Bishops take up debate with theologians

In a 13-page letter, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, chairman of the US Catholic Bishops' Committee on Doctrine, explains his committee's rationale for criticising theologian Elizabeth Johnson's book Quest for the Living God.

The wide-ranging letter, while acknowledging Johnson's "legitimate vocation", re-emphasises bishops' authority to teach, govern, and sanctify. It compares their role to that of a referee – "it's not the player who calls the ball out of bounds," Wuerl writes, "but the referee."

It's a strange document. The letter is addressed to "brother bishops," but it's framed as a response to Catholic Theological Society of America board members, who issued a statement criticising the doctrinal committee's review of Johnson's book.

The CTSA board, according to Wuerl, "seems to misread the legitimate and apostolic role of bishops in addressing the right relationship of theologians and bishops."

The cardinal doesn't provide evidence for that claim. Read the CTSA statement. It explicitly recognises the "distinct vocations of the theologian and the magisterium."

Why, then, does Wuerl spend several pages reminding the bishops of the scriptural and traditional grounding of their office? That is not in dispute.

What remains to be seen is why the Committee on Doctrine issued a document that so badly misreads the work of a prominent theologian without bothering to ask whether they read her correctly.

- Grant Gallicho

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