Cardinal’s claim disputed by Catholic theologian

An unusual public dispute is brewing between Washington Cardinal
Donald Wuerl and a feminist theologian who essentially accused Wuerl of
lying about the hierarchy's review of her work.

The feud between
Sister Elizabeth Johnson and the doctrine committee of the U.S.
Conference of Catholic Bishops—which Wuerl heads—escalated in late
October following the committee's renewed criticism of Johnson's
landmark book, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God.

charged on October 29 that Johnson failed to respond to three offers to
meet with him to discuss the dispute. Johnson responded by saying she
was "aghast" at how Wuerl depicted the deteriorating relationship and
said Wuerl should retract the statement "for the sake of [his] own
reputation for truth-telling, and for the good of the church."

spokeswoman for the USCCB, which has handled the communications for
Wuerl and the doctrine committee, said the cardinal would have no
further statement. The correspondence between Wuerl and Johnson was
posted shortly thereafter on the blog of Commonweal magazine, a leading liberal Catholic publication.

rare public exchange marks the latest chapter in a months-long clash
that has worsened already tense relations between the Catholic bishops
and theologians.

The saga began last March when Wuerl's
nine-member doctrine committee released a sweeping critique of
John­son's book. The condemnation stunned theologians and Johnson, a
professor of systematic theology at Fordham Univer­sity in New York, in
part because the book had been so well received since its publication in
2007 and also because Johnson was given no notice about the

The hierarchy's own guidelines call for open
dialogue with theologians whose work may be suspect before
pronouncements are issued. But USCCB officials said in March that the
popularity of Johnson's book demanded immediate action and that the
yearlong review of her work had to be conducted in secret.

expressed dismay at the negative verdict on her work and asked to meet
with the committee. In June she sent the panel a 38-page defense of her

On October 28, the doctrine committee released a statement
reiterating their disapproval of the book, which it said did not pay
sufficient heed to earlier Catholic traditions on how to conceptualize
God. The bishops charge that the book also uses "ambiguous" terms that
could be open to misinterpretation, such as female images for the

In response, Johnson expressed "sadness" and
"disappointment" and again said she felt the bishops misunderstood her
work and that she has always espoused "the church's faith about God
revealed in Jesus Christ through the Spirit." Johnson also lamented that
the doctrinal committee did not take up her offer to meet to discuss
their differences.

That led Wuerl to issue an unusual statement on
October 29, posted at the USCCB website, saying the cardinal had
offered to meet with Johnson three times, in correspondence sent July 22
and October 11 and in a telephone call and follow-up email on October
26. "Sister Johnson did not respond to any of the offers," Wuerl said.

But the exchanges posted at Common­weal
quotes Johnson writing to Wuerl July 14 to say: "I assure you
explicitly of my willingness to meet face-to-face to clarify these
matters, and in fact would like to do so, should you deem that helpful."

replied on July 22, saying that the committee would review her
response. "The next meeting of the committee is set for September and as
soon as possible following the meeting I will get word to you," Wuerl
wrote Johnson, adding: "I would welcome the opportunity to meet with

The next time Wuerl contacted Johnson was in a letter dated
October 11, to inform her that the committee had concluded its response,
set for release on October 28. Wuerl added, "I renew my offer to meet
with you if you so desire."

Johnson is on sabbatical this fall and
did not receive the letter. On October 25—with the committee's response
set to be published—Wuerl's secretary e-mailed Johnson. She responded
the next day, but the doctrine committee said it was too late to change
the bishops' statement or arrange a meeting.

After Wuerl posted
his statement saying that Johnson failed to respond and that he was
renewing his offer to meet with her himself, Johnson fired back. "I am
aghast at the accusation you make in the USCCB website post that I have
not responded to any of the offers to meet," Johnson wrote to Wuerl in
an e-mail.

"I never received an offer to meet at a definite time
or with a protocol or agenda that would ensure serious discussion of the
issues in my book," Johnson wrote. "If I had, I would have accepted
immediately. In addition, each offer was vague about time, indicating
that a meeting would take place after the committee's deliberations were
over."  —RNS

David Gibson

David Gibson writes for Religion News Service.

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