Back in the days when the Catholic Church first started growing academic theologians, some episcopal powers-that-be grew concerned about some novel ideas about God being advanced by nascent scholasticism’s enfant terrible, Master Peter Abelard. In 1121, Master Peter was summoned before a church council at Soissons and made to defend himself. But the proceeding was stacked against him. Though he had a chance to speak, he didn’t get the free hearing that the distinguished bishop of Chartres, Geoffrey, thought he deserved. The same held true 20 years later, when the most powerful figure in Latin Christendom, Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, got Abelard hailed before a tribunal in Sens. In both cases, the accusers knew that they were no match for him in argument. In both cases, he was condemned and the offending writings burned.
What brings Abelard’s predicament to mind is the situation in which Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham Uuniversity, finds herself: twice the victim of rebuke from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for writing things about God that in their view are not up to Catholic snuff; and twice not afforded the opportunity to defend herself in person. Unlike the 12th-century authorities, the USCCB’s Secretariat for Doctrine didn’t feel like it even had to go through the motions of giving Sr. Elizabeth the chance to confront her accusers face to face–although its chairman, Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl, pretends otherwise. Unlike St. Bernard, +Wuerl has not, at least so far, admitted that he might not be up to debating points of doctrine with the likes of Sr. Elizabeth.
To be sure, it’s not as though there isn’t a credentialed theologian in the house. He’s Fr. Thomas Weinandy, and he serves as the Secretariat’s executive director. It’s a safe bet that his books on whether God suffers and/or changes have not sold anywhere near as well as the popular volume that got Sr. Elizabeth condemned–Quest for the Living God (number 4,508 on today’s Amazon best seller list). OK, that’s a cheap shot.
But you’ve got to wonder why Fr. Thomas wouldn’t have sense enough to warn his bosses not to get involved in a public pissing match with the Catholic theological establishment. Then again, the USCCB seems disposed these days to hire staff members who embarrass their own members by writing articles that have to be retracted claiming that science shows same-sex attraction to be the work of the devil. You’ve also got to wonder about the role of the president of the USCCB, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, in all this. Sr. Elizabeth works in his diocese, after all, and he’s supposed to look out for those who teach theology there. Peter Abelard had Geoffrey of Chartres trying to look out for him. Elizabeth Johnson has Tim of New York trying not so much.