Cushwa Center Honors “Catholic Feminist”



Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, contributes documents to University archives

In a gathering two weeks ago, the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism praised the life and work of Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, whose biography by Heidi Schlumpf has recently been released. The event, entitled “Questing for God: A Symposium Honoring Sister Elizabeth, CSJ,” welcomed the addition of the Elizabeth A. Johnson Papers to the University Archives.

Sister Johnson, a Sister of St. Joseph and Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University, has written several books that attempt to use a feminist perspective to reflect upon Catholic theology. In her introduction for Sr. Johnson, Director of the Cushwa Center Kathleen Sprows Cummings stated, “Beth’s scholarship has brought feminist … perspectives to bear on themes of Catholic theology.”

According the Archives’ website, Sr. Johnson’s papers include “Personal papers, correspondence, memoranda, reports, minutes, subject files, photographs, audio-visual material, books, journal articles, book chapters, other scholarly writings, lectures, emails, and printed ephemera.”

After expressing her thanks to the university, students, and faculty, Sr. Johnson said, “This event, celebrating the reception of the papers, has sparked for me a salutary pause to reflect on my life … because there have been stretches for me that have felt like a wild roller-coaster ride.”

Some of Sr. Johnson’s books available at the event included her 1992 book She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse and her 2003 book Truly our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints. These and other writings have been both greeted as, in the words of Cummings, “rich, contemporary theology” and also questioned as deviations from Catholic doctrine.

The symposium consisted of four speakers, ending with Sr. Johnson herself, who last visited Notre Dame in 2003. Mary Catherine Hilkert, OP, Professor of Theology, spoke about the value of the papers as Sr. Johnson’s longtime friend and colleague. She noted, “These archives preserve not only her books, writings, and lectures, but [also], as [Cummings] noted, her personal journey and costs of that journey.”

Heidi Schlumpf, Associate Professor of Communication at Aurora University and author of the biography Elizabeth Johnson: Questing for God, spoke after Hilkert. She described the interview process and construction of her book, which was released as part of the Liturgical Press’ “People of God” series. “She is without a doubt a brilliant theologian, a great teacher, and an important Catholic woman,” Schlumpf said.

William Kevin Cawley, Senior Archivist and Curator of Manuscripts for the University Archives, placed Sr. Johnson’s papers in the context of other archived works and showed the audience how to access her work. Speaking about the documents, he said, “Not only did [Sr. Johnson] know what to say and how to organize it, but what I was particularly struck with was that for all the criticism that she endured, she has kept the opinions of those who criticized her. She has preserved their side of the dialogue—if you can call it a dialogue.”

Cawley also noted the frequency of the word “battle” in the records, such as in her “battle for tenure” at the Catholic University of America. During this time, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith—in which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, currently Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, played an active role—examined her writings that questioned the traditional characterization of the Virgin Mary as humble and obedient. In the end, Sr. Johnson was approved for tenure.

Throughout her career, Sr. Johnson’s work has sparked controversy within the Church. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine investigated Sr. Johnson’s 2007 book, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God. The 2011 statement declares, “The Committee has concluded that this 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.”

Hilkert mentioned the situation in her remarks by stating, “Her work was publicly misrepresented, and serious allegations were made about the doctrinal errors that were to be found within it in a widely publicized statement of a committee [of the USCCB]. We can’t go into the detail of that here, and it’s not the purpose of this symposium, but the Notre Dame Archives now contain all of the correspondence related to that and all these other events.”

Sr. Johnson has often championed greater leadership in the Church for women. She has not openly advocated for the ordination of women, but according to an article in The Nation, she “attended the second women’s ordination conference,” an organization that has supported her work. Her religious community, the Sisters of St. Joseph, belong to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). In 2012, the Congregation on the Doctrine of Faith released a doctrinal assessment of the LCWR, whose tendencies toward “radical feminism” and “policies of corporate dissent” in the Church led to the assessment’s corrective responses.

In response to an inquiry about the potential benefits or drawbacks of hosting the event, University Spokesman and Assistant Vice President Dennis Brown wrote to the Rover, “Sister Elizabeth Johnson is a faithful Catholic who is regarded as one of the leading theologians of the past half-century.”

Brown added, “Among many others, Cardinal Walter Kasper, a close confidant of Pope Francis, praised her work in the wake of the criticism directed at her and scores of other American women religious several years ago, criticism now amicably resolved with the release of a joint report by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2015.”

Hilkert also emphasized the validity of Sr. Johnson’s work in response to criticism. She told the Rover, “The book [Quest for the Living God] itself was not ‘condemned’ or ‘banned’ and no action was taken against Sr. Johnson, although both of those impressions were given by various reports in the media.” Hilkert also reiterated more information is available online and in the Archives.

Regarding the controversy of Sr. Johnson’s writings, Schlumpf referenced the Rover to the biography, which “covers the criticism made by the USCCB Committee (as well as Johnson’s response).”

Sophia Buono is a PLS major and ESS minor who will be running her first 5k this Saturday. Wish her luck at sbuono@nd.edu.

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