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Catholic College and Universities

A bigger, broader communion of saints

NCR Staff

“From age to age you gather a people to yourself.”

Those familiar words from the Sunday liturgy refer to a doctrine as mysterious and awe-inspiring as it is comforting, a Christian belief as ancient as the Apostles’ Creed. Yet that doctrine, known to Catholics as the “communion of saints” is one that has been little analyzed, interpreted or explained.

Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, a feminist theologian noted for breaking new scholarly ground, realized the shortage of writing on the subject when she set out to produce a sequel to her previous ground-breaking work, She Who Is (Continuum, 1992).

That book, which brought a feminist interpretation to traditional God language and doctrine, was a hard act to follow. It was widely reviewed, won several prizes and was translated into several languages, including French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Korean. It has been used in religion classes at a number of Catholic schools as well as such secular universities as Harvard and Columbia. Both sales and impact “were far beyond what I expected,” she said.

Johnson’s new effort, her fourth book, the recently published Friends of God and Prophets, takes its title from these words in Wisdom 7:27:

Although she is but one, she can do all things,
and while remaining in herself, she renews all things;
in every generation she passes into holy souls
and makes them friends of God, and prophets.

The book’s subtitle, placing it squarely in the tradition of Johnson’s earlier work, is “A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints.”

Friends of God and Prophets, about memory, connectedness and hope, traces the symbol of the communion of saints through time -- from the Old Testament, which tells the story of God gathering a people to share in the divine holiness, through the New Testament, where Paul refers some 60 times to communities of saints, and on through history. In the early church diverse holy people are remembered and honored, but gradually a patronage system developed so that saints and their presumed power as mediators became the province of a wealthy and powerful elite.

Worthy of remembrance

By the high Middle Ages church authorities had control of the canonization process, ensuring that male celibates and the soundly orthodox would dominate the list. Married people, pioneering thinkers, artists, people on the margins of society were rarely named. Johnson calls for a recovery of the earlier community model, one that recognizes that all who live in fidelity to truth and love are worthy of remembrance as saints.

“The symbol signifies that those who seek the face of the living God today belong to a great historical company,” Johnson writes, “that includes the living and the dead” and is connected with the graciousness of Holy Wisdom who renews her gift in each generation. What is needed today, according to Johnson, is a recovery of the communion of saints’ radical equality and new practices to revive its power, such as litanies recited in new ways and new situations.

The focus on equality “is a whole trend in theology right now,” she said. Friends of God, like She Who Is, is an effort to “validate doctrinally what is going on in feminist spirituality.”

Though the topic of Johnson’s latest book seems a logical extension of her experience and work to date, it was in fact an accident.

She had set out during a yearlong sabbatical beginning in September 1996 to do something different: to write a book on the theology of Mary. She had in mind a book looking at Mary as “the feminine face of God” and situating Mary within the tradition of communion of saints.

Johnson got diverted from her track, though, when her detective work on the communion of saints yielded not much. “Almost nothing,” she said ruefully. Even Karl Rahner, writing before the Second Vatican Council, had remarked on the lack of work on the topic -- a surprising lack, given its wide currency.

“I had a professor once who said when you discover an absence, that’s a piece of knowledge that should not be disregarded,” Johnson said.

So gradually the first subject took a back seat to the new one. The book on saints “sneaked in when I wasn’t looking,” she said.

Observers quickly form the impression, however, that not much sneaks up on this woman. The keen intellect and businesslike demeanor that have projected Johnson in less than two decades to the top of her profession are always apparent, though infused with warm friendliness. In an interview in her Spartan office in the basement of Collins Hall at Fordham University’s Rose Hill campus, where she has taught since 1991, Johnson said she had come prepared to talk about her work and to report a new resolution “to take more time for reflection, for life.” Johnson is 57.

Her career track has allowed minimal time for herself.

She was the first woman to get a PhD in theology from The Catholic University of America. That was in 1981. She taught on the school’s pontifical faculty from 1981 to 1991, earning tenure and the accompanying hierarchical approvals required: the missio canonica from Cardinal James Hickey of Washington and the nihil obstat from bishops on the university’s board of trustees. Her specialty at Catholic University was Christology.

Johnson’s first book, Consider Jesus, Waves of Renewal in Christology (Crossroad 1990), is still being used in some places as as a college text. Her third book was Women, Earth and Creator Spirit (Paulist Press 1993).

She joined the faculty at Fordham in 1991 as associate professor and was named a full professor just three years ago. Last year she was designated a “distinguished professor” at Fordham University, one of just seven to hold such an honor.

Why do we do this?

That career track, which veered into theology from science, may have been more surprising to Johnson herself than to members of her family who recall her asking a theological question, one that dances right into a centuries-long debate over the nature of the Eucharist, as early as age 7.

“They tell a story about when I made my first Communion,” said Johnson, who was the eldest of seven children. “I asked, ‘Why do we have to do this’ “ -- that is, receive Jesus in Communion -- “ ‘when Jesus is already in our hearts.’ “

A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Johnson entered both college and religious life, the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, N.Y., in 1959. She attended the order’s Brentwood College, then situated on Long Island, since closed. At her order’s request, she became a science teacher in Catholic schools, from second grade through high school and college. It was the normal “nun trajectory,” she said, to start with young children and move to older. “You learn or you sink quickly,” she said.

She attributes her teaching skills -- last year Johnson was named “Outstanding Teacher of the Year” at Fordham -- to that training.

But when her superiors asked her after the Vatican Council to choose an area for a master’s degree, she chose to go with the new energy in the church.

She took a master’s degree in theology from Manhattan College in the Bronx, under “very strong” faculty that included such scholars as Gabriel Moran, Luke Salm and Donald Gray.

