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Voices Online Edition
Michaelmas 2001, Volume XVI No. 3
Other Voices: Pope Joan?
By Donna Steichen
Obedience is little admired today, except in dogs. No virtue has less appeal to popular taste. If you say that a man is faithful to his duty, many people will think you mean he is dull. To say that a writer "has a firm grasp of moral principles", won't attract many readers to his work. But describe his writing as "irreverent" and your words will be considered praise.
In current idiom, insubordination is called "creativity," or "thinking outside the box". No one ever says what is inside the box. Maybe it is the Ten Commandments or the Bill of Rights. The multiplication tables. Basic Clinical Pharmacology. Maybe it's a sacred vow. Thinking outside any of those boxes can lead to real trouble.
We see so much disobedience around us that it only becomes news if it is highly sensational. As summer 2001 melted toward fall, the religious identity of one protagonist, and her recourse to media, made her case newsworthy.
Sister Joan Chittister, former prioress of Mount Saint Benedict Monastery in Erie, Pennsylvania, is a feminist nun who has retained canonical status even as her view of God evolved from "a God of rules and laws" to an impersonal vision of "cosmic unity greater than doctrines or denominations". 1
From her doctoral degree in speech communication theory she has developed an impressive résumé of dissent. Past president of Leadership Conference of Women Religious, sometime columnist for National Catholic Reporter, founding director of Benetvision, an audio-video resource center offering materials on contemporary spirituality, most of them her own books, tapes and videos -- Sister Joan is a ubiquitous speaker. She has addressed Call to Action conferences, and once played chief "celebrant" at its "eucharist". She has been interviewed on a Sixty Minutes television special about Call to Action, addressed Chautauqua audiences, delivered the Annual Jerry Mische Memorial Lecture to veterans of the anti-Vietnam war movement, addressed ex-priests at their CORPUS convention, traveled to Beijing by Orient Express for the UN's 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, spoken to the National Catholic Education Association (in April this year) -- despite the objections of several bishops -- and shared a relativist seminar platform with Marcus Borg of the Jesus Seminar. 2
Absolutely everything reminds Sister Joan of the oppression of women by the patriarchal Church, which she denounces in steaming rhetoric at head tables and lecterns wherever she goes. A typical example is her 1994 Call to Action keynote speech, in which she said, "faced with a choice between maleness and sacraments, the Church has chosen for maleness. Faced with a choice between sexuality and sacraments, the Church has chosen for celibacy. The new golden calf in the ecclesiastical desert is, therefore, an unmarried man.... We need idol smashers aplenty if this Church is ever to reach the promised land". 3
Sister Joan agreed to address an optimistically titled the First Annual Conference on Women's Ordination Worldwide (WOW) in June this year, in Dublin. Following protocol, the Holy See's Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life wrote Sister Joan's superior, Erie prioress Sister Christine Vladimiroff, directing her to forbid the former prioress to attend the WOW meeting, under obedience, on pain of unspecified "just penalties".
What followed was an exhibition of breathtaking arrogance. Prioress Vladimiroff described it in a press release posted on the monastery's website:
The Vatican believed her participation to be in opposition to its decree (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis) that priestly ordination will never be conferred on women in the Roman Catholic Church and must, therefore, never be discussed.... I spent many hours discussing the issue with Sister Joan and traveled to Rome to dialogue about it with Vatican officials. I sought the advice of bishops, religious leaders, canonists, other prioresses, and most importantly, my religious community, the Benedictine Sisters of Erie.... I concluded that I would decline the request of the Vatican. There is a fundamental difference in the understanding of obedience in the monastic tradition and that which is being used by the Vatican.... Benedictine authority and obedience are achieved through dialogue between a member and her prioress in a spirit of co-responsibility.... The role of the prioress in a Benedictine community is to be a center of unity and a guide in the seeking of God ... [but] it is the individual member who does the seeking. Sister Joan Chittister, who has lived the monastic life with faith and fidelity for 50 years, must make her own decision
Prioress Vladimiroff's remarks confirm that Sister Joan was fully informed of the contents of the Vatican letter, and that she, rather than the prioress, decided not to obey. The prioress says she also discussed the Holy See's letter exhaustively with the 128 members of the Erie community, who subsequently voted for disobedience 127 to 1.
Several other Benedictine monasteries sent messages supporting disobedience, too. Having thus redefined Benedictine obedience as general dialogue, Prioress Vladimiroff gave Sister Joan written assurance of her decision "not to deliver" the Vatican letter to Sister Joan at all. 4
So Sister Joan headed off to Dublin, claiming that Benedictine disobedience is really a higher obedience. "I was not trying to be defiant", she later told an admiring reporter from the Los Angeles Times. "I was honestly, genuinely, committed to the notion that silence and silencing is not good for the church".
Sister Joan added that she likes to think of herself as a hollow statue of a prophet, speaking for the Holy Spirit. "The writer is only a channel, an empty reed for the voice that comes through", she said. "You have to be utterly truthful, totally empty of self and complete in the giving of the gift". 5
The appeal of sixties radicalism
Why are Sister Joan's speeches so much in demand? She is a vivacious speaker, with an air of impassioned conviction. She is also a sixties leftist, speaking, most often, to a choir of fellow sixties leftists. Her talks are perfectly suited to their tastes: a torrent of familiar clichés about poor women, demands for redistribution of the world's wealth, condemnations of the Church for teaching that contraception is immoral, for this caused overpopulation and poverty. (The U.S. Census Bureau and the United Nations Population Division, however, now predict a population implosion by mid-century.)
