Making more room for women in the Church

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This interview with American Benedictine nun, Joan Chittister, continues the series recorded for Eureka Street at the Parliament of the World's Religions held in Melbourne in December 2009. It is sponsored by the Asia-Pacific Centre for Inter-Religious Dialogue in the Australian Catholic University. (Continues below)

As well as advocating inter-religious dialogue, Chittister is an articulate and fearless feminist voice in the Catholic Church. In the interview she explains the vital importance of forums like the Parliament that promote dialogue, and how her mixed religious upbringing gave her an appreciation of other belief systems and a new interpretation of the story of the Tower of Babel,. She also speaks about the vexed place of women in the Church.

Chittister's biological father died when she was very young, and her Irish Catholic mother remarried a Scottish Presbyterian. So, while growing up, she experienced and came to appreciate both sides of the bitter Catholic/Protestant sectarian divide.

In the mid-1950s she joined the Benedictine Sisters of Erie in northern Pennsylvania, and for 12 years served as Prioress of this branch of the order. From 1974 till 1990, she was president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses, and also had a term as president of the US Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella organisation representing over 75,000 women in religious orders.

She is one of the founding members of the International Peace Council, a group of high profile religious leaders from all the major faiths, including the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. They meet annually at trouble spots around the globe and try to help resolve concrete peace and justice problems in each particular location.

She is a prolific author, and a regular columnist for the US National Catholic Reporter. She is the founding director of Benetvision, a resource centre for contemporary spirituality located in Erie.

In 2000 she and the Erie Benedictine nuns became embroiled in a very public dispute with the Vatican. She was invited to be keynote speaker at the first Women's Ordination Worldwide Conference in Dublin. The Vatican's Congregation for the Consecrated Life wrote to the then prioress asking her to stop Chittister from attending.

A letter written by the prioress, and signed by all the Erie Benedictines (except one dissenter), in the name of a higher obedience, expressed her refusal to comply:

'I cannot be used by the Vatican to deliver an order of silencing. Benedictine communities were never intended to be part of the hierarchical or clerical status of the Church, but to stand apart from this structure and offer a different voice ... Only in this way can we be faithful to the gift that women have within the Church.'

Chittister attended the conference and gave a rousing speech criticising the Church's stance towards women.

This incident is emblematic of her career which has consistently, loudly and clearly expressed a 'different voice', a prophetic voice. Though in her mid-70s, Chittister is still a dynamo, highly focused, intense, bristling with energy, and she shows no sign of slowing down.


Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant who worked for 23 years in the Religion and Ethics Unit of ABC TV. He has a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.

Topic tags: Peter Kirkwood, joan chittister, Women's Ordination, women in the church


 

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A prophetic voice! I attended one of her presentations at the Parliament of World Religions in Melbourne last December. Her saying "If you don't come to the table, you are on the menu" was taken up by other speakers. She is a powerful voice for reform in the Church.
Peter M | 26 February 2010


Just love the woman! Trish
Patricia Taylor | 26 February 2010


Joan is another example of 'the power of one'
Ray O'Donoghue | 26 February 2010


We so much need to hear voices like this, if women are to make the contribution to the Church of which they are capable, for the enrichment of the whole Church. Thank you for including this clip.
Anna Summerfield | 26 February 2010


Thank you to Peter for sharing this about Joan Chittister who is one of the most inspiring Catholics of the century. Has the article been sent to Cardinal Pell and other "luminaries" of the Church? It must be.
Rosemary Keenan | 26 February 2010


Thanks Peter for introducing Joan Chittiser. I'm inspired by the woman, she is truly a prophetic voice in the Church and God continues to bless the Benedictines. I will share this article and U tube link with my fellow teaching students at ACU.
peter Igoe-Taylor | 26 February 2010


In various article in recent days and weeks, contributors have attacked Tony Abbott for his comments on parental advice on virginity and the "poor are with us always" comment. Barnaby Joyce came into the cross hairs for his comments about foreign aid.

In these articles they were characterised as being unfeeling and hard-hearted. They were lacking in humanity. They were not living by the most basic Christian principles that direct us to care for the poor and vulnerable.

Yet here is Eureka Street posting an video of St Joan Chittister, a prominent supporter of the "right" to an abortion.

Why does the Eureka Street editorial staff turn a blind eye to this issue? Why does it not wholeheartedly defend the rights of the most vulnerable in our society? Why does it not challenge such people as Sr Joan Chittister on this fundamental issue?

Do the rights of the unborn not stand high enough on the list of Eureka Streets' social justice concerns? Are the unborn not as worthy of concern as the homeless and asylum-seekers?

