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] The New York Times has described Johnson as, "a highly respected theologian whose books are widely used in theology classes."[3] Johnson unexpectedly became the center of a controversy surrounding a popular book she published, "Quest for the Living God," which was hailed for expounding on "new ways to think and speak about God within the framework of traditional Catholic beliefs and motifs." It became popular in churches and was adopted as a text for many university religion courses, but was suddenly condemned by the Catholic bishops' conservative Committee on Doctrine three years after its publication and popular acceptance. The public criticism by the bishops caused a spike in the books sales, frayed already strained relations between the church hierarchy and Catholic theologians, and threatened to reduce the bishops' "credibility in the pews."[4] The New York Times notes that Johnson has been a "target" of criticism from "traditionalist" Catholic groups because of her encouragement for giving women greater authority in the church and her willingness to speak at meetings of Catholics who disagree with the Catholic church on issues like same-sex marriage.[3]


Johnson grew up in Brooklyn, New York, the oldest of seven children in an "Irish Catholic family."[5][6]As a young adult she joined the religious order of the Sisters of Saint Joseph whose motherhouse is in Brentwood, Long island, NY.[7] She received a B.S. from Brentwood College in 1964, an M.A. from Manhattan College in 1964.

1981, she became the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in theology at the Catholic University of America. CUA is the only university in the U.S. founded and sponsored by America's bishops. Johnson recalls that her experience there was "rich, respectful, and collegial," but was also "lacking in female presence." During her studies there in the 1970s Johnson observes, “I never had a woman professor, I never read one woman author. There were none to be had. It was a totally male education.”[8] CUA attempted to remedy this when Johnson herself was hired into a tenure-track position in Christology, a specialization that focuses on the concept of Jesus as the Messiah. [9]She became one of the first female theologians allowed to receive a doctorate by the church authorities, as a result of the "liberalization decrees that capped the Second Vatican Council."[10]Feminism had begun impacting the thinking and dialog of female Catholic theologians, and pioneering feminist theologians Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Sandra M. Schneiders influenced Johnson on feminist topics, including using feminine metaphors and language for God. Inspired by their example, Johnson and other women graduate students formed a group, “Women in Theology.”[11]

She has served as head of the Catholic Theological Society of America[12] and the American Theological Society.

While at Catholic University she felt profoundly affected by events in El Salvador when women who had been working on behalf of the Catholic Church were killed. Maura Clarke, M.M., an American Roman Catholic Maryknoll Sister, who served as a missionary in Nicaragua and El Salvador was murdered, along with fellow missionaries Jean Donovan and Sisters Ita Ford, M.M., and Dorothy Kazel, O.S.U., in El Salvador, by members of a death squad Salvadoran Civil War. Johnson mourned the women, but took inspiration from their example and decided to carry out their mission in her field of theology.[1][13][14]

Johnson notes that leaders of her religious community encouraged her to enter the field of theology and pushed her to continue in spite of obstacles. "When I applied for tenure at Catholic University, I received the full positive vote of the faculty. But the outcome was in doubt because some bishops were not happy with an article I had written," she says. Though she contemplated leaving rather than facing the "arduous process of interrogation," General Superior Sister John Raymond McGann advised her not to give up, and Johnson did indeed receive tenure.[15]

Johnson had 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[16]

She has served as head of the Catholic Theological Society of America[12] 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."[17]
  • Johnson believes that the scriptures must be interpreted with an understanding of the cultural and historic setting in which they were written.[18]“All-male images of God are hierarchical images rooted in the unequal relation between women and men,” she writes. “Once women no longer relate to men as patriarchal fathers, lords, and kings in society, these images become religiously inadequate. Instead of evoking the reality of God, they block it.”[19]
  • 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.[20]
  • Johnson promotes the value of inter-religious dialogue.[21]
  • 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."
  • Much of Johnson’s scholarship is built on the foundation of the Second Vatican Council, which urged members of the Catholic Church to overcome “every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion.”[3]
  • In 2014 Johnson expressed what she perceives as the misguided priorities of the Catholic Church when she addressed the LCWR while it was being investigated by the Vatican: “When the moral authority of the hierarchy is hemorrhaging due to financial scandals and many bishops who … cover up sexual abuse of children, a cover up that continues in some quarters to this day, and thousands are drifting away from the church … the waste of time on this investigation is unconscionable.”[22]


The main areas of focus for Johnson's writing are the mystery of God, Jesus Christ, Mary, saints, science and religion, human suffering, ethics and issues related to women. In addition to her books, her works include over 100 essays in scholarly and popular journals as well as chapters in anthologies.[23]

