Monday, October 31, 2011

The Committee on Doctrine's Response to Johnson

The Committee on Doctrine has reaffirmed (PDF) its criticism of Sr. Elizabeth Johson's Quest for the Living God, after considering her response to the previous one. This is a much better document than the one they originally released, which shows that Sr. Johnson was at least right that they probably should have tried to get her clarifications before releasing the original one. As one might expect, the usual suspects are up in arms over the audacity of the bishops in criticizing an academic theologian for the adequacy of her theology. In fact, though, the argument of the statement is quite good, and pinpoints what is in fact a genuine fault of Sr. Johnson's (and a common fault among contemporary academic theologians), her tendency to explain things rather loosely and without much precision. It is in fact true that Johnson repeatedly explains analogy in ways inconsistent with her express aim (the 'literally' point drove me crazy all the way through her discussion), that she strangely fails to do much serious discussion of the actual implications of the things she explores for the faith at large, and that she repeatedly attempts to argue by deployment of vague and historically dubious labels. An unprejudiced reader picking up the book and reading it with the bishops' statement right there will find much more in the book that displays the problems noted by the Committee than the Committee actually gives.

Academic theologians tend themselves to be a circle-the-wagons lot, so it's unsurprising that they are unhappy. Daniel Horan has a defense of Johnson that has most of the worst qualities one could expect from their response, managing as it does merely to confirm the reputation academic theologians have for being simultaneously glib and snide. Part of the problem, which has plagued Horan's criticisms of the Committee throughout, is that he cannot get away from his assumption -- never proven, indeed, repeatedly presented as if it did not in any way require proving -- that what academic theology generally offers is "sound, constructive, legitimate and necessary" for the Church. This is, however, arguably what the bishops themselves are putting to question: they are criticizing Sr. Johnson's book, which is far from the worst end of the spectrum of the products of academic theologian, and arguing that it is confusing, fails to address adequately the question of how its proposals are to be integrated into Church teaching at large, is indeed apparently inconsistent at points with key strands of Church teaching, and seems largely an impediment to episcopal teaching. Now, set aside any question of whether they are right in arguing this, and ask yourself, "What are the broader implications of making such an argument?" For that matter, why pick on Sr. Johnson? Any comparison of Johnson's book with much of the typical output of academic theologians will quickly show that (1) she's comparatively quite good; and (2) she's comparatively quite insistent on the specifically Catholic elements of her work. Both of these have been a repeated theme in defenses of Johnson by academic theologians, and correctly so, but academic theologians commenting on the matter have been so wounded in their dignity that they have failed to consider the further implication of it, which is that any assumption that even the best of Catholic academic theology is offering something "sound, constructive, legitimate and necessary," at least when used to start people off, is now begging the question. It's hardly surprising that academic theologians respond passionately to such a criticism; what is baffling is finding some who think that the appropriate response is self-satisfied but entirely vague insistence on their superiority over their critics.

OK, so perhaps the proof is in the pudding, and there is some resounding confirmation of this in the details. But for all the melodrama Horan plays up with phrases like "the atrophy of theology", his criticism ends up being pretty piecemeal and unimpressive, repeatedly dodging the serious issues in favor of dubious quibbles. For instance, the rhetorical questions,

Which necessarily causes the reader to ask: What is the singular and official Catholic “conception of analogy?” Is it the medieval understanding of Thomas Aquinas? or Henry of Ghent? Is it something developed later, like that of Francisco Suarez? Is it something developed more recently, like that of Karl Rahner or David Tracy?

might have been clever except that Horan can't possibly be ignorant of the fact that what is at issue is analogy as discussed in Sr. Johnson's book -- which does not, I assure you, get into any of the finer points about the differences between Thomas Aquinas and Henry of Ghent. Anyone familiar with Johnson on the subject of analogy notes that she repeatedly locates her own discussion of the topic in a broadly Thomistic tradition; this was, for instance, the whole point of her famous dispute with Bracken back in the nineties, in which she argued that a 'retrieval' of the Thomistic doctrine of analogy was in order. Moreover, the broadly Thomistic outlines are clear enough from the book itself; and Horan can hardly be ignorant of this. Thus it's impossible to see this as anything other than an obfuscatory dust to hide the weakness of the larger argument, which is that the Committee is claiming that there is one and only one acceptable account of analogy. But this whole argument rests entirely on a single phrase of a single sentence, ripped out of context: the phrase "the Catholic understanding of analogy" in the sentence, "According to the Catholic understanding of analogy, we do in fact know what 'good' means and that 'good' applies to God." But nothing about this, either in itself or in context, implies what Horan claims it implies; given other things the bishops say throughout it is more reasonable to read it as the point that in the Catholic theological tradition (which they mention just two paragraphs later in summing up) analogy has typically been put forward as way to avoid the view of claiming that our names for God are purely equivocal, which would render much of the Catholic theological tradition void regardless of the particular strands one preferred. That this is true is neither controversial nor exceptionable.