Sister Joan is angered by the exclusion of women from the priesthood. She demands that women and homosexuals be involved in Church policy-making. She strenuously advocates "inclusive" liturgical language and declines to use either masculine pronouns in reference to God or feminine pronouns in reference to the Church.
Call to Action, the chief umbrella organization for Catholic dissenters in the US, has some 20,000 members, most of them edging into senior citizenship. They worry about attrition, fearing that their revolution is over; but they find Sister Joan so exhilarating that they have invited her to speak at all three of their 2001 conferences, in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Chicago.
Although the Holy See clearly warned that Chittister would face "just penalties" if she disobeyed the order not to attend the WOW conference in Dublin, nothing happened. After Sister Joan had delivered her address, Vatican communications officer Joachin Navarro-Valls told reporters that no disciplinary action was planned in her case.
Feminists gloated publicly that "the Vatican has conceded that it can't enforce" its ban on discussion of women's ordination. They viewed this as a personal triumph for Sister Joan Chittister and a boost to the importance of the Worldwide conference on women's ordination, which had drawn 370 attendees.
According to the Time magazine cover story, "A Nun's Dangerous Talk", one major Vatican official objected. "What ever happened to obedience?" he asked. "This is a cancer. Do you let it grow?"
Some viewed the Holy See's decision not to discipline Sister Joan as evidence that radical feminism is not considered very important. Others think that the Vatican is reluctant to face the inevitable media portrayal of the Church as a brutal patriarchy trying to silence a feisty sixty-five-year-old nun. There are obvious public relations problems. However, the perception that that Vatican officials are so fearful of the media that they can never take disciplinary action against any woman, no matter how flagrant her behavior, cannot help matters. Some regard the Holy See's inaction in Sister Joan's case as a serious strategic error that further undermines the Holy See's authority and credibility.
Why is this situation important to the Church? Despite her radical record, Sister Joan remains a Catholic nun in good standing. She still speaks in a religious-sounding vocabulary at her many public appearances at Catholic-sponsored events. If Church authorities do not make it clear that her disobedience and her ideology are unacceptable, many more Catholics who still listen to nuns with respect will be misled.
Speaking with stirring emotional force, Sister Joan often does not say explicitly what she quite clearly implies -- a familiar tactic for avoiding charges of heresy. In Dublin, for example, she did not explicitly call for priestly ordination for women. She confined her demands to the ordination of deaconesses. But her meaning was clear -- and the fire in her rhetoric supplied any missing links.
Permitting any vowed religious to flout a direct Vatican order with impunity sends an incoherent message to other men and women religious. Of what value is their obedience to Church authority? What does a vow mean?
Ironically, considering her own strong and highly individualistic anti-hierarchical views, Sister Joan routinely condemns contemporary individualism as a betrayal of global community. She says:
Indeed, the current spiritual-cultural dilemma looms large. Individualism affects every institution. Individualism has been raised to the point of high art. Individualism runs rampant to the point of the pathological in this society.
Any community, local or global, requires a hierarchical order of some kind. The Catholic monastic tradition to which Sister Joan vowed her life fifty years ago has such a hierarchical order, and she often points the Benedictines' 1500-year history as a source of meaning for her. But her persistent disobedience betrays her vow, betrays her obligation to her own community, and betrays that great tradition.
In her August 5 Call to Action address in Los Angeles, Sister Joan grouped herself with "Martin Luther, Catherine of Siena, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton", and claimed that, "people do not question because they reject the church. They question the church because they love it".
Only God knows her heart and what she truly loves. But constant defiance and disobedience seems a very strange sort of love. Her public witness undermines the Catholic faith, erodes confidence in Church authority, and causes scandal to the faithful.
If one of the principal reasons for exercising discipline is therapeutic -- helping to restore a person's integrity of mind and spirit, and to reconcile broken relationships -- appropriate disciplinary action could only benefit Sister Joan. And it would certainly help protect the faith of others.
1. Sister Joan Chittister, "The God They Never Told Me About", address to Trinity Institute's 31st National Conference, God at 2000, audio and video tape, Benetvision.
3. Sister Joan Chittister, 1994 CTA keynote address.
4. Sister Christine Vladimiroff, press statement, Erie Benedictine website, www.eriebenedictines.com.
5. Teresa Watanabe, "The Nuns Who Defied Vatican's Order to Be Silent: Some praise, others criticize a sister's decision to speak freely", Los Angeles Times, August 5, 2001.
6. David Van Biema, "A Nun's Dangerous Talk", Time, August 20, 2001.
7. Sister Joan Chittister, "Spirituality and Contemporary Culture", article in Report from the Peace Council (Spring, 1999). Forum for Progressive Christianity, Fifth Annual National Forum: Faith Communities in Transition. Trinity Institute.
8. Arthur Jones, "Looking through Vatican II's prism", National Catholic Reporter, August 24, 2001, p. 13.
Donna Steichen, author of a critique of feminism, Ungodly Rage, is a contributing editor for Voices. She lives in Ojai, California.
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