by Paul C. DeCamp, guest contributor

Sr. Elizabeth A. Johnson and Her Book "Quest for the Living God"

If you ban it, they will read it. That seems to be true thus far in the case of Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s 2007 book Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, which the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops suggested should be banned from Catholic schools in a statement on March 24.

Statement from US Conference of Catholic Bishops on Sr. Elizabeth Johnson's BookBy April 1, after national media coverage of the USCCB statement, the book was in the top 100 of the Religion & Spirituality Bestsellers list at #39, not far from the works of popular spiritual writer Eckhart Tolle, an impressive feat for an academic theologian.

Johnson has been respected for her work in Catholic theology especially because of her engagement with feminism, which was the subject of her now classic She Who Is, a 1993 book that sought to rediscover the “feminine God” in the Christian tradition. When asked for comment, prominent Catholic theologian David Tracy said that, while he had not yet read this book of Johnson’s, “…this much is clear to me: based on her previous work, I consider Elizabeth Johnson one of the most original and impressive theologians of our period. The range and depth of her published work is a model for contemporary Catholic theology.”

This particular work of Johnson’s explores the diversity of current thought in the theology of God, and as the subtitle indicates, maps “frontiers” in areas such as liberation, womanist, black, and political theologies, areas that have been the subject of great controversies within the Catholic Church.

The Conference said that while it did not have the authority to order the removal of the book from Catholic institutions (only the Vatican could do that), it wanted to draw attention to certain “misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors” of Catholic doctrine in the book. Among these were assertions by Johnson that all names for God are metaphors, that God is continually suffering, and that all religions bear some presence of God. Because the book was “by a prominent Catholic theologian” and “written not for specialists in theology but for a ‘broad audience’,” the Conference believed it was necessary to make the public aware of its problems.

Boston College theologian Stephen J. Pope, speaking to The New York Times, said, “The reason is political. Certain bishops decide that they want to punish some theologians, and this is one way they do that. There’s nothing particularly unusual in her book as far as theology goes. It’s making an example of someone who’s prominent.”

The American bishops are continually drawing lines in the sand. Restrictions had been placed on politicians, such as the refusal of several bishops to allow John Kerry to take communion during the 2004 presidential election. The bishop of the Archdiocese of Wilmington stated that he would not permit Vice President Joe Biden to speak in Catholic schools. And now the Conference suggests that certain books should be kept from Catholic classrooms. The Conference has proven itself to be an organization that does not tolerate change or ambiguity, and Johnson’s work confronts both.

While the Conference claims to be interested in dialogue with Johnson, she indicated in a statement that no such invitations had been extended. She said in this statement, “I have always taken criticism as a valuable opportunity to delve more deeply into a subject. The task of theology, classically defined as ‘faith seeking understanding,’ calls for theologians to wrestle with mystery. The issues are always complex, especially on frontiers where the church’s living tradition is growing.”

While the USCCB’s statement may be interpreted as a move against conversation and debate among the divided American Catholics, the stir over Johnson’s book can serve to promote more open dialogue in Catholic circles. American Catholics, after all, are a group that continues to support politicians whom they are told not to vote for and to consume books that have been deemed dangerous for them to read.

Paul C. DeCamp is an M.A. student at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He holds a B.A. in Religious Studies from Lafayette College.

This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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Catholicism: the perfect church for the 10th century, but not at home in this one. Good thing this is not 1511 A.D., they would be burning her at the stake.

Well, now I'm certainly going to read it. :-)

This is a predicable action by the Vatican and the institution. When we have good theology like " Quest For The Living God" by Elizabeth Johnson either the book is discredited or the theologian is invited to retract or leave. We call leave excommunication . We have lost so many wonderful theologians because of past and present hierarchies who are more concerned with control and power rather than good theology. I will now pass the book on to as many people as I can. Elizabeth Johnson should be commended by the Institution and the Vatican for her extraordinary Theology and for her gift of Spiritual Wisdom. Eileen Sammon