When Johnson decided to go on for a PhD, she said her religious superior encouraged her to go to Rome, to the Gregorian University, the world’s premier pontifical institution, where career-track clergy and would-be bishops are honored to be sent.

Johnson, having received scholarships to several Catholic schools, decided to say no to Rome. She wanted to be trained as an American theologian. “It was a defining moment,” she said. The days of looking to Rome for the best in theological education “were gone,” she said.

So she went to Catholic University, and after graduation found herself faced with another difficult choice. She was asked to join the faculty. That meant not returning to New York, to home and family and what she, in the fiercely parochial manner of a native New Yorker, described as “my city.” The trouble with Washington, she told her friends, “is that it only has one of everything.”

From the point of view of her career, though, she recognized Catholic University as the better choice. Catholic University was a “publish or perish” environment, she said. “It was very hard. There was tremendous pressure” to perform. Publish she did, mostly on Christology, the field in which she was teaching. Over the years, she’s published scores of articles and reviews in addition to her four books.

Meanwhile, all through the 1980s she participated in a reading circle called WIT, for Women in Theology, that brought theological questions to bear on all the women’s issues that had been brewing throughout the 1970s. “It was a seedbed” for women theologians, she said.

She also forged bonds with Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, a feminist biblical scholar who taught then at the University of Notre Dame and teaches now at Harvard. Schüssler Fiorenza is the author of In Memory of Her (Crossroad, 1983), which traces the gradual development of a male hierarchy in the church to the exclusion of women, and Discipleship of Equals (Crossroad, 1993), which examines feminist theology as a theology of liberation.

Johnson, though at times attacked from the right, has remained more at the conservative end of feminist thought, a centrist among Catholic scholars, than Schüssler Fiorenza, who has moved to the leading edge of the left. At a national meeting of the Women’s Ordination Conference in 1995, Schüssler Fiorenza became the focus of controversy even among feminists through her insistence that feminism and the Catholic priesthood were incompatible.

By remaining more firmly in the tradition, Johnson has nevertheless broken new ground by moving feminist critique of traditional Christian doctrines forward to a new synthesis rooted in woman’s experience and using feminist methodology -- or, as she puts it, “hauling the tradition kicking and screaming into this new world.” She insists that “the tradition of the church is worth living by and passing on but needs to be transformed,” a position that’s “really not very liberal,” she said.

Ironically, perhaps providentially, Johnson was serving as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America -- the “point person” for Catholic theologians around the country -- when the Vatican issued a declaration on Nov. 18, 1995, that rallied theologians to a feminist cause. The declaration said the church’s ban on ordaining women was an infallible teaching requiring “definitive assent” and asserting that a male-only priesthood belongs to the church’s fundamental deposit of faith.

Constructive response

As the calls and faxes poured in, it was clear, she said, that society members wanted to challenge the declaration. With the unanimous approval of the society’s board, Johnson put in motion a response. The result was a 4,500-word theological paper by a committee of theologians critiquing the scriptural and theological underpinnings of the Vatican’s rationale. Their analysis concluded that it was inadequate. A resolution based on the paper’s final paragraph was adopted 10 to 1 by the society at its annual meeting in 1997. Essentially, it said the topic should remain open to debate.

Although it put the society at the center of controversy for a time -- for example, she said, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston impugned the society’s motives and characterized it as a “theological wasteland” -- Johnson describes the paper as “a really constructive response.”

‘Back into the heap’

Three other bishops besides Law wrote negatively in their diocesan newspapers about the paper. As for Law’s remarks, Johnson said, “I thought to myself that I would be ashamed to talk that way to fellow theologians, to dedicated people in the church.” Everybody on the committee that drafted the paper had pontifical degrees. Law thought, wrongly, she said, that the paper represented the view of “only a very small group” of theologians rather than an overwhelming majority.

For now, Johnson has “sunk back into the heap” of scholars -- the fate of all past presidents of the society, she said -- and is enjoying the attention being devoted to her work.

A party in Ottawa, Canada, in June marked publication of her latest book. Held during the annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society, the party was sponsored by copublishers Continuum, for the United States, and Novalis, for Canada. The book was also published in London by SCM Press.

Friends and Prophets earned “Book of the Month” designation in May from the Catholic Book Club in the United States and in August from the Australian Book Distributors Club. Five scholars representing the Roman Catholic Studies Group and the Systematic Theology Group will examine the full body of Johnson’s work at the American Academy of Religion when it meets in Orlando, Fla., in November. And she has been invited to give a lecture on the book at Cambridge University in England in February.

Meanwhile, science isn’t an interest she has left behind. In the early 1990s she participated in dialogues sponsored by the Vatican Observatory and involving scientists and theologians from around the world. She continues to keep up with new scientific discoveries through reading and regular viewing of the Discovery Channel and other programs on science. She agrees strongly with Pope John Paul II on the need for more theological reflection on the world of science.

Johnson shares her apartment in southern Westchester, about two miles from Fordham, with her black cat Shifrah, named after the Hebrew midwife in Exodus who refused to kill babies. The feline Shifrah keeps company with Johnson’s city garden, where, among other things, she grows flowers, tomatoes, peppers and basil. “I love making pesto sauce,” she said.

She also loves reading mysteries. “Cannot get enough of them,” she said, especially whodunits by women. Johnson said mystery-reading is a pastime shared by many theologians, even in England, and she thinks she knows why. “Mystery novels present a very orderly universe, where rules of right and wrong prevail and right wins,” she said.

Currently Johnson said she is writing on the perennial question of suffering and evil, in part because it comes up repeatedly in her teaching.

Meanwhile, never one to discard good material though, Johnson said the book on Mary is underway.

National Catholic Reporter, October 16, 1998