Friday, June 10, 2011

Johnson's Response to the Committee on Doctrine

Elizabeth Johnson has given a full response to the criticisms of the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (which I previously talked about here and, more briefly, here). It's interesting (as I've mentioned before, Johnson is quite good as most contemporary theologians go), but the problems with it seem to me to begin in the Introduction. There theology is seen, on the one hand, as an articulation of faith (which is certainly right, although I think Johnson's claims about what this typically has involved are rather superficial -- but this just may be an artifact of summarizing). But she thinks that "The Statement faults the book for not being in accord with church teaching because it does not repeat established doctrinal formulas." This, however, was not the bishops' criticism; the criticism was that the formulas it does put forward are in some cases apparently inconsistent with established doctrinal formulas, and thus they criticized it for failure to stick with theology's mission as an articulation of faith rather than other things.

Johnson's reply through the rest sorta-kinda provides a response to this, but not fully. I would say more on this point, but as it happens John Lyons has said some things in the comments of the post at America magazine discussing Johnson's response with which I largely (not completely, but largely) agree, enough so that I'll direct you that way. But I do want to add that the problem with identifying praxis as a source for theological reflection, rather than a culmination or even shaper of it (none of these roles are the same) is that it simply invites picking and choosing of preferred extrapolations (because extrapolating is all that such reflection really can be): you can extrapolate from the practice of Ruth Pakaluk and you can extrapolate from the practice of Joseph O'Rourke, and not only are you going to get very different extrapolations, they are going to be mutually inconsistent, and the test of how Catholic they are is simply not going to be how Catholic they were intended to be, but how they measure up against established teachings of the Church.

There are a few quibbles I could add; she conflates, again, the triplex via Aquinas derives from the Dionysian and the doctrine of analogy that he derives from Aristotle; the two are related to each other given certain Thomistic assumptions, but they are not the same. She also mischaracterizes Aquinas's doctrine of analogy as applied to the divine names, which is not that the analogical terms are 'similar' but that the analogical terms are the same in some way (but not every way). Mere similarity would just give us metaphor, which Johnson is explicitly trying to avoid. Johnson seems to have a misunderstanding of the doctrine that derives from a lack of clarity in the expositions of Kasper, who seems to be a major influence on her. There are others I could add, but I don't want to make this about details.

It should be said through all this, incidentally, that Johnson's response to the criticism, in terms of the overall response, has been in general exemplary; would that more theologians understood that the reasonable response to criticism is rational dialogue that attempts to understand the criticism.

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