Widely considered one of the architects of Catholic feminist theology, the 72-year-old nun and professor has often clashed with institutional leaders — including the future pope — in her fight for equality in the clergy.
“You say Mary is too passive. Isn’t obedience the greatest virtue?”
This was one of 40 questions sent to Elizabeth Johnson by a cardinal when she was up for a tenure-track position at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., in September 1987. A respected scholar for decades, Johnson found her application rubber-stamped by every committee within the school, yet still needed approval from the Vatican’s powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Given that she had written an article questioning the traditional view of Mary as humble and obedient, further rubber-stamping was not guaranteed.
The cardinal interrogating her was Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI.
Though Johnson dutifully answered each query, Ratzinger was still not satisfied. He proceeded to take the extraordinary measure of calling every cardinal in the United States to come to Washington to interrogate her on the content of the article. Johnson was the first female faculty member to come up for tenure at CUA, and the first to be subjected to an examination by the cardinals.
At the initial meeting, the hall was filled with men in black garb, gold chains across their chests, and priests at each of their sides. Johnson was the only woman in the room. “There were these men and they had all the power. I was vulnerable and at their mercy,” Johnson remembers. “There was patriarchy using its power against me, to deprive me of what, in fairness, I should have been given.” Twenty-five years later, the recollection still brings waves of sadness and anger across her face.
“I kept thinking that in another century, they would be lighting the fires outside.”
For most eminent scholars in their early seventies, teaching freshmen is an obligation they long ago relinquished to junior faculty and adjunct lecturers. But watching Elizabeth Johnson, distinguished professor of theology at Fordham University, eagerly enter a classroom of two dozen students, most of whom still qualify as teenagers, one immediately gets the sense that there are few places she’d rather be.
Johnson, 72, is teaching an introductory class in religious studies, which she leads not from the provided podium, but from the same chair-bolted-to-desk contraption used by the students. Like other sisters of her order, St. Joseph, she doesn’t wear a habit. Sitting among them in a circle at the Bronx campus, she opens the mid-morning session with a lesson on the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
A nun of Irish descent with a discernible Brooklyn accent, Johnson explains that many African-Americans have historically understood God through the story of the Exodus. God is the breaker of chains, the one who liberates people from captivity, Johnson tells her students, but God is also united with their suffering. “King loves the church, but he believes that when it hides behind a stained glass window, avoiding what is hurting human lives, it is morally wrong.”
In a world where women suffer disproportionately from poverty, violence, and discrimination, having a global institution like the Catholic Church affirm women’s total equality would allow the church to be, in King’s words, a headlight to the world’s cultures where rigid patriarchal structures continue to oppress and devalue the dignity of women. Johnson, widely considered one of the architects of Catholic feminist theology, has devoted three decades of her scholarship to raising the voices of women in the church and integrating women’s experience into Christian theology, often in conflict with institutional leaders who, she worries, are functioning more as taillights.
“The church shouldn’t be a taillight behind progress,” she adds, paraphrasing King, “but a headlight leading civilization to higher levels of understanding.”
It is a metaphor that could aptly apply to the struggle for feminist reform in the Roman Catholic Church. More than half of the world’s billion Catholics are women, and, according to church doctrine, every one of them is barred from the opportunity to be ordained as a deacon or priest. Many feminist Catholics maintain that the fight for women’s ordination in the church is about much more than getting women into the priesthood.
Her most recent clash with the church hierarchy played itself out quite publicly in March 2011, after the publication of her book The Quest for the Living God, in which she argues for a broader and deeper language for God, particularly language that reflects the reality that “God loves women and passionately desires their flourishing.”
“All-male images of God are hierarchical images rooted in the unequal relation between women and men,” she writes. “Once women no longer relate to men as patriarchal fathers, lords, and kings in society, these images become religiously inadequate. Instead of evoking the reality of God, they block it.”
Though it met with high accolades from both the academy and laypeople, the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a condemnation of the book. They declared that the publication “completely undermines the Gospel and the faith of those who believe in God.” Its feminist themes were a particular sticking point for the nine-man committee, who criticized Johnson’s “characterization of the Church’s names for God as humanly-constructed metaphors,” arguing that the titles that the Church uses for God cannot be supplanted “by novel human constructions” aimed at “promoting the socio-political status of women.”