I note Jesuit Social Services is having Julia Gillard as keynote speaker at their fundraiser. She too supports abortion. Just more proof of the moral confusion and double standards that reside amongst these Jesuit sponsored organisations.
Patrick James | 26 February 2010


Praise the Lord for a voice of sanity in our complex Church. Thank God for JC!
Another great article listed below via
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sister-joan-chittister-osb/roman-catholicism-a-churc_b_469443.html

Sophie M. | 26 February 2010


So Patrick, would you also be critical of the Benedictine prioress in refusing to silence Chittister?
Ginger Meggs | 26 February 2010


re Patrick James and abortions:
The number of abortions will only be reduced if there is better sex education and access to contraceptives for Catholics.
The order "fill the earth" has been done to excess.
Better to help those who are here live enriching lives than burden Catholic women with unwanted pregnancies and exacerbate the already existing problem of overpopulation and diminishing resources.
Geoff | 26 February 2010


If Sr Chittister wants to belong to a church with female priests, why doesn't she join the Anglicans or the Uniting Church or any number of Christian organisations that have this practice? Let us have churches that ordain women and those that don't, and people can decide for themselves where to go.

Geoff, there is proven link between the contraceptive mentality and abortion. Contraception does not reduce abortion but encourages it. Sex "education" that focuses on the plumbing or sexuality without consideration of the real meaning of sex as radical interpersonal commitement also encourages abortion.
Sylvester | 26 February 2010


Where's the evidence for the links, Sylvester?

And what if Sr Chittister prefers the Catholic Church to your other alternatives? Shouldn't she get the opportunity to challenge orthodoxy, to argue for change? Or is it all finally and absolutely settled?
Ginger Meggs | 28 February 2010


Yes Ginger, it is settled. There is such a thing as absolute truth. The Catholic Church is not a political party, Joan has no "right" to change the face of the church to suit her own agenda.
ANDREW | 02 March 2010


Well said Patrick, Andrew and Sylvester. Sr Chittister should follow where her 'integrity' is leading her, not try to remake Christ's Church in accord with her own agenda.

She is very articulate and one can see here that she will say what her supporters want to hear - but is she right or just another passing gust of wind?

Most thinkers are amazed that for someone so outspoken in her claim to represent true Christian thought that she can so massively fail on at least one easy but critical issue... abortion.

Buyer beware.
Chris Saidou | 02 March 2010


Andrew -

When was it settled?

The Bible is literature, not a science textbook.

It took a long time for the Vatican to accept that Galileo had got it right.
Isn't the message of the Bible for us now to love our neighbours and to love God/god/creation/nature/the world around us?
Geoff | 02 March 2010


Geoff, as you have introduced that dusty old argument that the Church was wrong about Galileo so the Church’s judgements can’t be trusted, I hope I am permitted to go off topic.

You say, “It took a long time for the Vatican to accept that Galileo had it right”.

Right about what? Galileo was wrong when he said the ocean’s tides were caused by the combined effects of the Earth’s rotation and its orbit of the Sun. Galileo was also wrong when he said comets were an atmospheric phenomenon.

Yes Galileo got it right about the Earth orbiting the Sun. But at the time of his dispute with Church authorities he could neither prove it with empirical evidence nor give a satisfactory answer as to why there was no observable stellar parallax.

http://www.scientus.org/Copernicus-Stellar-Parallax.html

When science was eventually able to prove that Galileo was correct about the Earth orbiting the Sun, the Church then accepted it. Isn’t that how it should be?

Colin | 02 March 2010


Well said Patrick, Andrew and Sylvester. Sr Chittister should follow where her 'integrity' is leading her, not try to remake Christ's Church in accord with her own agenda.

She is very articulate and one can see here that she will say what her supporters want to hear - but is she right or just another passing gust of wind?

Most thinkers are amazed that for someone so outspoken in her claim to represent true Christian thought that she can so massively fail on at least one easy but critical issue... abortion.

Buyer beware.
Chris Saidou | 02 March 2010


Andrew, it's been settled by the ordinary and magisterium of the Catholic Church which refers to what the bishops have taught in every time and every place in matters of faith and morals, in this case, that women cannot - not may not, but cannot - receive sacred orders. This level of magisterium engages the charism of infallibility.

Ginger, there are many studies that demonstrate a correlation between the spread of the contraceptive mentality and the incidence of abortion. The more contraception is used - and fails - the greater the demand for abortion.

Re Chittister, don't you think it is a bit rich that she thinks the Catholic Church should re-organise its teaching on the sacrament of orders to suit her and others like her? She cannot reasonably expect to have it all her own way. If she wants female priests, fair enough, but she should have the courage of her convictions and make the appropriate denominational moves rather than impose her wants on those of us who believe that the teaching authority of the Church is correct when it states that the ordination of women is a theological impossibility.

I am disturbed to discover through this conversation that Chittister advocates abortion "rights". In pushing for the pseudo-right for women to be ordained but opposing the true right of the unborn to continue with life, she has lost all credibility.
Sylvester | 04 March 2010


'[I]t is settled. There is such a thing as absolute truth... Joan has no "right" to change the face of the church to suit her own agenda.'

Andrew, your words astound me. Joan has not, so far as I can see, claimed a right to 'change the face of the church', only to advocate for such change, for clearly she has no power to change it. And 'to suit her agenda'? Won't you at least admit that what you call her 'agenda' might rather be her 'revelation' or 'insight'?

And, by the way, have you noticed that the four women who began this string have now left the conversation? What does that say about the ability of the Church to accept women?
Ginger Meggs | 05 March 2010