Monday, April 4, 2011

The Next Theologian to be Censured by the Church will be . . .

. . .announced at 6 pm, June 24 at the Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh Downtown Hotel. That is when the Catholic Press Association will hold its Annual Awards Banquet at which the First Place Book Award for Theology will announced. Winning the CPA book award in Theology has coincided so often with subsequent investigation by the U.S. Bishops’ Doctrine Committee or the Vatican, that another editor friend of mine once quipped, “CPA in the Spring, CDF in the Fall.”

When @NCRonline tweeted last week:

U.S. bishops blast book by feminist theologian; Elizabeth Johnson's Quest for Living God "undermines Gospel" http://ow.ly/4pQW2

Before I even clicked through to the story, and knowing nothing about Elizabeth Johnson, I suspected two things about her. First, her book probably won a CPA Theology award, and most likely, she is a former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. Sure enough, both are true.

Elizabeth Johnson’s Quest for the Living God won First Place in Theology at the 2008 CPA convention, and last week, the U.S. Bishops’ Doctrine Committee offered a 21 page critique of the Theology therein and found itself “obligated to state publicly that the doctrine of God presented in Quest for the Living God does not accord with authentic Catholic teaching on essential points.”

The U.S. Bishops’ Doctrine Committee made quicker work of CPA’s 2009 First Place winner in Theology, The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology, by Todd A. Salzman & Michael G. Lawler. The CPA award committee said of the book:

For more than twenty-five years Roman Catholic moral theologians have struggled to speak and write candidly and clearly on controverted aspects of sexual ethics. The reasons are well known and frequently rehearsed. In this book by Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler, serious Catholics have an honest and forthright presentation of the complex and challenging background to many of the most perplexing questions of sexual morality in our time. Framing their study around a clear and consistent Lonerganian hermeneutic, the authors guide us with breathtaking frankness through marital morality, cohabitation, and homosexuality. This work is a tour de force.

The bishops did not see it that way. Concluding their 24 page report on the book, the bishops write:

The Committee on Doctrine wishes to make it clear that neither the methodology of The Sexual Person nor the conclusions that depart from authoritative Church teaching constitute authentic expressions of Catholic theology. Moreover, such conclusions, clearly in contradiction to the authentic teaching of the Church, cannot provide a true norm for moral action and in fact are harmful to one's moral and spiritual life.

Another CPA First Place Theology winner was Jesus Symbol of God by Roger Haight, SJ. The book was so rife with error in regard to the divinity of Jesus, his resurrection and his position as savior, that a 2004 Vatican notification on the book, personally approved by Pope John Paul II, prohibited the Jesuit (and CTSA past-president) from teaching Catholic theology.

There are more, but lets move to another CPA award category that has become just as predictable and dubious. On June 24, National Catholic Reporter will win the CPA award for Best National Catholic Newspaper. If they don’t, it’ll be the first time somebody else has won in 12 years.

In choosing National Catholic Reporter, year in and year out, the CPA demonstrates the same ideological bias present in its selection of book awards – and they don’t remotely try to hide that bias. In its citation for the Reporter’s 2008 First Place, the award committee wrote (emphases added):

The Reporter offers, by far, the most insight into Catholic issues of any entry in this category. It is serious in tone and committed to the faith, yet its articles go beyond the reinforcement of dogma to explore in a sophisticated way how the church is being challenged in the 21st century and how it’s reacting. Readers of the Reporter come away with an in-depth understanding of how faith, culture and politics intersect – and with a sense that the editors appreciate their readers’ intelligence enough to offer a balanced view.

Not to take anything away from the fine things that do appear in the Reporter, but the CPA award committee seems to explicitly grant favor to the publication because of its dissent from Church teaching. One can’t help think, given the track record, that favoring dissent is a criterion in the selection of book awards as well.

In contrast, the citation accompanying National Catholic Register’s Third Place finish in 2008, seems to indicate the publication was disfavored for its lack of dissent:

The Register is largely unquestioning in its loyalty to church teachings and policies, but it carries out its apparent mission of supporting the church in a big way.

In 2009 and 2010, the Reporter won First Place for the 10th and 11th consecutive years. There were no second or third place winners. It makes you wonder why editors and bishop-publishers who strive for “loyalty to church teachings” return every year to seek approbation from an organization that clearly doesn’t value that commitment.