Elizabeth Johnson (theologian)

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Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J.
ElizabethJohnson 11.jpg
Johnson at the Rose Hill campus of Fordham University in New York, where she has been teaching since 1991.
Born (1941-12-06) December 6, 1941 (age 73)
Nationality United States
Education B.S. Brentwood College
M.A. Manhattan College; Ph.D. Catholic University of America
Occupation Nun (Sisters of St. Joseph )
Professor of Theology
For other people named Elizabeth Johnson, see Elizabeth Johnson (disambiguation).

Elizabeth A. Johnson (born December 6, 1941[1]) is a Christian feminist theologian. She is a Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University, a Jesuit institution in New York City. She is a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood.


Johnson received a B.S. from Brentwood College in 1964, an M.A. from Manhattan College in 1964, and a Ph.D. in theology from the Catholic University of America in 1981.[1] She taught science and religion at the elementary and high school level, then taught theology at St. Joseph's College (New York) and at Catholic University before moving to Fordham in 1991.[1]

She has served as head of the Catholic Theological Society of America[2] and the American Theological Society. She was one of the first female theologians church authorities allowed to receive a doctorate.[3]


In 1990, when the Vatican offered a draft of a new catechism for comment, she criticized the text for its use of Scripture "in a fundamentalist way, with little regard for insights about the New Testament forged in the last half-century of Catholic biblical renewal," quoting the evangelists as if they all held identical views, and ascribing to them concepts only developed after centuries of theological dispute. She praised the text placing Jesus rather than the church at the center of its discussions of worship and ethics, but objected to its "truncated view of the humanity of Jesus Christ" who "walks around like God dressed up in human clothes."[4]


Johnson's best-known work is She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (1991), for which she became the fourth recipient of the University of Louisville and Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary Grawemeyer Award in 1993.[5] It was the first extended attempt to integrate feminist categories such as experience and emancipation into classical Catholic theology. Some of her other works have won awards, including the edited volume The Church Women Want, which received the Gender Award from the Catholic Press Association.

Her Quest for the Living God appeared in 2007.

One study of contemporary theology found her approach "moderate" and said that "unlike radical feminists and other liberationists, she believes it is possible to redeem Christian tradition and make it more inclusive."[6]


Andrew Greeley has described her as a "feminist ideologue" and "one of those hard feminists who think that the use of that label [patriarchal] is enough to settle a debate."[7]

The Cardinal Newman Society, a Catholic organization with a particular interest in Catholic higher education has on several occasions criticized colleges for awarding Johnson honorary degrees. Its president said "I think she has officially challenged church teaching in ways that are beyond the pale."[8]

She has been criticized for failing to recognize basic teachings of the Catholic Church, especially her failure to recognize the centrality of the Passion, has caused her to be thoroughly criticized by the Vatican, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and the USCCB.[citation needed] The USCCB has described many of her positions as "theologically unacceptable."[9]

USCCB Critique of Quest for a Living God[edit]

In 2011, the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement saying that Quest for the Living God "does not recognize divine revelation as the standard for Catholic theology" and "differs from authentic Catholic teaching on essential points."[10]

Additionally, the Committee felt "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" because of "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."

In Johnson's view, the Committee's statement "in several key instances...radically misinterprets what I think, and what I in fact wrote" and is a "misrepresentation." She noted that she had not had a conversation with the bishops.[11]

Johnson's position was defended by Fordham President Joseph M. McShane,[12] Boston College theologian Stephen J. Pope,[12] Terrence W. Tilley, chair of Fordham's theology department[8] and the board of the Catholic Theological Society of America".[8]

Later the same year, the Committee "reviewed the arguments presented by Sister Johnson in defense of her book," and issued another statement which "reaffirmed its critique of Quest for the Living God." The Committee argued that Johnson's arguments "[had] not in fact demonstrated that the Committee has misunderstood or misrepresented the book."[13]

However, in 2014, after accepting the Leadership Conference of Women Religious’ top award, she said it appears they’ve never read the book: “To this day, no one, not myself or the theological community, the media or the general public knows what doctrinal issue is at stake,” she told the assembly representing 80 percent of the nation’s nuns. She also claimed that their investigation of women’s orders is wasteful when financial mismanagement and sexual abuses are being covered up.[14]


  • Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology (1990)
  • She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (1992)
  • Woman, Earth, and Creator Spirit (1993)
  • Who Do You Say that I Am? : Introducing Contemporary Christology (1997)
  • Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints (1998)
  • The Church Women Want: Catholic Women in Dialogue (2002)
  • Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (2003)
  • Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (2007)
  • Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (2014)

Honorary degrees[edit]


  1. ^ a b c William Madges and Michael J. Daley, eds., Vatican II: Forty Personal Stories (Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 2003), 200, Google books, accessed April 4, 2011
  2. ^ New York Times: Peter Steinfels, "50 Years of Catholic Talk: New Faces and New Ideas," June 20, 1995, accessed April 4, 2011
  3. ^ New York Times: Francis X. Clines, "Still Married to Christ, and Never Happier," February 23, 1995, accessed April 4, 2011
  4. ^ New York Times: Peter Steinfels, "Proposed Catholic Catechism Stirs Dispute Among Scholars," March 8, 1990, accessed April 4, 2011
  5. ^ "1993- Elizabeth A. Johnson". 
  6. ^ Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, ed., Holy Spirit and Salvation: The Sources of Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Know Press, 2010), 384
  7. ^ Andrew M. Greeley, The Catholic Revolution: New Wine, Old Wineskins, and the Second Vatican Council (University of California Press, 2004), 83, 138
  8. ^ a b c New York Times: Paul Vitello, "After Bishops Attack Book, Gauging Bounds of Debate," April 11, 2011, accessed April 13, 2011
  9. ^ Huffington Post: "Cardinal Gerhard Mueller Rebukes U.S. Nuns For Honoring Feminist Theologian Elizabeth Johnson" by Yasmine Hafiz May 5, 2014
  10. ^ United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: "Bishops' Doctrine Committee Faults Book by Fordham Professor," March 30, 2011, accessed April 3, 2011
  11. ^ Fordham University: Regarding the Statement of the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Catholic Bishops Conference on the book Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in Theology of God - Response by Dr. Elizabeth Johnson C.S.J., March 30, 2011, accessed April 3, 2011
  12. ^ a b New York Times: Laurie Goodstein, "Bishops Urge Catholic Schools to Ban a Nun's Book," March 30, 2011, accessed April 3, 2011
  13. ^ USCCB News:"Bishops Reaffirm Their Critique of Book Quest for the Living God by Sister Elizabeth Johnson" October 28, 2011
  14. ^ Relgion News:"Sister Elizabeth Johnson: ‘The waste of time on this investigation is unconscionable" August 16, 2014

External links[edit]