions must do the hard work of sifting truth from culture and bias passed down from history. This is how world views are shifted. Reinterpretation does not mean abandoning the authority of our holy books. It does not mean abandoning faith in God. It does not mean abandoning culture, but rather redeeming it.

The Bible was once used to condone the ownership of slaves, until society changed. Christians began to ask, in light of the glaring truth of equality, why it was okay to own slaves. They questioned what they were taught and discovered an overarching theme of equality in the scriptures. They were empowered to use the same Bible as a basis for ending legalised slavery.

Truth is constant, but it is also generational. Historically the world has woken up to certain truths in certain generations; humankind is both deceived and enlightened together. Widows were once forced to throw themselves on their husband's funeral pyres in India. Pope John Paul II apologised to Muslims for the crusades. Husband and wife now have equal rights to children born in customary marriages. Generational truth is a real phenomenon.

But, it's not enough to simply empower women.

"There's a realisation that if we don't bring men in as partners we won't win the battle", says Sheila Meintjes, an official with the Commission on Gender Equality.

Women receive the message of equality and shift their world view accordingly, but for men, this message can challenge their very identity, causing them to ask, "Then who am I?"

Religious institutions are uniquely positioned to answer these core questions, if they are willing to do the hard work of sifting culture from truth.

We must empower our faiths to empower women. We must empower our faiths to guide men in a generation where identities are being challenged. Loren Cunningham, founder of one of the world's largest mission organisations said, "What is the greatest issue in the 21st Century? It is the women's issue." The beautiful truth is at the fingertips of this generation. Let's grasp it together.

Tonya Stanfield is the Director of Justice ACTs, a faith-based alliance working to combat human trafficking. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.

9. The Bishops and Sister Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ

Elizabeth Ann Johnson, CSJ
Courtesy of Iglesia Descalza
Messing with the Wrong Woman:
The Bishops and Elizabeth Johnson

Editorial Staff, Iglesia Descalza, 18 May 2011
Reprinted with Permission

We usually start these columns by reminding readers that the best defense against the Church's attempts at theological censorship is to buy and read the book in question. This time the book is Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (Continuum, 2007), Fordham University Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ's examination of how God is perceived from a variety of theological and faith perspectives. Through the lenses of liberation theology, feminist theology, various minority theologies (Black, Hispanic, etc...), and ecumenism, she challenges us to broaden our image of God beyond the white, male, patriarchal, omnipotent and distant God of traditional theism. In short, the book is a summary of how different groups of people have explored ways of depicting and naming God to make Him/Her more meaningful to them. The book presents a simplified overview of each theology but Dr. Johnson buttresses each chapter with an ample bibliography for those who want to go further down any particular road.

You would think that a theologian with Dr. Johnson's credentials -- a PhD from Catholic University, more than 20 years of teaching theology, honorary doctorates from 13 universities and schools of theology (most of them Catholic), former head of both the Catholic Theological Society of America and the American Theological Society, numerous publishing credits and many awards for her published works -- would not be a likely target for the Church's doctrinal police. So Catholics in general, and the theology world in particular, were shocked when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Doctrine issued a condemnation of Quest for a Living God, accusing Dr. Johnson of "theological and methodological inaccuracies" and finding that "many of [the book's] conclusions are incompatible with authentic Catholic teaching." The Committee had the temerity to further suggest that Dr. Johnson should have sought an imprimatur from her bishop (who probably has a fraction of her theological expertise) prior to the book's publication, even though they also admitted that she was not required to do so.

One has to wonder why a book that was published in 2007 is suddenly coming under scrutiny in 2011. We are told that "several bishops" -- anonymous, of course -- had expressed concerns to the Committee on Doctrine that the book deviated from authentic Catholic teaching. Why these bishops could not simply bring their issues directly to Dr. Johnson is the first question. The Committee then pursued its investigation into the book in complete secrecy until it issued its public statement of condemnation.

Dr. Johnson was never afforded the opportunity to discuss the issues being raised about her book with the Committee. She was not given a chance to respond to the charges against her and says in her statement in response to the condemnation that she "would have been glad to enter into conversation to clarify critical points." As a result of this failure to dialogue in a respectful, collegial way with her, Dr. Johnson states that "in several key instances [the Committee's] 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."

The Committee has not called for any disciplinary actions against Dr. Johnson such as banning her from teaching or publishing but the mere suggestion of faulty methodology and theological inaccuracy would be enough to tarnish Dr. Johnson's professional reputation and possibly have a chilling effect on sales of her book, especially for use in theology classes in Catholic institutions. And yet Dr. Johnson was never given the courtesy of being allowed to respond before the investigation was concluded and its outcome published. Could it be that the members of the Committee on Doctrine did not feel intellectually up to the task of debating with this extremely competent sister theologian? That it was easier to sucker punch her? Or is it just the typical arrogant attitude of our hierarchy that the non-ordained in general and women in particular are not worthy of being listened to and that they are above having to explain themselves to anyone? Dr. Johnson's response is remarkably professional and restrained, given the level of disrespect she has been shown.

