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Scholarship Fund Extends the Legacy of Acclaimed Feminist Theologian

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In April 2018, when a beloved Fordham theologian appeared before a standing-room-only crowd for her final public event before retiring from the faculty, a collection was underway—one that would help other women advance in an academic field that has long been the province of men.

The event at the Lincoln Center campus brought Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., distinguished professor of theology, together in conversation with the prominent author James Martin, S.J.

During the buoyant conversation focused on her then-new book, Creation and the Cross: The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril (her 11th), Father Martin credited her writings with changing his life. “Thank you,” he said, “for doing so much for making contemporary theology, feminist theology, and especially Christology so accessible to the general reader.”

Admission to the event was free, but attendees were asked to consider donating to a fund for women following in Sister Johnson’s footsteps.

Many were happy to oblige. Their gifts helped to grow the Elizabeth A. Johnson Endowed Scholarship Fund, which helps to bring more women’s voices and experiences into theological teaching and scholarship. With the field of theology—and particularly Catholic theology—dominated by men for so long, “having women involved in the whole field of thinking about religion is a great benefit,” said Christine Firer Hinze, Ph.D., theology department chair at the University.

Every year, the scholarship financially supports a woman who is finishing her doctoral dissertation, allowing her to focus full-time on her research. “When a student has a concentrated period of time to really dig in and get the dissertation done, not only does that produce a better dissertation, but it also produces more professional opportunities for the student,” said Patrick Hornbeck, D.Phil., theology professor and interim dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Providing such academic support is one goal of the University’s current fundraising campaign, Cura Personalis | For Every Fordham Student. Recent gifts have moved the scholarship toward providing a full year of financial support, but fundraising continues.

A Pathbreaking Career

Fordham’s graduate program in theology is highly selective, admitting only a few students per year and providing each with five years’ worth of financial support, Firer Hinze said. Students often need a sixth year to complete their dissertations, though, which is where the Elizabeth Johnson Scholarship comes in.

The scholarship was established in 2007 with a gift from Valerie Vincent, GSAS ’99, whom Sister Johnson had mentored. More than 100 other donors have contributed to it since then, often out of deep respect for her gifts as a teacher and her pathbreaking career.

A 27-year member of the Fordham faculty, Professor Johnson is internationally known for her work in Catholic systematic theology, feminist theology, ecological theology, and other fields. One of the most influential Catholic theologians in the world, she has received 15 honorary doctorates, many book prizes, and thousands of messages of thanks from believers inspired and heartened by her work.

In her particularly influential 2007 book, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, she examined how God is understood differently by men, women, the poor and oppressed, Holocaust victims, and people of a variety of faiths. Writing in The American Catholic, Joseph Cunneen called it “one of the most important and provocative books on theology to have appeared in the U.S. since Vatican II,” and religion students at universities everywhere commonly find it on the syllabus.

Her career has inspired women everywhere, Hornbeck said. In the decades following the Second Vatican Council, Sister Johnson and some of her colleagues “were the first women who really established themselves in the Catholic theological academy,” he said. “Beth, being one of the first women in that group, made it a special point throughout her career to nurture and to mentor and invest in the women theologians who were coming along behind her.”

He noted that she was the first woman to achieve tenure in the theology department at the Catholic University of America and one of the first women to serve as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

Inspired Teaching

Among those who attended Sister Johnson’s public talk in 2018 were Thomas M. Lamberti, FCRH ’52, and his wife, Eileen Lamberti, a former member of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph who met Sister Johnson in 1959, just after they both joined the religious order.

After getting reacquainted with Sister Johnson at a Fordham event a few decades ago, she and Thomas started attending more of her appearances. “My husband and I are great believers in her role in theology and promoting women, so Tom and I were very interested in supporting her,” she said.

Sister Johnson has won praise for presenting complex ideas in an engaging way and stimulating students’ interest and interaction in class. Eileen Lamberti sat in on one of Sister Johnson’s courses and saw that when a question was posed, “many, many hands went up”—the kind of strong response that shows a great teacher at work, she said.

Another supporter of the scholarship fund, Margaret Sharkey, PCS ’15, a former student of Sister Johnson’s, found her to be a “a natural storyteller” and a thoughtful listener.

Thomas Lamberti noted that as a retired labor lawyer, he found the scholarship’s equity aspect appealing. “Women theologians play a particular role, I think, of importance to the church, as they have a different view than men about many things,” he said.

In an interview, Sister Johnson said “it’s a whole new thing” to have women coming into the theology profession after nearly 2,000 years of men’s predominance.

“Those who contribute to this scholarship are supporting that—that women’s voice be heard in religious matters,” she said.

She said that St. Thomas Aquinas’ definition of women as “deficient men,” the governing idea in Catholicism and other traditions for centuries, needs to be countered with an “anthropology of equal giftedness” that opens theology to the experiences of women of color, the LGBTQ+ community, the poor, and others.

Diverse schools of thought, methods, and interpretations are springing up among women who are theologians, “so it’s very, very vibrant and lively,” she said. “It’s very difficult to keep up in the field now, because so much is being done on so many fronts.”

A Young Scholar Strikes Gold

Meg Stapleton Smith, the current recipient of the Elizabeth Johnson Scholarship, is in formation to be an Episcopal priest. She said the scholarship made a pivotal difference in her dissertation research focused on Mary Daly, the self-described “radical lesbian feminist” and key figure in modern feminist theology. It gave her the financial latitude to explore Daly’s archives at Smith College, where she found an unpublished manuscript—“the young scholar’s dream,” she said—that Daly wrote between the publication of her books The Church and the Second Sex in 1968 and Beyond God the Father in 1973.

The unfinished manuscript offers insight into Daly’s seemingly sudden decision to leave the Catholic Church, Smith said, and it also offers insight into other works of someone who is often dismissed by many Catholic thinkers because of her departure, Smith said. She has a contract with Cambridge University Press to publish the manuscript in an edited volume containing several feminist scholars’ reflections on it.

“This is somebody who really knew the tradition, and really knew it well—somebody who went to Switzerland to get a doctoral degree in theology when women weren’t even allowed to get Ph.D.s in theology in the United States,” she said.

“Mary Daly had this very robust understanding of the virtues,” Smith said. “One of the things that she said is the way that virtues operate, at least in Catholic moral theology, they tend to not break open our imagination. So she wanted people to understand the virtues as these tools that can help bring about societal transformation and personal liberation.”

In her dissertation, she draws upon Daly’s ideas in juxtaposing the virtue of courage with Catholic sexual ethics and seeing it as a way to counteract sexual shame. In the dissertation, she said, she argues that “when we act courageously, these are actually actions that bring us closer to God.”

Sister Johnson called it humbling and amazing to see the scholarship’s growth.

“It’s like a gift to your life that says, ‘Something that I was passionate about, and devoted all my energy to, is going to go forward in these students, these women who get the scholarship,’” she said. “It’s wonderful.”

To inquire about giving in support of the Elizabeth A. Johnson Endowed Scholarship Fund or another area of the University, please contact Michael Boyd, senior associate vice president for development and university relations, at 212-636-6525 or mboyd7@fordham.edu. Learn more about Cura Personalis | For Every Fordham Student, our campaign to reinvest in every aspect of the Fordham student experience.

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