The committee’s action shocked Johnson, who has been a sister of St. Joseph for over 50 years, because she was completely unaware that the panel was discussing her book, let alone submitting it to an orthodoxy test. Her requests for a dialogue with the whole committee went unacknowledged. “It could have been so interesting and beneficial to the church,” she tells me. But the committee held its ground and reconfirmed its condemnation. To this day they have not responded to her requests for a meeting.
Johnson’s many colleagues at the 1,300-member Catholic Theological Society of America issued a statement of unequivocal support for her, and Fordham’s president, Jesuit Father Joseph McShane, supported her right to academic freedom. Though Johnson says the experience left her “vastly depleted and discouraged,” she remains grateful for that academic freedom, and that the bishops never attempted to bar her from teaching in a Catholic setting.
“I love this!” Johnson beams. “I feel so privileged to do this every day, to present this material to undergraduates and help them think and form their own beliefs.” She takes her seat to lead another seminar, without notes, on the topic for which she is known best, women and theology.
The vast majority of Fordham’s students were raised Catholic, and while Johnson believes that almost all of her students believe in women’s equality, they struggle to reconcile those convictions with a religious tradition that excludes them.
The question of whether to ordain women didn’t emerge until the late 1960s or early 1970s. Second-wave feminism and the optimism surrounding the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, held from 1962 to 1965, led Catholic women, especially in the U.S., to ask whether they too could be priests. The movement was further catalyzed by the decision of the Episcopal Church to ordain women in 1976.
The hierarchy’s central argument against ordination is based on the “Theology of the Body,” a teaching first developed by Pope John Paul II in 1979. The late pontiff held that while women and men are equal in worth and dignity, their physical and anatomical differences are evidence that God intends different roles and purposes for them. God designed men and women to complement each other, the pope argued, and their genders dictate their distinct roles in both church and society. John Paul II believed that women are endowed with a “feminine genius” — a special capacity to offer tenderness and nurture to the community. But special is not equal, which is why only men can be priests.
The teaching was serious enough that in 1994, John Paul II declared, as close to the point of infallibility as doctrinally possible, that not only would women forever be banned from the Roman Catholic priesthood, but “that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” To this day, clergy who choose to vocalize support for the idea of the ordination of women risk excommunication, something that has, at least in one case, occurred.
That Catholicism was male-dominated didn’t perturb Johnson, at first. Early in her scholarly career, Johnson distinguished herself as a “woman of firsts” within the academy of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1981, she became one of the first women to receive her doctorate in theology at CUA. Her studies centered on the ways in which we talk about God through analogy, or “God talk” as she prefers to describe it.
Unofficially known as “the bishop’s university,” CUA bears the unique distinction of being the only university in the country founded and sponsored by the bishops of the United States. Not surprisingly, Johnson’s experience there, though rich, respectful, and collegial, was significantly lacking in female presence. She began her studies in the mid-1970s, but Johnson says, “I never had a woman professor, I never read one woman author. There were none to be had. It was a totally male education.” It was a situation that CUA attempted to remedy when the school asked Johnson to be the first woman to join its theology faculty. She was hired in a tenure-track position to teach Christology, a branch of theology that studies the idea of Jesus as Messiah.
Feminism may not have penetrated the walls of CUA, but it had permeated U.S. culture, and it was influencing the conversations of female Catholic theologians who were a few years ahead of Johnson. Some of them, like pioneering feminist theologians Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Sandra Schneiders, would meet in Washington, D.C., giving informal talks on topics like using feminine images for God.
“It blew my mind,” Johnson says. Eventually she and several graduate students formed a “Women in Theology” group, which they called WITS. They even printed T-shirts with their acronym. “I got the sense that I should make a contribution to what was brewing between feminist and theological thinking,” Johnson says. She eventually wrote that fateful article critiquing the church’s traditional understanding of Mary, arguing that the gospels depict Mary as courageous, risk-taking, and even prophetic. Of Johnson’s many other writings at that point, it was her only article in feminist theology, but it was enough to put her tenure application in serious jeopardy.
Johnson’s ability to balance patience and respect for the institution with rigorous scholarship and academic integrity eventually won her tenure. But there was one moment in the inquest that seems to have emblazoned itself forever on her memory: Toward the end of the questioning, Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law slammed shut his binder of Johnson’s writings and scoffed, “You mostly teach Christology. You’re not going to do anymore of this feminist stuff.” He pushed the files away.
(Years later, in 2002, Law would be forced to resign his position after his massive cover-ups of sex abuse cases in the Archdiocese of Boston were revealed in court.)