So what's the criticism? First, the Committee on Doctrine alleges that Dr. Johnson is representing a modern theistic notion of a distant, lordly, law-giving male God as the Catholic teaching on God. Having read Quest for a Living God, I beg to differ. I believe the Committee is making assumptions based on their mistrust of a Catholic doing theology from the base rather than the top down theology they might prefer. They are defensive and reading what they think she's saying rather than understanding that she is just reflecting on a very common distorted image of the Divine that has evolved primarily in Christianity and that explains why people have begun to seek other images. At no point does she say that this is specifically Catholic Church teaching.

The Committee's statement is another chapter in the ongoing debate about the balance between God's transcendance/immanence and Jesus' divinity/humanity which has been raging for decades between the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the more progressive theologians. The hierarchy has a vested interest in a transcendant God and a (mostly) divine Jesus for whom it can be the intermediary and which doesn't demand real involvement in the material lives and needs of the faithful. Progressive theologians, who are doing theology starting from the people and their actual relationship to the Divine, tend to posit a God/Christ who is near, who walks and suffers with the people, especially the poorest. Dr. Johnson is faulted by the Committee for detracting from God's transcendance.

Dr. Johnson's suggestion that it is time for some female images of God and names for the Divine as well as more inclusive language is again taken negatively and the Committee summarily rebukes her, accusing her of substituting her own insights for "divine revelation" (presumably the exclusive prerogative of the Magisterium) and asserting that "the names of God found in the Scriptures are not mere human creations that can be replaced by others that we may find more suitable according to our own human judgment." The patronizing tone is unmistakable.

The Committee and Dr. Johnson also differ significantly on Dominus Iesus. Dr. Johnson gives an accurate summary of what this declaration from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith says and then explains why people of other faiths find it so offensive and why it is even, in some places, illogical. Where Dr. Johnson is merely pointing out the problems with Dominus Iesus, the Committee levels the startling criticism that "Sr. Johnson undermines the uniqueness of Biblical revelation and even denies the uniqueness of Jesus as the Incarnate Word." Again, a careful reading of Dr. Johnson's words doesn't support this extreme conclusion.

Speaking of "undermining", Dr. Johnson's assertion that "the intent of this trinitarian symbol is not to give literal information but to acclaim the God who saves and to lead us into this mystery" provokes the Committee to assert that her position "completely undermines the Gospel and the faith of those who believe in that Gospel, for it supposes that the Church does not proclaim what is actually true, but only the symbolic expression of what ultimately cannot be known..."

Maybe I'm broader minded than the members of the Bishops' Committee on Doctrine, but my faith in the Gospel is not "undermined" by being exposed to other theological perspectives on God via Quest for the Living God. On the other hand, my faith in the Church IS undermined by these clumsy, patronizing attempts to censor and control freedom of theological investigation. The first question that should come to any believer's mind is: "Why doesn't the Church want me to read this? What is it afraid that I'll discover? What is it hiding from me?"

In the end, while Dr. Johnson has not chosen to engage in a public battle with the bishops over her book, her colleagues have been springing to her defense. Rev. Joseph M. McShane, SJ, the president of Fordham University called Dr. Johnson a “revered member of the Fordham community,” and 186 of her fellow faculty members at the university signed a statement echoing those sentiments. The board of the Catholic Theological Society of America issued a statement criticizing the bishops' failure to follow their own procedures in this matter as set forth in a document called "Doctrinal Responsibilities" which calls on bishops and theologians to attempt to settle disputes privately before going public, and affirming that "Professor Johnson is a most esteemed member of our Society. She is a person of the highest character, a respected theologian and teacher who pursues her theological vocation as service to the Church." The College Theology Society seconded CTSA's procedural concerns and described Quest for a Living God as exemplifying "a compelling style of Catholic theology that engages many different kinds of undergraduate students...[Dr. Johnson's] theology is credited 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. This book illustrates what has been a hallmark of all of Johnson’s work: a dedication to exploring the living faith of the Church as it is conveyed in communities in various cultures and contexts in the United States and throughout the world. Her gifts and talents as a highly effective theological educator are clearly displayed in this book."

Having picked on one of the nation's most respected Catholic theologians, the Committee is now being forced to backtrack. First, its chairman, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, put together a hasty defense of his Committee's decision to scrutinize Quest for a Living God and denied that the Committee wanted to "stifle legitimate theological reflection." Now, the Committee's executive director, Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy, has written a letter to the Department of Theology at Fordham assuring the faculty that the committee never intended to tarnish Dr. Johnson’s reputation or impugn her honor or dedication to the church. He stated the doctrine committee “in no way calls into question the dedication, honor, creativity, or service” of Johnson. To put it in the vernacular: the bishops messed with the wrong woman.

To access all the articles in this blog, click here


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