Most readers will be blissfully unaware of the Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson. I read one of her books year ago — in Protestant seminary of course. However, she recently came into conflict with the U.S. Bishops’ committee on doctrine regarding her book Quest for the Living God. They raised objections several months ago, and had her submit a response which is called “Observations.” Having carefully considered her book and her attempted clarifications (read: obfuscations), they have now issued their official response. It is a perfect model of careful discernment. (In contrast to that document issued by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace several days ago.)
It’s online here.
The entire document is worth reading, but I call your attention to a section in which the committee challenges her defense of an entirely materialist understanding of what science has shown about human evolution. As is typical in Catholic circles, they draw a black line when it comes to the origin of human consciousness. But the basis on the which they do so is, well, right up our alley. Here’s one of the money quotes:
Science could account for life, consciousness, and self-consciousness, however, only if these were wholly the result of the interplay of material forces. While an adherent of a materialist philosophy would readily agree that material factors account for all reality, this accords neither with Catholic teaching, nor with sound philosophical argumentation.
Although a scientific explanation of life in purely material terms already presents considerable difficulties that could be discussed, the crucial issue is that of self-consciousness. Simply put, human self-consciousness cannot be wholly explained as the result of material causes. The multiple neurons of the physical brain cannot account for the unitary self- consciousness of the human person. The functioning of the brain cannot of itself explain human acts of knowing and willing. This has been amply demonstrated by various philosophical arguments. There is therefore one stage in evolution that cannot be fully accounted for by scientific explanation, that of the appearance of self-conscious intelligence and free will.
Human beings necessarily come to be as part of the material universe. Bodily existence is an intrinsic part of human nature. Consequently, scientific investigation has a great deal to teach us about the human person and human society. At the same time, there is something about the human person that transcends material realities and that escapes the grasp of scientific investigation. There must be another, a non-material explanation for the existence of this aspect of the human person. There is a range of philosophical attempts to provide an explanation. The Catholic Church teaches that the human soul is not the result of material forces, such as the bodies of the parents, but is created immediately by God.
Bingo. Now all we need to do is to persuade the Bishops (and everyone else) that human consciousness is not the exception, but the rule. Human consciousness can’t be subjugated to purely material explanation; but neither can proteins and trivial little systems in single-cell organisms.