Doctrine Committee Chairman Gives Rationale for Critiquing Quest for the Living God

WASHINGTON—Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, chair of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, sent a resource to bishops, April 18, outlining the relationship between bishops and theologians. Cardinal Wuerl acted in light of interest in a March 24 Doctrine Committee critique of the book Quest fo

WASHINGTON—Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, chair of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, sent a resource to bishops, April 18, outlining the relationship between bishops and theologians.

Cardinal Wuerl acted in light of interest in a March 24 Doctrine Committee critique of the book Quest for the Living God: Mapping the Frontiers of the Theology of God, by Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson, a Sister of St. Joseph of Brentwood, New York and professor at Fordham University. He particularly cited criticism from the Catholic Theological Society of America.

The Doctrine Committee asserted in late March that Quest for the Living God as a work of Catholic theology “does not take the faith of the Church as its starting point” and said “the author employs standards from outside the faith to criticize and to revise in a radical fashion the conception of God revealed in Scripture and taught by the Magisterium.”

In the April 18 document, “Bishops as Teachers: A Resource for Bishops,” Cardinal Wuerl stresses that “it is the specific competence and responsibility of bishops to teach the faith in its entirety.” He cites the 1992 document from the Committee on Doctrine, The Teaching Ministry of the Diocesan Bishop, that asserts that bishops “are to determine authoritatively the correct interpretation of the Scripture and tradition committed to the Church...and they are to judge for the Church the accuracy of the presentation of this revelation by others.”

The resource can be found at

Cardinal Wuerl highlights the importance of the role of theologians and their necessary interrelationship with bishops.

“It is the privilege of theologians to delve more profoundly and systematically into the meaning of the faith, according to the ancient adage, fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding). Since this faith is handed on by the Church through the ministry of the magisterium, the bishop and the theologian have a special relationship that can and should be reciprocally enriching.” He cites again The Teaching Ministry of the Diocesan Bishop, which states that “the Church cannot exist without the teaching office of the bishop, nor thrive without the sound scholarship of the theologian. Bishops and theologians are in a collaborative relationship.Bishops benefit from the work of theologians, while theologians gain a deeper understanding of revelation under the guidance of the magisterium. The ministry of bishops and the service rendered by theologians entail a mutual respect and support.”

Cardinal Wuerl likens the bishop to a referee in a sports match, and states that it is the responsibility of the bishop to step in at certain points and to declare that certain theological ideas are not in accord with the faith of the Church.

“To be sure, as in other disciplines the most effective check on fruitless investigation is the vigorous exercise of peer review, critique, and dialogue, as once was a strong tradition in the theological disciplines,” he says. “When that peer review is absent or ineffective, however, it is the responsibility of the bishop to make the call and to declare, if necessary, certain notions out of bounds, the bounds of Christian revelation.”

The statement notes that since Quest for the Living God is being used at the college undergraduate level, the Doctrine Committee needed to highlight its deficiencies.

“The book in question is an already published work not primarily directed to professional theologians for theological speculation, but rather one used as a teaching instrument for undergraduate students, many of whom are looking for grounding in their Catholic faith,” Cardinal Wuerl says. “The background against which the bishops must exercise their teaching responsibility today is the generally recognized catechetical deficiencies of past decades beginning with the 1970s. The result is a generation or more of Catholics, including young adults today, who have little solid intellectual formation in their faith. It is in this context that books used in religious studies/theology courses at Catholic colleges and universities must be seen as de facto catechetical and formational texts. While the content of a book may be highly speculative and of interest for trained theologians, when it is used in a classroom with students often ill-prepared to deal with speculative theology the results can be spiritually harmful. The bishops are rightly concerned about the spiritual welfare of those students using this book who may be led to assume that its content is authentic Catholic teaching. The Committee on Doctrine expresses serious concern about the pastoral implications of the teaching in this book.”

The statement adds that “the circumstances involving the teaching of theology within Catholic universities and colleges have significantly changed. Undergraduates are now offered a variety of texts within introductory theology/religion courses. While many of the texts can be quite helpful in presenting the faith and teaching of the Catholic Church, there are others that cause confusion and raise doubt among students. Some texts can even be understood as offering an alternative pastoral and spiritual guidance to students in contrast to the teaching magisterium. This is especially a concern given the current diminished level of catechetical preparation of so many young students. In the light of this changed academic situation special attention must now be given as to how to address theological works that are aimed at students and yet do not meet criteria for authentic Catholic teaching.”

The statement also addresses concerns that the committee criticized Quest for the Living Godwithout addressing concerns with the author first and had not followed the bishops’ own 1989 document Doctrinal Responsibilities, which was intended to promote cooperation in resolving misunderstandings between individual diocesan bishops and theologians.

Doctrinal Responsibilities did not address the special responsibilities of the Committee on Doctrine of our national Episcopal conference,” the statement says. “In addition the document is presented for consideration as one way of proceeding but not as obligatory.” Cardinal Wuerl also said that the 1989 statement makes it clear that these suggested guidelines “can only serve if they are adapted to the particular conditions, of a diocese, its history and its special needs.”

The resource adds that “the Doctrine Committee does not wish to stifle legitimate theological reflection or to preclude further dialogue, but it does want to ensure that the authentic teaching of the Church, concerning doctrine and morals, is clearly stated and affirmed. While dialogue between theologians and bishops is very important it should work along side of the bishops’ primary teaching and sanctifying mission.”

“The Committee on Doctrine recognizes the legitimate vocations of the theologian as well as of the bishop. The Committee hopes that the discussion generated by its statement will help lead to a renewal and foster a proper and fruitful relationship between the bishops and the whole theological community,” the resource adds.


Keywords: Doctrine, U.S. Bishops, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Sister Elizabeth Johnson, Quest for the Living God, catechesis

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