Listening to Elizabeth Johnson: The Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

1 Comment(s) | Posted | by Angela Senander |

By Angela Senander


On the feast of the Assumption, Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ thanked the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) for awarding her its Outstanding Leadership Award.  Her acceptance speech has the potential to both reflect and inform the relationship between LCWR and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).  Just as Johnson has learned from the leadership of women religious specifically and from the experiences of women more generally, so too has LCWR; as a matter of integrity this listening and learning will continue to shape LCWR’s relationship with the CDF.

Speaking to hundreds of elected leaders of communities of women religious, Johnson highlighted the influence of elected leaders in her own community on her vocation as a theologian.  Johnson recalled her superior’s support as she approached the tenure process at Catholic University amidst criticism from some bishops for an article she had written: “…our General Superior Sister John Raymond McGann advised me to stay the course: ‘Don’t do this if it kills you.  But try to find joy in the cross of criticism.  Don’t strive to be so orthodox and safe that you sell short the ministry of the theologian and lose your way.  The real victory is your integrity’.”[1]   In the context of this 2014 assembly, these words could be heard as an affirmation of LCWR’s response to the CDF’s 2012 doctrinal assessment.  The leadership of LCWR has experienced the doctrinal assessment as a “cross of criticism” for speakers it has chosen for its assemblies; for corporate dissent by leadership teams of religious communities expressed to the CDF regarding the ordination of women and pastoral responses to homosexual persons; for silence on abortion and euthanasia; and for the effect of “radical feminism” on its articulation of the faith.[2]  LCWR does not find these criticisms an accurate or fair assessment of its work.  As LCWR works with the CDF and with Bishop Peter Sartain, who was appointed as the delegate to oversee its activities, the leadership of LCWR has stressed its desire to respond with integrity.

After Johnson reflected generally on her ministry as a theologian, she reflected specifically on her development as a feminist theologian, accepting the award as “a tribute to women who do theology in this vein and to men whose theology has an eye for inclusive justice” (p.4) Through its choice of speaker, LCWR signaled a continued commitment to attend to the experiences of women, even as the commitment is arguably the primary source of tension with the Vatican.  In April CDF Prefect Cardinal Gerhard Mueller publicly disapproved of the selection of Johnson and called for the implementation of the doctrinal assessment’s mandate of episcopal oversight in the selection of awardees for future assemblies.

In light of Mueller’s criticism, Johnson spoke also of the USCCB Doctrinal Committee’s criticism of her book Quest for the Living God.  She said, “Yes, Quest was criticized, but to this day no one—not myself, nor the theological community, nor the media, nor the general public—knows what doctrinal issue is at stake” (p.4). She notes that the criticism of her book and of LCWR share a common dynamic: “A judgment made somewhere that ‘this is harmful’ gets picked up, amplified, taken for granted and repeated.  The adverse reaction becomes institutionalized” (p.5). She praised the response of LCWR to seek reconciliation with the CDF through honest dialogue.

Johnson offers multiple frameworks for interpreting the conflict between the CDF and LCWR. First, she highlights longstanding tensions between the prophetic role of religious communities living the Gospel radically and the governing role of bishops maintaining order.  Second, she highlights the tension between men in positions of power that desire obedience and competent women whose obedience is directed toward God and shaped through discernment.  Third, echoing Pope Francis, she highlights the tension between the ecclesial center and the periphery, where so many religious serve. 

Johnson invites Mueller, who listened to and learned from the poor of Peru, to do likewise in relationship to American women religious.  LCWR and the leader of the CDF share a common commitment to the poor, which Johnson hopes might provide “common ground for mutual understanding” (p.7).  She advocates resolution of the conflict so that the time and energy of both organizations might better serve the needs of the Church and world.






[1] Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSJ,  “Remarks for Leadership Award Dinner—Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Nashville, TN, August 15, 2014,” 2,

[2] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious” (18 April 2012), 2-3,


  1. sebastián mier sj's avatar
    sebastián mier sj
    | Permalink
    yo imaginé que iba a encontrar algo más concreto en torno a contenidos; pero no, es algo previo referente a actitudes. lo cual también es válido e importante. y creo que son actitudes a la par dignas, valientes y humildes; como Jesús, el apóstolo Pablo y el Vaticano II nos han enseñado. y antes del concilio los teólogos que primero fueron silenciados y luego se convirtieron en peritos conciliares. y también lo que el papa Francisco está impulsando, sobre todo en Evangelii Gaudium y ahora en el sínodo sobre la familia. esperamos que el desarrollo tenga frutos conforme al Evangelio.

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