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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

April 20, 2004
   Vol. 2, No. 3

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"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.

Church, conscience, constitution and common sense

By Joan Chittister,OSB

John Kerry went to Mass and Communion last week. At one time, that would have been considered admirable by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Now it stands on the brink of being a serious political question and, perhaps, an even more serious Catholic question.

Call it what you will -- dilemma, muddle, mess or quandary -- but the results are all the same: We are facing a situation in the American Catholic church and American politics that may be more serious than anything we have dealt with in years.

You remember the Catholic question. This is the subject that defeated Catholic presidential candidate Al Smith in 1928. It's the concern that plagued John F. Kennedy's presidential candidacy in 1960. It's the issue we thought the election of 1960 resolved, in fact. And now, in 2004, it's back with a vengeance.

This Catholic question is not about vouchers for Catholic schools, as in "Can a state grant them in a country built on the separation of church and state?" In that case, the bishops of the church stayed ominously silent about the morality of the Vietnam War and chose instead to melt into the mainstream in the hope, many argued, of receiving financial aid for the then ailing Catholic school system. No public moral questions were asked.

It's also not about the validity of conscientious objection in the Catholic tradition, as in "Is it authentic for a Catholic to refuse military service on the grounds that being Catholic justifies a citizen's refusal to fight and kill for the sake of the state?" In that case, the just war tradition and the bishops' peace pastoral of 1983 gave new credence to that position and called on Catholics to make conscientious decisions about their participation in war, though the document itself did not outlaw war, not even nuclear war.

It's not about whether Catholic politicians can own slaves or vote to maintain segregation, an issue about which the church once theologized so adroitly.

It's not about the death penalty and the continuing commitment of the United States to deter murder by murdering people, which is surely also a pro-life question.

And it's not, at least not completely, about "Rum, Romanism and Rebellion," the political slogan that purported to describe the Democratic Party in 1884 -- the year of the "dirtiest election in U.S. politics" -- as too Catholic, too beholden to Vatican directions, to be entrusted with the presidency of a pluralistic nation.

But the election of 2004, if we're not careful, could easily begin to revolve around the "Catholic question" again, about whether or not the Catholic church directs -- controls -- the way Catholic candidates vote on public issues.

Never have we needed moral guidance more than we do in a society where science has now changed life and changed death, changed family and changed sex, changed birth and changed creation.
This election is not about whether the church should lead the discussion of the moral evaluation of any of these things. On the contrary. Never have we needed moral guidance more than we do in a society where science has now changed life and changed death, changed family and changed sex, changed birth and changed creation.

But this election is about whether or not a Catholic can be a politician, exercise a Catholic conscience in a pluralistic world, and stay a practicing Catholic at the same time. The implications of those questions for Catholics, for Catholic political figures, for the Catholic church and, eventually, for the country itself are immeasurable. This one could decide the role of Catholics in both church and state for years to come.

John Kennedy's famous answer to the Southern Baptist Convention's concern about the relationship between a Catholic candidate and the Vatican seemed to answer the question once and for all. "I believe in an America," he said, "where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source -- where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials. "

Now, with the position of a few bishops that Catholic politicians who do not vote in accordance with Catholic teaching cannot receive the Eucharist, the dilemma is obvious: Catholic politicians have one of two choices. They can either relinquish the political arena to the rest of the body politic or they can defy the church. Surely each position is untenable, illogical and destructive of both the church and the place of the Catholic vision of life in the public arena.

Put in this kind of situation, Catholic politicians -- 150 Catholics now serve in Congress and 415 in state legislatures -- will have to go to their respective houses and senates with their minds already made up on current topics. They will have to refuse to consider alternate arguments about how to approach complex issues -- even though many churches are engaged in moral analysis of these same issues, as once they were on the very issue of separation of church and state.

Echoes of the Middle Ages may well be heard in the land. Catholics who run for office will be immediately suspect again and perhaps as unelectable as they were in the past.

And, even more serious than that, the discussions of moral alternatives at the highest levels of power will include everything but the Catholic tradition. Will factor it out. On purpose. Consciously. In general. And by our own hands. Surely we have enough indication right now of what could be the long-term moral effects of that on a multitude of subjects to cancel any move in that direction.

The second option for Catholic politicians in a climate such as this, if the trend to excommunication continues, is that they can simply leave the church. Then the notion that Catholicism -- the church -- is incompatible with human development, discovery and thought will be modeled at the highest levels for the whole world to see. Then the real influence of the church itself on the human spirit, perhaps on Catholics in general, can only be diminished. Then we will lose a great deal more than a few individual politicians.

From where I stand, it seems to me that giving good moral guidance and allowing the voting population to make its own decisions at the polls about whether or not a given position is moral and a given candidate a worthy legislator will have more effect in the long run on the development of the country -- and the church -- than selective coercion can possibly have now. The issue right now is not the issues themselves. It is how far a tactic like this will go.

To be honest, I have often wanted bishops to take a stronger stand on certain issues: like the women's issue and its effect on half the human race, or the nuclear issue and its effect on the life of the planet, or the war in Iraq and its effect on the life and safety of civilians -- some of whom might even possibly be pregnant. But I don't think excommunication is the way to do it. Not if conscience, constitution and even the integrity and development of the church really mean anything at all.

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