Healing the Wounds with Tea: Why Francis Should Visit Sr. Elizabeth Johnson


Healing the Wounds with Tea: Why Francis Should Visit Sr. Elizabeth Johnson #WSFD

In a recent article in America, Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, RSM, the former spokeswoman for the US Bishops, proposed a new course of action for how the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith should address Women Religious in the United States. Rather than continuing the many years of investigations, she proposes that the CDF simply say “Thank You” to women religious for their heroic contribution to the church’s mission. Such an action would go a long way in building communion in the church. “A wounding verbal scrimmage of ecclesial boys and girls” she writes, “would be any newspaper’s dream but would cause harm to church unity, something the nuns are loath to do.”

The online comments to this article were telling. While many  expressed their support for Sr. Walsh’s proposal, other commentators made unconstructive and hate-filled remarks accusing women religious of betraying their mission, equating them to Nazis, and placing blame of them for the rise of ISIS (really?!?) . Eventually, America was forced to close the comments section for this article and deleted some of the more offensive posts.

The reaction to Walsh’s column highlights one of the major faultlines in US Catholicism today. Women religious and their role in the church and society has long been a continuous issue (even going back a century to when the Vatican first refused to allow the formation of of the Maryknoll Sisters). In recent years, this debate has taken on new dynamics. Many committed Catholics simply do not understand the recent investigations of women religious from Vatican offices. I know at least three young committed women who say that they have left or have thought of leaving the church because of how women religious have been treated.

As Walsh’s article a makes clear, women religious have been and continue to be a backbone of the church’s public presence in society. A recent book, for example, asks what the world would be like if nuns ruled the worlda chapter from that book that focusing on the heroic work of women religious in stopping slavery can be found here.o-LCWR-facebook1-672x372

In his upcoming visit to the United States, Pope Francis cannot ignore this dynamic and tension. No pope can overlook the contribution of women religious to American Catholicism and the present tension. Even if he chooses to remain silent on this issue, he will be saying something. If he, like previous popes, focuses his attention only on communities who perceive themselves as “traditional,” this would be a disaster.

There are many things he could do to address this rift in a constructive way – in a the spirit of mercy and encounter that have so characterized his papacy.

When in Washington, for example, he can meet the leaders of both the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (maybe Joe Biden—the “Catholic school kid”—could even be host the meeting, or maybe not ).

On his visit to Philadelphia, he could quietly go and visit a financially struggling community for elderly sisters to thank them for their service and witness.

Johnson's new book looks Darwin and the God of Love
Johnson’s new book looks Darwin and the God of Love

One of the best things he could do would be, in my view, would be to visit with Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, the Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University and one of the leading voices of women religious in the United States today. Johnson has spent decades working in Jesuit higher education and is one of the most respected feminist theologians of our time. As one of her former students, I can also attest to the fact that she is a magnanimous and authentic Christian who deeply loves the church and her vocation as theologian. It is the type of love for the church that is contagious.

She is also a controversial figure, for some. Her book, Quest for the Living God was critiqued by the US Bishops’ committee on doctrine in 2011 for “not adequately treating a Catholic understanding of God.” (See the response by the Catholic Theological Society of America) More recently, the choice of the LCWR’s 2014 Assembly to give her an award drew ire from a few bishops. Ultimately, these controversies have only served to deepen divisions in the church.

As a major theologian, leading figure among US women religious, and faithful Catholic, Pope Francis would benefit from a meeting  with Johnson on his visit to NY.

A pope visiting with a Fordham theology professor would not be unprecedented. In his 2008 visit to New York, Pope Benedict had a private meeting with Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ—a colleague of Johnson’s at Fordham.

Pope Benedict Meeting Avery Dulles, SJ on his visit to NY
Pope Benedict Meeting Avery Dulles, SJ on his visit to NY

Such a gesture would go a long way in healing the rift between the hierarchy and American women religious. Ideally, the conversation would not be a major public affair. Rather, the two figures could meet over tea or fair trade coffee. Topics could include  the role of women in theology, the situation of the LCWR, the vocation of teaching theology in a Jesuit institution, and the significance of Mary to the Christian tradition. After all, it was Pope Francis who identified the need for a “profound theology of women.” I would imagine that he would find Johnson’s scholarship on Mary to be especially valuable- given his own devotion. They may not, and would not have to, agree on everything or most things.

A meeting between Pope Francis and Johnson would not only help to build communion between the bishops and women religious, but it would also help to heal the wounds felt by many theologians.Perhaps after the meeting with Johnson, he might also meet with lay students and young faculty from Fordham and other nearby schools who feel called to the vocation of the theologian.

Why should we care about these divisions in the church? Why should we want to see to heal these wounds? In her address to the LCWR this summer, Johnson herself sums up this challenge in a convincing way:

When the needs of the suffering world are so vast; when the moral authority of the hierarchy is hemorrhaging due to financial scandals and to many bishops’ horrific dereliction of duty in covering up sexual abuse of children, a cover-up which continues in some quarters to this day; when thousands are drifting away from the church; when the liberating gospel of God’s abounding kindness needs to be heard and enacted everywhere: the waste of time and energy on this investigation is unconscionable. Wouldn’t it be great if we could be partners, not adversaries, for the good of the church and the world.


Let us pray that on his visit to the United States, that Pope Francis, no matter what he chooses to do, that his actions will contribute to healing these divides and engendering greater communion in light of mercy and encounter.

This post is part of Daily Theology’s Theological Shark Week VI: What Should Francis Do? See all the posts here.
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