“It was a breakthrough moment for me, painful as it was,” she says, “because it planted the seeds for She Who Is,” referring to her groundbreaking book of feminist theology. As Johnson drafted that text, Law’s words swirled in her head, fueling her passionate exploration of feminine images of God. The book was published in 1992, one year after Johnson left CUA for Fordham. (“I needed to be in a place where I could do my work without always looking over my shoulder worrying about being silenced or criticized by the hierarchy.”)
She Who Is won several awards in religious publishing, but more importantly it became one of the most used texts for teaching Catholic feminist theology. Remarkably, the book received no flak from the Vatican or the U.S. bishops. For the next 20 years, Johnson was able to focus on her research, devote herself fully to her students, travel the world teaching feminist theology, and write several more books on the subject. That was, until three years ago.
The Quest incident, of course, took place during the reign of Benedict XVI. With Pope Francis’ seeming interest in embracing more of the church’s flock, rather than subjecting them to orthodoxy tests like the previous papacy, some have hoped that, eventually, the Vatican might be open to engaging with work like Johnson’s. Last July when Francis suggested during a press conference that the church needs a deeper theology of women, several progressive Catholic publications made lists of books in feminist theology from which the pope might benefit. While at least one of Johnson’s books appeared on each of those lists, she doubts that Francis is even aware that a book like She Who Is exists.
“There’s been no structure for women’s voices to reach him,” she says. “It’s been translated into several languages, so he can even read it in Spanish or Italian!”
Though the pope continues to insist on a special role for women in the church, he has appealed to the notion of the feminine genius to argue against the ordination of women. “The church has spoken and said no,” Francis said about female priests during the July press conference. “John Paul II, in a definitive formulation, said that door is closed.” Like his papal predecessors, Francis also sees no room for dialogue on the topic. “The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion,” he wrote in his first apostolic exhortation in November.
Francis’ position echoes the attitudes of many Catholics, especially ones outside the U.S. and Europe. In a poll sponsored by Univision in early February, 12,000 Catholics from 12 different countries were asked their opinion of church teachings on issues of sexuality and gender. While in the U.S. 59% of Catholics supported the ordination of women, in the Philippines the number plummeted to 21%. And in Uganda and the Congo, the number dipped to 18%. In Latin America, home to nearly 40% of the world’s Catholics, support for the ordination edged out a small but victorious 49% over the 47% who disagree with women priests.
And yet one of the more notable ways Johnson has seen feminist theology bear fruit was in the response of some traditional Catholic women to Pope Francis’ call for a deeper theology of women: Rather than agreeing with the pontiff, many insisted that a theology of men must also be developed, or better yet, an all-inclusive theology of the laity.
“The conversation has gotten far enough that the issue, as the pope named it, is now seen as anachronistic,” Johnson says. “If some of the most conservative, church-oriented women don’t want this any more, it’s exciting. When we talk about the future of feminist theology, I can’t ever see it going backwards.”
Johnson says that she never set out to be a reformer, only a teacher and a scholar. “But it turns out,” she chuckles, “that my work became a lightning rod for the reform movement.”
Though her years of scholarship have yet to influence the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, it continues to impact new generations of her students and she remains as devoted to them as to the church. “If you feel deeply enough, you stay,” she says. “Not because you’re a masochist, but because it’s worth it. You’re struggling for the soul of something.” She admits, though, that she is concerned about the conflicts that the new generation of feminist theologians may face with members of the hierarchy. And she is aware that many theologians will choose to refrain from publishing feminist articles until after they receive tenure.
After 30 years of advocating for reforms in the church’s teachings on women, how does Johnson remain patient with the hierarchy? “Partly by blocking it out! You’ll go crazy if you don’t.”
She picks up a small picture frame from her desk, and shows me a photo she took while teaching in South Africa in the late 1980s. Apartheid was still the law of the land, Nelson Mandela sat in prison, and army tanks were positioned on every street corner.
Walking by a pastel-colored building in Cape Town, Johnson noticed that it had been defaced with very thick, black paint. “Hang Mandela,” the wall read. Johnson invites me to look closer at the photo. Someone had used a pencil to add a small, but mighty preposition, transforming the graffiti to read “Hang On Mandela.”
“Someone took and turned that message in the darkest of days,” Johnson says, tearing up at the memory. She saw this sign just before returning to the United States to be interrogated by the cardinals. “That picture has become my answer to why I stay in the church.”
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