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Joan Chittister's humility

  • 15 July 2019


Humility is a word that rarely intrudes into my vocabulary. It is unfashionable and reproachful. I was a little surprised, then, to find 12 recent columns in The National Catholic Reporter (NCR) devoted to the topic, and that the writer was Joan Chittister. Both magazine and writer are often labelled as liberal rather than as traditional.

Chittister, a Benedictine sister, now 83 years old, has written and lectured extensively on religious and political topics. She has the gift peculiar to many men and women in contemplative orders of going straight to the point of what matters and of pointing out when various emperors have no clothes. She has been a consistent critic of inequality, violence and discrimination on the basis of race and gender in her home country, the United States.

Growing up in poverty with her mother and violent stepfather and affected by polio as a young religious sister, she had to struggle to come to an independent voice. She has called out violence and discrimination against women in church and state. She recognised early and wrote often that the Catholic Church in the west had largely lost the trust and allegiance of women. This, and her forthrightness and leadership among women religious in the United States, made her suspect to many Catholic authorities and a natural target in the Catholic culture wars.

As a result some have portrayed her unfairly as a feminist, secular warrior in religious dress. Certainly not as one who would devote 12 magazine columns to humility. But those familiar with her writing on social, cultural and political issues recognise that it is fed by her life as a Benedictine Sister, and particularly by her deep, lived reflection on the Rule of St Benedict, whose feast day occurred on 11 July. Her NCR columns draw on chapter six of the Rule in which Benedict describes the 12 steps of humility. She explores his thoughts to illuminate and critique aspects of our contemporary culture.

In her discussion she remarks on the similarity between the world of Benedict's day and our own. She sees both as affected by rapid change, marked by the breakdown of culture and civility. In introducing each of the rules she begins by describing examples of unattractive cultural traits in the public life of the present day United States and elsewhere.

These include an emphasis on individual will, a focus on 'me', my ideas and my gifts