Sister Elizabeth Johnson blasts bishops over investigation

A nun who has criticism from U.S. Catholic bishops’ with what they consider to be radical feminist writings fought back on Friday, saying that their investigation of women’s orders is wasteful when their financial mismanagement and sexual abuses are being covered up.

Sister Elizabeth Johnson, a professor at Fordham University, accepted the Leadership Conference of Women Religious’ top award and then talked about the bishops in reaction to criticism of her book called “Quest for the Living God,” by saying that it appears they’ve never read it.

“To this day, no one, not myself or the theological community, the media or the general public knows what doctrinal issue is at stake,” she told the Nashville assembly of nuns.

In her 20-minute speech, Johnson said that the conference’s support of her work prompted the investigation by the church’s top enforcer of the doctrine, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. Her book includes chapters on black and feminist theology and interfaith engagement. She said that book sales skyrocketed after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops criticized the content of the book.

The LCWR has been undergoing a doctrinal investigation since 2009. In 2012, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ordered the group to reform its statutes and appointed Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain to oversee these changes, including a complete rewrite of the group’s charter and approval of all speakers at assemblies.

“When the moral authority of the hierarchy is hemorrhaging due to financial scandals and many bishops who … cover up sexual abuse of children, a cover up that continues in some quarters to this day, and thousands are drifting away from the church … the waste of time on this investigation is unconscionable,” Johnson stated in the speech.

Throughout the week, the leaders at the conference discussed spirituality and doctrine while taking up church politics in multiple closed sessions.

Sister Nancy Schreck, a former LCWR president who delivered the keynote speech, said in an interview this past Wednesday that there’s more than one way to look at God. While the church is a vehicle for mission, the focus of the sisterhood is the life of Jesus.

“Look at the four Gospels — they all have nuances in who Jesus is,” she said in that interview. “We need to figure out how we translate the message of Jesus to the world where we live. We need every creative interpretation of looking of Jesus that we can get.”

It’s unlikely the sides can come to a solution, Bruce Morrill, a Vanderbilt University professor of theological studies and a Jesuit priest, said in an interview. At the heart of the conflict is a difference in approach to hierarchical chain of command: the top-down, morals-emphasizing Vatican and the collegial, social-justice oriented nuns.

“As far as the U.S. bishops and Vatican officials are concerned, this is not a debate,” Morrill stated. “The hierarchy expects the women religious to obey their directives.”