Elizabeth Johnson (theologian)

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For other people named Elizabeth Johnson, see Elizabeth Johnson (disambiguation).
Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J.
ElizabethJohnson 11.jpg
Johnson at Fordham University
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 Sister (Sisters of St. Joseph)
Professor of Theology

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 has served as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and is "one of its most well known members."[2] Johnson became the center of a controversy surrounding a book she published, "Quest for the Living God". It was adopted as a text for many university religion courses, but was condemned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Doctrine three years after its publication.[3]


Johnson grew up in Brooklyn, New York, the oldest of seven children in a Catholic family. As a young adult she joined the religious order of the Sisters of Saint Joseph whose motherhouse is in Brentwood, Long island, NY.[4] She 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 where was the first woman Ph. D. in theology.[1][5] 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]At Fordham, she was named Distinguished Professor in 1997 and "Teacher of the Year" in 1998[6]

She has served as head of the Catholic Theological Society of America[7] and the American Theological Society.


  • 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."[8]
  • Johnson believes that the scriptures must be interpreted with an understanding of the cultural and historic setting in which they were written.[citation needed]
  • She expounds on her belief that people will have different perceptions of God depending on their own circumstances. “Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God,” shares different understandings of God through experiences of those who are impoverished, oppressed, Holocaust victims, Hispanics, women as well as men, and people of a variety of religions.[9]
  • Johnson promotes the value of inter-religious dialogue.[citation needed]
  • Jill Raitt, of Fontbonne University, in Catholic Books Review says Johnson understands the "urgency of attending to all God's offspring, including the planet and its beautiful burden of living creatures of the sea, the skies, the earth."


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.[10] 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 and has been used as a text in university courses.[citation needed] In his review of the book, Joseph Cunneen in The American Catholic said, "This is one of the most important and provocative books on theology to have appeared in the U.S. since Vatican II."

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."[11]

Criticism by Catholic theologians[edit]

Andrew Greeley 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."[12]

The Cardinal Newman Society, a Catholic organization with a particular interest in Catholic higher education has on several occasions criticized colleges for awarding honorary degrees to Johnson. The Society's president said "I think she has officially challenged church teaching in ways that are beyond the pale."[13]

She has been criticized for failing to recognize basic teachings of the Catholic Church, especially her failure to recognize the centrality of the Passion. One of her books was thoroughly criticized by the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops who described many of her positions as "theologically unacceptable".

In April 2014, Cardinal Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, cited this criticism when chiding the presidency delegation of the LCWR for having decided to bestow their Outstanding Leadership Award on Johnson which, he suggested, would be seen "as a rather open provocation against the Holy See." According to him, the United States bishops had criticized Johnson "because of the gravity of the doctrinal errors in that theologian’s writings."[14]

USCCB Critique of Quest for a Living God[edit]

In March 2011 the USCCB issued a 21-page "Statement" subscribed by four archbishops and five bishops condemning Johnson's book. The study concluded the book "contains misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors". The bishops said that Quest for the Living God "departed from [Catholic theological] tradition at a number of crucial junctures" and "does not accord with authentic Catholic teaching on essential points."."[15]

Cardinal Wuerl discussed Johnson's writings with her. In a public statement made to the press on March 31, 2011, Johnson complained that she had never been invited to discuss with the bishops any issues they had with the book before reaching their conclusions, and objected that the Statement "in several key instances...radically misinterprets what I think, and what I in fact wrote" and is a "misrepresentation." In June 2011 she sent a letter dated 11 June to the Committee covering a 38-page text entitled To Speak Rightly of the Living God which comprised her "Observations" on the Statement. Both the letter and her Observations were published immediately in The National Catholic Reporter and a month later in Origins (an online theological journal published by Catholic News Service).[16][17]

Johnson's position was defended by Fordham President Joseph M. McShane,[18] Boston College theologian Stephen J. Pope,[18] Terrence W. Tilley, chair of Fordham's theology department[13] and the board of the Catholic Theological Society of America".[13] Tilley said, "What the bishops have done is to reject 50 years of contemporary theology." "Sister Johnson," he said, "has been attempting to push Catholic thinking along new paths. And the bishops have now made it clear — this is something they stand against.”[19]Later the same year, the Committee on Doctrine reviewed the arguments presented by Johnson in her Observations and issued a "Response" dated 11 October 2011 which reaffirmed its critique of Quest for the Living God. [20]

In 2014, after accepting the Outstanding Leadership Award presented by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Johnson said it appeared to her that the members of the USCCB had never read her 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 sisters. She also claimed that the Vatican investigation of women's institutes is wasteful when financial mismanagement and sexual abuses are being covered up.[21]


  • 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. ^ Bishops' committee reaches out to Catholic scholarsNational Catholic Reporter, 13 May 2011
  3. ^ 'Quest for the Living God,' Book by Sister Elizabeth Johnson Blasted by Catholic Bishops The Huffington Post, 28 October 2011
  4. ^ See the biography on the website of Fordham University (accessed 28 March 2015).
  5. ^ Hinsdale, Mary Ann, Women Shaping Theology, Paulist Press (2006), p.143 (citing personal communication from Johnson.
  6. ^ The Goddess Project Catholic Culture.org, accessed 20 April 2015
  7. ^ New York Times: Peter Steinfels, "50 Years of Catholic Talk: New Faces and New Ideas," June 20, 1995, accessed April 4, 2011
  8. ^ New York Times: Peter Steinfels, "Proposed Catholic Catechism Stirs Dispute Among Scholars," March 8, 1990, accessed April 4, 2011
  9. ^ Bishops Criticize Nun’s Book NY Times, 30 March 2011
  10. ^ "1993- Elizabeth A. Johnson". 
  11. ^ Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, ed., Holy Spirit and Salvation: The Sources of Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Know Press, 2010), 384
  12. ^ Andrew M. Greeley, The Catholic Revolution: New Wine, Old Wineskins, and the Second Vatican Council (University of California Press, 2004), 83, 138
  13. ^ a b c New York Times: Paul Vitello, "After Bishops Attack Book, Gauging Bounds of Debate," April 11, 2011, accessed April 13, 2011
  14. ^ See the Opening remarks at a meeting of the superiors of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with the Presidency of the LCWR.
  15. ^ For the press release accompanying the publication of the Statement, see USCCB News, 30 March 2011 Doctrine Committee Faults Book by Fordham Professor, accessed March 29, 2015
  16. ^ For Johnson's press statement see National Catholic Reporter, 31 March 2011 condemnation came without discussion, accessed March 29, 2015. For the Observations, see Fox, Thomas, C., National Catholic Reporter, 6 June 2011 Johnson Letter to US bishops Doctrine Committee, accessed 29 March 2011
  17. ^ 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
  18. ^ a b New York Times: Laurie Goodstein, "Bishops Urge Catholic Schools to Ban a Nun's Book," March 30, 2011, accessed April 3, 2011
  19. ^ After Bishops Attack Book, Gauging Bounds of Debate The New York Times, 11 April 2011
  20. ^ USCCB News, October 28, 2011 "Bishops Reaffirm Their Critique of Book Quest for the Living God by Sister Elizabeth Johnson", accessed March 29, 2015
  21. ^ Religion News, August 16, 2014 Sister Elizabeth Johnson: The waste of time on this investigation is unconscionable, accessed March 29, 2015

External links[edit]