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Theologian honored by LCWR, praises group for its 'powerful witness'

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson, a theologian whose work has come under scrutiny by the U.S. bishops, praised the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for its response to the Vatican's continuing doctrinal assessment of the organization.

"Through careful discernment, the LCWR has forged a response which is publicly modeling a different form of leadership," said the Sister of St. Joseph Aug. 15. "To a polarized church and a world racked by violence, your willingness to stay at the table seeking reconciliation through truthful, courageous conversation has given powerful witness."

She added, "LCWR is experiencing the truth of (Dominican Father Humbert) Clerissac's adage, 'It is easy to suffer for the church; the difficult thing is to suffer at the hands of the church.' Nevertheless, under duress, you persist, giving honest, firm voice to your wisdom gained by years of mystical and prophetic living."

Sister Johnson, a theology professor at Fordham University, made the comments in accepting LCWR's 2014 Outstanding Leadership Award.

In advance of LCWR's Aug. 12-15 assembly in Nashville, Cardinal Gerhard Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said he was saddened that LCWR chose to honor Sister Johnson.

In 2011, the U.S. bishops' Committee on Doctrine criticized one of her books as containing "misrepresentations, ambiguities and errors" related to the Catholic faith.

The cardinal said LCWR's award to the theologian would be seen "as a rather open provocation against the Holy See and the doctrinal assessment. Not only that, but it further alienates the LCWR from the bishops as well."

He did not seek to prevent Sister Johnson from getting the award, but expected LCWR officials from now on to seek advance approval from Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle for "invited speakers and honorees" at major events.

Archbishop Sartain, who was at the assembly, was appointed to implement the Vatican reforms suggested by the doctrinal assessment. He is to provide "review, guidance and approval, where necessary, of the work" of LCWR.

In her address, Sister Johnson said she would never have become a theologian "were it not for the leaders of my own religious community. This vocation within a vocation was simply not on my radar."

Various superiors of her community "thought the church needed women to teach theology and sensed my interest," she recalled.

She said she finds "doing theology an interesting, tough and wondrous ministry in the church."

Theologians "think about the meaning of faith and the way it is practiced," Sister Johnson continued. "The purpose is to shed more light on the Gospel, so it can be lived out with deeper understanding and vibrant love of God and neighbor."

Subjects she has researched, lectured on and written about include language about God, the meaning of Jesus, the communion of saints, and evolution and creation. Her work has "always been an invitation to students, readers and listeners to 'come and see,' as John's Gospel put it," Sister Johnson said.

She has paid particular attention to the need for women's voices in theological discussions.

"All the great thinkers whom I had been exposed to in my studies were men. I loved many of their insights. But where were the women?" she said. "I was struck by the absence of their critical insights and spiritual wisdom (and) grew committed to bringing women's voices to the table."

"This does not mean thinking about women all the time," Sister Johnson continued. "It does mean using the human dignity of women as one lens through which think about other religious and ethical subjects. It means attending to poverty, lack of education, sexual violence, and other injustices that ruin women's lives."

She acknowledged the Vatican's ongoing assessment of LCWR and the criticism of her own work by the church hierarchy, in particular the U.S. bishops' 2011 critique of her book, "Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God," published in 2007.

After a yearlong review, the bishops' Committee on Doctrine said her book contained "misrepresentations, ambiguities and errors" related to the Catholic faith.

Sister Johnson claimed that "to this day no one -- not myself, nor the theological community, nor the media, nor the general public -- knows what doctrinal issue is at stake" in "Quest."

Despite her "best efforts," she said, she never received clarification on how her book was theologically flawed and called the critique "confused."

In October 2011, the doctrinal committee in answering objections raised by Sister Johnson a few months earlier to the critique issued a statement covering the book's seven areas, taking each one point by point to explain why it determined her work was "seriously inadequate as a presentation of the Catholic understanding of God."

Sister Johnson in her address said she sees the doctrinal committee's critique and Vatican criticism of LCWR as intertwined.

While some religious and bishops work "fabulously together," she said, there is "a centuries-long tension between religious orders and the hierarchy." The church "has evolved (into) a patriarchal structure where authority is exercised in top-down fashion, and where obedience and loyalty to the system are the greatest virtues," she said.

LCWR and congregations of women religious are not perfect, Sister Johnson said, but since the Second Vatican Council, women religious have renewed their lives in accord with the Gospel and their founders, and remain on the front lines forming the "field hospital for the wounded," as she put, drawing on the words of Pope Francis.

Women religious, she said, stand "in solidarity with the poor, immigrants, battered women, LGBTQ persons, and even the wounded earth itself."

She expressed hope that in their mutual commitment to caring for the poor, LCWR and Cardinal Muller -- who has been praised for his solidarity with the marginalized over the years -- could find common ground that would bring the doctrinal assessment to a close.

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