Likewise, Horan's argument over the "Second Ground Rule," while excoriating the bishops for missing "the nuances of theological thought," has clearly missed the nuances of the bishops' thought. Indeed, 'nuance' is not the right word; they have repeatedly insisted that the reason, and the only reason, they are getting involved is that Johnson's book is so often used as a textbook, and again have repeatedly insisted that, whatever Johnson's intention, what it says is misleading and confusing in such a context. Talking about the 'nuances' simply reaffirms the bishops' point that Johnson's book is at best appropriate for people who have longstanding familiarity with the 'nuances' of current theological idiom, not undergraduates. And, again, it is hardly as if the concern of the bishops over the use of the book to teach the latter has been kept to subtle indications. Horan is seeing only what he wants to see; and every indication is that he wants to see any bishops critical of academic theology as stupid. The result is a pick-and-choose manner of defense that does no one any credit.

The rest of Horan's defense is in the same vein, alternating weak argument and bombastic rhetoric, culminating in the claim about the Conclusion, "Echoing what has been said publicly by Thomas Weinandy, OFM cap., Cardinal Donald Wuerl, and others, this conclusion makes the case that all theology must 'repeat certain traditional formulas.'" Of course, anyone who actually reads the Conclusion will see at once that the Conclusion explicitly denies this -- indeed, the passage Horan goes on immediately to quote explicitly denies it -- so that perhaps says something about how closely Horan has read it. It's not my purpose to provide a defense of the Committee statement from Horan; it really needs no such defense, because Horan's argument throughout largely consists of minor issues and a posture of disdain at the alleged stupidity of the Committee in dealing with the nuance, brilliance, and sophistication of academic theology. Such 'defenses' are unconstructive and worse than the criticisms being raised; certainly for those of us who are academics, Catholic, and not in theology departments they run the danger of making academic theologians look childish.

It may be helpful, however, to point to an example of actually reasonable criticism of the statement, namely, a response that (1) focuses on essential issues rather than quibbling over single phrases,(2) shows that the statement has actually been read carefully, and (3) shows an actual appreciation for context. Megan's post at "WIT", I think, does quite well on all three points. I don't in the end agree with it; I find her reading of the document, as expressing one and only one 'model' of reception of tradition, unconvincing. The bishops clearly don't address the matter in much detail, and much of Megan's interpretation relies on arguments about what is supposedly implicit in what few claims they do make, and I don't see that she's made the case. It's instructive to compare how she does it with how Horan does it, though, since her approach is quite reasonable, looking at specific evidences and drawing out implications and possible inconsistencies while showing recognition of the fact that explicit claims must be taken into account. This is quite legitimate; and is, in any case, what the Committee itself is attempting to do. Likewise, I think the 'models' of reception used in the argument have the problems most theological 'models' do; if they really were the models in play, the only reasonable path would be to reject the positions of both the Committee and Sr. Johnson as absurd, because they would be making assumptions about teaching that obviously could not even handle the simplest features of a reasonably taught college class, much less the Holy Spirit's teaching of the entire Church. But these are things that can reasonably be argued for, points that open up to further discussion and can be refined, all delivered without attempt to short-circuit reasoning by melodramatic rhetoric.

Previous posts on the Johnson matter:

* Some Jottings on Analogy and Via Triplex in Philosophical and Theological Lights

* Magisterium

* Johnson's Response to the Committee on Doctrine


  1. Out of curiosity, are there contemporary theologians who you think model the kind of rigor that you generally find lacking?

  2. branemrys8:15 AM

    Well, as the joke goes, When sacred doctrine broke up into philosophy, biblical studies, and theology, biblical studies took all the evidence, philosophy took all the reasoning, and theology took what was left.

    Seriously, I think the rigor I generally find lacking is also generally found in good measure. But different parts of theology require different things for rigor, so they can't really be compared. Hauerwas is always rigorous, for instance, but theological ethics can't really be compared to theology proper. (Sr. Johnson, for instance, is much, much better when she's out and about talking to people than when she's trying to be systematic. She really is pretty decent at what one might call anthropology of faith.)When we look at theology proper, there are people who are doing a decent job; usually they are people who do fairly extensive work in philosophical theology -- I mean philosophical theology of the sort one would get in philosophy departments -- even though it's not only in philosophical theology that they display it, since it carries over. (Part of the problem is that theology departments tend to think about philosophical theology as a particular area of theology. But it is really what one needs to be precise and well-argued wherever in theology you are.) Burrell would be an example, and a lot of the Textual Reasoning school of Jewish theology, and some of the more wide-ranging process theologians (Suchocki comes to mind). They exist, but they are scattered. I just don't think theology departments do much to develop them; it's philosophy departments that have the needed rigor (but lack the needed range).


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