Thursday, March 31, 2011

Dueling magisteria


Magisterium is the Catholic term for "authoritative teaching". Who has the right to determine orthodoxy is one of the things that marbles and often drives the history of Christianity. For Roman Catholicism, it is pretty clear: the Roman Bishop and the other bishops in communion with him. Like it or not, that's how it goes.

Sister Elizabeth Johnson is a feminist theologian who sounds a lot like the theologians I used to know when I was in training to become one back in the 70's and 80's. Bishops, with a few favored exceptions, were considered bumpkins and bureaucrats. My own assessment of them is even less favorable. But then, the Apostles were not graduates in rhetoric from the University of Athens. One of the deep themes in Catholicism is that you can be flawed both intellectually and morally without compromising the integrity of your authoritative role; this goes both for orthodox doctrine and sacramental validity. See Pope Stephen vs Pope Formosus. Behaving badly has no necessary connection to believing badly. You can be unpleasant and you can be right. Were that not so, Christian faith would never have outlasted the New Testament.

But back to the theologians. Since the bishops were often so culturally and theologically at odds with the dominant schools of thought in the academic world, which by then had been very much influenced by an influx of women, a shadow magisterium arose. For most of these folks, Karl Rahner was more authoritative than the Pope. Oddly enough, he was one of them and the Pope and his bishops were not. This creation of a teaching authority of professors is not unprecedented. In the later Middle Ages, the professors at the University of Paris played a similar role. (But eventually, within the Roman Church, the Pope beat out the ivory tower, and even a general council.) 

Anyhow, in 2007 Sr. Johnson wrote a book on God which says that God is unknowable, so all names for God are just metaphors, so it's better to have metaphors that encourage a social order that is favorable to women. While "mapping the frontiers of theology", that is one thing she is not agnostic about.  Many of Sr. Johnson's liberating departures from the old ways are justified by "lack of consensus" and "dissenting voices"...likely from this shadow magisterium of  (pardon the sexism) fellow-travelling professors. Some have even uncharitably spoken of a "magisterium of nuns". It seems that if everyone, at least everyone she deems hearing-worthy, does not agree with a Pope, then what he says is just so much chin-music, another defective patriarchal opinion. In some ways her attitude reminds me of American judges who use foreign law to interpret the American Constitution. Thrilling to the sound of the global village or the special wisdom of a wise Latina, they forget who they are and what their job is.

Feminist types were ecstatic about the book. The American Catholic Bishops Committee on Doctrine was not amused. It just did an unusual thing and wrote a document calling her work misleading and wrong.  And explained exactly why. In these polite days, that's as close to heretical as you're likely to get. But its very rarity makes it loud.

Fireworks will no doubt ensue. But the report seems to get one thing right. Metaphors and analogies are very different ways of ascribing similarity and difference. St Thomas figured that out clearly quite a long time ago in his Summa contra Gentiles. To simplify, a metaphor may be both affirmed and denied without contradiction. "God is my rock". Yes, and no. In analogy, while there is difference, the similarity is so great that it cannot be both affirmed and denied without contradiction. "God is eternal." It may not be a perfect statement, but it can't be wrong and still be right. Yes only. No yes and no.

By making all God-language only metaphorical, Sister makes it all basically contentless. What drives the theological agenda then is her social agenda. Even a bishop could see that.


Anonymous said...

Elizabeth Johnson "Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God." But I thought it was wrong for there to be frontiers and boundaries and borders! ... Is she an imperialist? .... Or maybe she means there's only nondual borders. I bet nondual borders and frontiers are okay.
er, author of "How Many Growin'/Groan Terce Does Your Map Have?"

Anonymous said...

Regrettable that the bishops didn't say "The holy Spirit is not a skeptic!" -- Luther's retort to Erasmus's thesis that doctrines are basically too tough to be more than theses for debate this way and that. (Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, p. 70. trans J.I. Packer, O.R. Johnston. Fleming H. Revell Co., 1957).

Or again, "Your thoughts of God are too human!" p. 87.

Erasmus is of the view that "What is above us does not concern us" p. 70. (Maybe "as above, so below [sc for the usd"as below the floorboards so above on the floor of the cave"], but why should we pay attention to that stuff?)

(pp. 24ff in Henry Cole edition)

(“The holy Spirit is not a skeptic!” Luther famously replied to a proposal to treat Christian doctrines as uncertain, debatable themes for philosophic discussion on grounds that what is above us (in the mysteries of God) does not concern us

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