I was asked by the Senior Editor to post my comments from Facebook to the blog to add to the discussion. Here are my opinions and direct quotes and links to the source documents that support my statements. I do respect Sr. Johnson, however, I do have concerns. Many of the works of Sr. Johnson dissent from the teaching of the Church and she has spoken publicly against the Teaching Authority (the Magesterium-ie: The Bishops). IAW with the Code of Canon Law, the Documents of Vatican II, and Documents regarding the works of theologians within the Roman Catholic tradition (rules that Sr. Johnson agreed to freely) the Bishops did their job- thoroughly. Now, out of her promise of obedience, she should follow through and make any necessary corrections. If not, then leave the teaching post, refrain from publication, and return to here Society in Chestnut Hill, IAW with the Rule of Life of the Sisters of St. Joseph that she freely bound herself to live by. She is required to sign the Mandatum if she wants to teach and to hold at least an STL from a Pontifical University to teach Catholic Theology in the first place.
The Magesterium of the Catholic Church are the teaching authority. Theologians are not, they assist and advise. Among them are those with different views who dialogue among themselves and the Bishops. The problem with this work by Sr. Johnson is that it is not geared to those who hold advance degrees in Catholic Theology (MA, MDiv, STB, STL, STD, and the STM) nor is the purpose of this work is to engage discussion among theologians or the Bishops. This work is being used in introduction foundational levels so it is leading people astray. That is the direct reason why the US Bishops published their statement, which is clearly stated both in the document and on their webpage. Vatican II and Church documents also make the standards clear about published works on theology.
So what are the direct problems with the work? As clearly stated by the US Bishop’s, which may be found at, these are the following reasons from the statement:
1. 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.”
2. Sister Johnson attempts to justify her revisions of traditional Catholic theology by arguing that this tradition has become contaminated by ideas from Enlightenment thinkers, who are responsible for the conception of God in what she calls “modern theism.” “Against the contamination of Christian theology after the Enlightenment by modern theism, Sr. Johnson claims to be retrieving fundamental insights from patristic and medieval theology. This is misleading, since under the guise of criticizing modern theism she criticizes crucial aspects of patristic and medieval theology, aspects that have become central elements of the Catholic theological tradition confirmed by magisterial teaching…” The Committee contrasts Sister Johnson's assertion that the Church's names for God are metaphors that do not apply to the reality of God with the traditional Catholic understanding. The Church teaches, based on patristic and medieval theology, that certain names truly apply to God by analogy and are not merely metaphors.
3. Also at issue is Sr. Johnsons characterization of the Church's names for God as humanly-constructed metaphors that can be replaced by novel human constructions that are intended to help transform society in a positive way by promoting the socio-political status of women. “What is lacking in the whole of this discussion is any sense of the essential centrality of divine revelation as the basis of Christian theology,” the statement says. “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 standard by which all theological assertions must be judged is that provided by divine revelation, not by unaided human understanding."
4. Here is the key statement that supports what I have stated earlier: The committee issued the statement because of the book's unacceptable departures from the Catholic theological tradition and "the fact that the book is directed primarily to an audience of non-specialist readers and is being used as a textbook for study of the doctrine of God." ”For these reasons … the Committee on Doctrine finds itself obligated to state publicly that the doctrine of God presented in Quest for the Living God does not accord with authentic Catholic teaching on essential points,” the statement says. The full statement is available online at
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington stated this clearly: “The Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine is first and foremost concerned about the spiritual welfare of those students using this book who may be led to assume that its content is authentic Catholic teaching,” he said. “Although an imprimatur is not required for all books that treat Sacred Scripture and theology, it is still a recommended practice (see c. 827 §3). By seeking an imprimatur, the author has the opportunity to engage in dialogue with the bishop concerning the Catholic teaching expressed in the book. Thus, clarifications concerning the text can be made prior to its publication. It would have been helpful if Sister Elizabeth Johnson had taken advantage of this opportunity.” He added that “The Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine is always open to dialogue with theologians and would welcome an opportunity to discuss Sister Elizabeth’s writings with her.”

Cardinal Wuerl’s introductory remarks are available online at
As always, it is important to actually read the statement before jumping to conclusions. Again, the Bishops are required, as Shepherds, to ensure the flock is not led astray and point out errors made by theologians who teach the Roman Catholic faith. For now, I will pray for Sr. Johnson and as a priest with advance degrees in theology and one who promised to lead all souls to salvation and uphold the teachings of the Church and transmit them clearly, I support the Bishop's stance and hope Sr. Johnson makes the required corrections.

When I read Elizabeth Johnson, my faith is renewed and I feel part of the great cloud of witnesses she celebrates. When I wonder if I can bear to continue to publicly identify as a Christian, I read Johnson and believe there is a place for me in this faith tradition. When I wonder if I can keep going, I read Johnson and my trust is renewed. I am not Catholic, never will be, but sometimes reading Johnson makes me wish I could be.

Johnson's Quest For the Living God is one the most inspiring works of theology that I have ever read. Its down to earth and accessible, yet far reaching in its vision of God's Kingdom. She explains many of the great theologies of the last 50 years in a way that honors each of them.

"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."

The question for me is does the Magisterium reveal the truth of Scripture? I am open to other ways of viewing the truth of divinity - perhaps even more so when a book like this is criticized by the Bishops.

Yes, "all religions bear some presence of God". How could it be otherwise? Thank you Sr. Johnson. People like you give me faith in my father's faith. And that is hard to come by today.