Sister Elizabeth Johnson of Brentwood, criticized by Vatican, gets LI nuns' support

Sister Elizabeth Johnson, one of the most prominent

Sister Elizabeth Johnson, one of the most prominent Catholic theologians in the U.S. is a Sister of St. Joseph of Brentwood. Pictured in November 2011. (Credit: Fordham University)

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Nuns on Long Island are rallying to defend one of their own, a pioneering theologian and member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood who has come under heavy Vatican criticism for views and writings the church hierarchy says fail to uphold Catholic doctrine.

A top Vatican official recently denounced Sister Elizabeth Johnson, author of "Quest for the Living God" and longtime Fordham University professor, on top of earlier condemnation from United States bishops. Nuns in the United States, in general, are under a Vatican probe for similar reasons.

Now, nuns from the Brentwood order and the Dominican Sisters of Amityville are holding an event aimed in part at counteracting the critiques.

At the Motherhouse of the Dominican Sisters on Thursday, they plan to screen the documentary film "Band of Sisters," which examines the varied work of nuns across the United States, including two who advocate for the rights of immigrant detainees.

"I'm proud of who we are as women religious. I'm proud of what we've accomplished," said Sister Margaret Galiardi, a member of the Dominican Sisters of Amityville who appears in the film and is coordinating the screening. "We're not taking our bearings from all the politics at the Vatican."

Johnson's 2007 book, used at many Catholic colleges, explores the imagery of God in the Bible through the eyes of the poor, women, people of color, Holocaust victims and non-Catholics. One chapter is called "God Acting Womanish." Another is "Accompanying God of Fiesta."

U.S. bishops have criticized the book for what they call "misrepresentations, ambiguities and errors." They have said, for instance, that Johnson essentially calls for the replacement, in certain cases, of the masculine language traditionally used to refer to God.

They also said the book "does not take the faith of the Church as its starting point. Instead, 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," the church's teaching authority.

In late April, Cardinal Gerhard Muller, the head of the Vatican's doctrinal office, excoriated the nuns' main umbrella organization, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, for deciding to honor Johnson at its annual conference in August.

"This is a decision that will be seen as a rather open provocation against the Holy See and the Doctrinal Assessment. Not only that, but it further alienates the LCWR from the bishops as well," Muller told the conference's leaders in comments later made public.

Johnson's order and many other Catholics -- both locally and across the nation -- are stalwart in supporting her, saying academic freedom is among the issues at stake. Johnson is a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, the world's oldest and largest society of theologians.

Sister Helen Kearney, head of the Brentwood order, said, "There is a need for greater understanding and patience to understand that we are really all about trying to find ways for the church to open its doors and include the poor and the suffering, and to have the loving presence of God revealed in multiple ways."

The award from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious "is a wonderful moment for Beth and for our congregation," Kearney said, noting that Johnson "is being honored for her work in scholarship in the field of theology, and her openness to always dialogue -- as the LCWR is trying to do with the Vatican."

Johnson did not respond to requests for comment.

Frederick Bauerschmidt, head of the theology department at Loyola College in Maryland, said the dispute between the Vatican and the nuns "is like watching an argument between members of my family, and wishing they could find some way to deal with their disagreement in a way that's not going to do any permanent damage to their relationship."

Another Brentwood nun, Sister Pat Mahoney, who is on the order's leadership team, has joined Galiardi in organizing the screening.

Mahoney said nuns in the United States, including her order, have made incalculable contributions to the church, particularly in running parochial schools.

"We are killing ourselves to make sure that these schools go on, because they are wonderful vehicles for the Gospel," she said.

The U.S. nuns' clash with the Vatican dates to 2008, when Rome, then under Pope Benedict XVI, announced it was launching an "inquiry" into 59,000 nuns in the United States, excluding only cloistered nuns. The Vatican said it was concerned about the nuns' prayer lives, declining ranks and "fidelity to church teachings."

After sending emissaries to visit many of the orders, the Vatican issued a report in 2012 accusing the nuns of promoting "radical feminism" and failing to support official church doctrine on abortion, same-sex marriage and the all-male priesthood.

The nuns denied the allegations and said the Vatican's assessment was skewed.

The Vatican also appointed a special delegate to oversee the rewriting of the statutes of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, review its plans and approve speakers at its programs. In April, Muller said the Vatican will begin to exercise the latter mandate after August.

The clash has left a bad taste for many U.S. Catholics, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior analyst for The National Catholic Reporter.

"This is certainly an issue that he [Pope Francis] is going to have to deal with eventually," Reese said, "because American Catholics love their nuns, and they don't like to see the bishops or the Vatican beating up on them."

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