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Posted April 5, 2011

On Dissent

By John Allen
National Catholic Reporter

An important story to break out of the States this week was a statement issued by the Committee on Doctrine of the U.S. bishops’ conference, criticizing a widely read 2007 book by American theologian Sr. Elizabeth Johnson of Fordham University. My story on the statement can be found here:

While the story outlines the substantive issues involved, here I’ll offer three thoughts on process.

First, this is the fourth critical statement about a theologian’s work issued by the Committee on Doctrine since 2007. In each case, the approach has been more or less the same: A lengthy exposition of the problems the bishops found in the book, but no disciplinary measures attached -- no bans on teaching or publishing, not even a requirement that future editions of the book have to carry the bishops’ critique.

I realize that for people inclined to sympathize with the theologian, it may be difficult to give the bishops points for style. This approach, however, does seem to respond to two oft-voiced criticisms over the years of the way the hierarchy deals with theological dissent.

People used to grouse that authority figures issued anathemas without actually reading the book in question, relying on media reports and second-hand letters of complaint. Further, critics charged that the hierarchy made things personal by not merely engaging a theologian’s ideas, but also by imposing sanctions. Those two complaints, at least, no longer apply to the way the USCCB Committee on Doctrine is operating. (One can agree or not with the conclusions the statement reaches, but it’s clear the authors did study the book, even down to providing page citations for the points they make.)

Second, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. chair of the Committee on Doctrine, issued some brief remarks along with the formal statement. One key point concerned the imprimatur. In effect, Wuerl suggested that a public rebuke might have been avoided if Johnson had requested an imprimatur before publication, which could have flagged potential problems in advance.

Tensions over the imprimatur are typically framed in terms of academic freedom: Should a theologian really need a seal of approval from authority to publish her or his ideas? Wuerl’s comment, however, suggests another way of thinking about it. In a time when many people complain that dialogue between the bishops and the theological guild is under-developed, requesting an imprimatur is one way of kick-starting a conversation.

Third, Johnson raised a process concern herself in a statement released by the Fordham communications office. In addition to asserting that the bishops’ critique at times “radically misinterprets what I wrote,” Johnson also said she was never consulted.

“I would have been glad to enter into conversation to clarify critical points, but was never invited to do so,” Johnson said. “This book was discussed and finally assessed by the committee before I knew any discussion had taken place.”

That said, Johnson added that “I have always taken criticism as a valuable opportunity to delve more deeply into a subject.