Kathleen Cummings Small

When asked to identify my favorite Cushwa event, I’ll almost always name our most recent one. Hosting seminars, lectures, and conferences is a wonderful privilege, and I learn a great deal from each and every one of them. That said, there are certain events that loom especially large in my memory. September’s panel celebrating Elizabeth Johnson is certain to be one of them.

Personally, the event served as a bookend to Beth’s visit in 2003, when she delivered that year’s Cushwa Center Lecture. The topic was her recently published book, Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of the Saints. After the talk, one audience member, a mother of five and grandmother to many, complimented Beth on her lecture. She said it helped her see the mother of Jesus in a new way. “I never warmed to Mary,” she said, “and I wondered why. This is a Mary I can live with.” I had a similar reaction to Beth’s response to an audience question that I suspect she has heard many times: “Do you feel a conflict between being feminist and a Catholic?” Beth didn’t hesitate: “You know,” she said thoughtfully, “I’ve never really understood that question. It makes no sense to me.” She went on to explain how she always found her faith and feminism to be mutually reinforcing. I was just beginning my academic career at the time, and I did often feel a tension between the two. Her words were profoundly reassuring, and I often return to that moment when my own students pose similar questions.

Before that, I had only known Beth through her scholarship. I’ve welcomed the opportunity to interact with her personally on a number of occasions in the years since.

Last September we celebrated a double opportunity to get to know Beth even better: through Heidi Schlumpf’s new biography, Elizabeth Johnson: Questing for God, which renders Beth’s life so engagingly, and through Beth’s donation of her papers at the University Archives. Timothy Matovina deserves thanks for first extending an invitation to Beth to deposit her papers to Notre Dame around a decade ago. He renewed his invitation some years later, and I enthusiastically endorsed the idea when I succeeded Tim as director of the Cushwa Center. As archivist Kevin Cawley made clear, for many years to come these sources will help us to interpret Beth’s theology, ecclesiology, and feminism in the concrete context of her engagements with Church and society—admittedly fraught, at times, but invariably fruitful.

I am grateful to Beth, and to everyone who participated in our panel, for making it possible to celebrate her scholarship, her mentorship, her story, and her legacy.


—Kathleen Sprows Cummings

This column appears in the spring 2017 issue of the American Catholic Studies Newsletter. See the full table of contents