One of 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.[24] In it she argues that God, as a spirit, has no gender.[25] It was the first extended attempt to integrate feminist categories such as experience and emancipation into classical Catholic theology. The Library Journal notes the book is "grounded in classical Christian thought," but contemporary, and encompasses women's experience. The book covers the history of Christian language about God and argues for gender-neutral or gender balanced language in discussions of God. While reflects an "inclusive and creative Christian spiritual doctrine."[25]

Johnson 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 quickly became popular not only among the laity, but also has been used as a text in university courses. 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." The book also found an audience among some non-Catholics, including Episcopalian Bishop Mark Sisk who gave copies to his New York clergy; he selected it as his “innovative choice” for 2009 because it included “a valuable reflection and overview of modern theological trends.”[26]

In "Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love" Johnson examines God's relationship with the earth's non-human inhabitants. The inspiration for the book came in 2009 from the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species and Johnson received a research grant to leave for the 2011-2012 academic year to write it. In addition to including a close reading of Darwin's work, the book reflects on the Nicene creed. Johnson explains, "The creed is really a narrative of God's evolutionary relationship to the world. God makes the universe, comes into the world, goes down into death, rises again. And, with the spirit, God continues to give life to creation and ready it for the life of world to come."[27]

Controversy surrounding 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 popular and widely used book, which had been published three years earlier. Produced without discussing the book with Johnson, the study concluded the book "contains misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors". The bishops claimed the 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."." Their assessment concluded that “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. As we have seen, however, 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 statement said.[28][29]

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).[30][31]

The timing, tone and substance of the criticism impacted not only Johnson, but brought into the spotlight the simmering tensions between the Catholic hierarchy and America's theologians. Johnson has been viewed as a leader of feminist scholars who dissect how cultural biases among biblical writers may have affected women's approved roles in Christian religious tradition. Catholic theologians have engaged in such issues as standard academic subjects, understanding ancient texts in their historic and cultural contexts. But the publicized critique by the USCCB of Johnson's book signaled a chill on this line of inquiry. The New York Times noted: "Many on the left and the right agree on one point: The bishops, who have already shut off discussion about ordaining women, are signaling that other long-debated questions about gender in the church — the choice of pronouns in prayers, the study of the male and female aspects of God — are substantially off-limits as well." In particular, the bishops had protested Johnson's discussion of female images for God without giving what they viewed as sufficient attention to the primacy of masculine imagery for God.

Catholic theologians expressed annoyance at the critical report not only because it was unexpectedly publicized more than three years after the book was published, but also because it appeared to violate the bishops' own guidelines. Those guidelines, which had been embraced and promoted in an effort to soothe the simmering conflicts between the Catholic hierarchy and theologians, called for discussion and engagement with theologians rather than public pronouncements. Theologians were also concerned that the Rev. Thomas Weinandy, executive secretary of the committee and a staunch conservative, took an antagonistic approach, even referring to theologians in a speech as "curse and affliction upon the church."[32] Susan Ross, the president of the 1,400-member Catholic Theological Society of America, characterized Weinandy's tenure with the bishops' conference as "antagonistic" and the committee's approach on doctrine while he was there as "adversarial."[33]

Johnson's position was defended by Fordham President Joseph M. McShane,[34] Boston College theologian Stephen J. Pope,[34] Terrence W. Tilley, chair of Fordham's theology department[35] and the board of the Catholic Theological Society of America".[35] 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.”[3] 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.[36]

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.[37] Only a few months following her speech decrying the church hierarchy's wasteful focus on policing doctrinal purity, Pope Francis brought the investigation of LCWS to an abrupt closure, signaling he is less focused on church doctrinal discipline and is more intent on spreading a message of love and caring for the world's poor and vulnerable and promoting precisely the kind of work that the nuns have long been engaged in.[38] Some had expected he would be supporting Johnson, since Cardinal Kasper, generally recognized as the pope's theologian, noted during a speech at Fordham University in 2014 that he highly esteemed the writings of Elizabeth Johnson, joking that he was also considered "suspect" at the Vatican.[39]


  • 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]

  • Doctor of Theology, honoris causa, Maryknoll School of Theology, New York, 1995

  • Doctor of Theology, honoris causa, Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, Illinois, 1996

  • Doctor of Sacred Theology, honoris causa, Siena College, Loudonville, New York, 1998

  • Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, Le Moyne College, Syracuse, New York, 1999

  • Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, St. Joseph's College, Brooklyn, New York, 2001

  • Doctor of Pedagogy, honoris causa, Manhattan College, Riverdale, New York, 2002

  • Doctor of Theology, honoris causa, Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, California, 2003

  • Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, College of New Rochelle, New York, 2004

  • Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, Villanova University, Pennsylvania, 2005

  • Doctor of Human Letters, honoris causa, Saint Joseph College, West Hartford, Connecticut, 2006

  • Doctor of the University, honoris causa, Saint Paul University, Ottawa, Ontario, 2008

  • Doctor of Sacred Letters, honoris causa, University of St. Michael's College, Toronto, Ontario, 2010

  • Doctor of Educational Leadership, honoris causa, Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, Winona, Minnesota, 2011


  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 scholars National Catholic Reporter, 13 May 2011
  3. ^ a b c d After Bishops Attack Book, Gauging Bounds of Debate The New York Times, 11 April 2011
  4. ^ 'Quest for the Living God,' Book by Sister Elizabeth Johnson Blasted
  5. ^ Elizabeth Johnson The Crossroad Publishing Company, accessed 15 May 2015
  6. ^ Feminism In Faith: Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s Challenge To The Vatican BuzzFeed News, 6 March 2014
  7. ^ See the biography on the website of Fordham University (accessed 28 March 2015).
  8. ^ Feminism In Faith: Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s Challenge To The Vatican BuzzFeed News, 6 March 2014
  9. ^ Feminism In Faith: Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s Challenge To The Vatican BuzzFeed News, 6 March 2014
  10. ^ Still Married to Christ, and Never Happier; As Fewer Women Become Nuns, Sisters Say the Calling's Rewards Have Expanded The New York Times, 23 February 1995
  11. ^ Feminism In Faith: Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s Challenge To The Vatican BuzzFeed News, 6 March 2014
  12. ^ a b New York Times: Peter Steinfels, "50 Years of Catholic Talk: New Faces and New Ideas," June 20, 1995, accessed April 4, 2011
  13. ^ Elizabeth Johnson College of New Rochelle, accessed 21 April 2015
  14. ^ Hinsdale, Mary Ann, Women Shaping Theology, Paulist Press (2006), p.143 (citing personal communication from Johnson.
  15. ^ “Let a female speculate”: Full text of Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s LCWR talk Angelqueen, 17 August 2014
  16. ^ The Goddess Project Catholic Culture.org, accessed 20 April 2015
  17. ^ New York Times: res=F30616F83E540C7B8CDDAA0894D8494D81& Peter Steinfels, "Proposed Catholic Catechism Stirs Dispute Among Scholars," March 8, 1990, accessed April 4, 2011
  18. ^ Circle of Friends U.S. Catholic, accessed 15 May 2015
  19. ^ Feminism In Faith: Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s Challenge To The Vatican BuzzFeed News, 6 March 2014
  20. ^ Bishops Criticize Nun’s Book NY Times, 30 March 2011
  21. ^ Johnson: Quest for the Living God Catholic Book Reviews, accessed 15 May 2015
  22. ^ Sister Elizabeth Johnson Blasts Catholic Bishops For 'Unconscionable' Investigation Of American Nuns The Huffington Post, 17 August 2014
  24. ^ "1993- Elizabeth A. Johnson". 
  25. ^ a b The Goddess Project Catholic Culture, 2000
  26. ^ Elizabeth Johnson, Reliable Guide Episcopal Cafe, 25 April 2011
  27. ^ With book on God and Darwin, Elizabeth Johnson gets her voice back National Catholic Reporter, 13 February 2014
  28. ^ 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
  29. ^ The Case of Sister Elizabeth Johnson America the National Catholic Review, 8 December 2012
  30. ^ 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
  31. ^ 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
  32. ^ 'Quest for the Living God,' Book by Sister Elizabeth Johnson Blasted by Catholic Bishops The Huffington Post, 28 December 2011
  33. ^ US bishops to replace staffer behind theological investigations The National Catholic Reporter, 30 January 2013
  34. ^ a b New York Times: Laurie Goodstein, "Bishops Urge Catholic Schools to Ban a Nun's Book," March 30, 2011, accessed April 3, 2011
  35. ^ a b New York Times: Paul Vitello, "After Bishops Attack Book, Gauging Bounds of Debate," April 11, 2011, accessed April 13, 2011
  36. ^ USCCB News, October 28, 2011 "Bishops Reaffirm Their Critique of Book Quest for the Living God by Sister Elizabeth Johnson", accessed March 29, 2015
  37. ^ Religion News, August 16, 2014 Sister Elizabeth Johnson: The waste of time on this investigation is unconscionable, accessed March 29, 2015
  38. ^ Vatican Ends Battle With U.S. Catholic Nuns’ Group The New York Times, 16 April 2015
  39. ^ Pope Francis is throwing nuns under the bus for sharing his own beliefs The Guardian, 8 May 2014

External links[edit]