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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

June 2, 2004
   Vol. 2, No. 8

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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.

We have something to be ashamed of: but what is it?

By Joan Chittister,OSB

This is a good news, bad news column.

The good news comes from a recent survey of the 178 Roman Catholic dioceses in the United States. Only 4 of the 137 dioceses and/or bishops who responded to the survey intend to refuse the Eucharist to American Catholic politicians who support a pro-choice position on abortion. (See the study in the What's New section of the Catholics for Free Choice Web site.)

But, even then, the implications and complexity of such a position bedevil the soul.

In the first place, abortion is the only life question that the Catholic church does not nuance -- never, ever, in any situation, accepts as morally plausible. No one has ever suggested, for instance, that we deny communion to those who kill for the state. Or who kill in self-defense. Or who sign the judgment that sends a person to the electric chair. Or even pulls the lever that sends a bolt of current through the wrong body in a state penitentiary. Or who sign bills authorizing the building of bigger and better nuclear bombs that threaten the life of a whole world.

The question is why, if fetal life is invaluable, why not all life? When is life valuable and when is it not in this kind of theology? And why?

In the second place, most of the major religious traditions in the United States have issued statements deploring abortion on demand. At the same time, most also take the theological position that abortion can, in some cases, be morally acceptable. (World religions on abortion) Are we to believe then that these religions themselves are unworthy? The insinuation boggles the mind.

Another 24 Roman Catholic bishops, the survey says, believe that communicants who do not absolutize the immorality of abortion -- do not reject abortion in every instance for everyone -- need to examine their consciences. Those who vote for pro-choice candidates both out of respect for other equally sincere religious positions or out of their own commitment to additional life issues -- to the sanctity of life after birth as well as before -- should consider their position, these bishops say. They should be asking themselves whether they are really following the teachings of the church and ought to be receiving the Eucharist.

They should be consciously determining, in other words, whether or not their motives for voting for pro-choice positions and politicians are in accord with the body of Catholic teaching as well as with the religious sensibilities of a pluralistic culture.

This position gives primacy to the theology of conscience itself. Or, as the Sufi master puts it, "We come into life naked and alone and we leave it the same way." The point is clear: We go to God, conscience in hand, as individuals. We are judged on our personal obligations to a higher law, not on our obedience to lesser ones.

This second position, then, leaves religious leaders with the obligation to teach in such a way that forms consciences about the sanctity of life. It also leaves religious followers with the obligation to take and own their own moral responsibilities.

A position such as this speaks to the development of a mature conscience and a mature faith. This whole notion of leaving to the informed conscience the obligation to make moral choices rests on sound theological principles and honored Catholic tradition.

Finally, 133 bishops simply say that they would not be comfortable excluding anyone from the Eucharist. And that position, it seems -- if Jesus is still any kind of model for us at all, smacks most of Christianity, of Jesus, of the Christ life we are told we ourselves are to live.

Jesus excluded no one.

The crowd of 5,000 sitting in the noonday sun at the foot of the mountain had to pass no public political litmus test to receive the loaves and fishes.

Peter, the one whom Jesus "knew would betray him," not only stayed at the Last Supper but became the very head of the church.

The Roman soldier, the tax collector, the Good Thief, the Canaanites, the Samaritans, the woman taken in adultery, the lepers, the lame, and the blind -- at a time when sickness was thought to be punishment for sin -- were all received whole-heartedly by Jesus. All of them were social, political and moral outcasts. But they were never shunned, never humiliated, never condemned publicly by Jesus.

Who are we to do otherwise?

The theological good news of this situation is that the great majority of bishops seem to be thinking so much in line with both the best of the tradition and the best of the Christian life.

The theological bad news, then, is that this issue ever surfaced at all.

It leaves Catholics confused. It leaves others uncertain about whether they can now trust Catholics to function in a pluralistic society politically or not. It leaves the church besmirched.

Shame, shame, shame on those who mask as good what in reality is simply a new kind of human way to make ourselves "like gods" when we were all taught that what we are really supposed to be are other Christs.

From where I stand, that's the most important measure of conscience of them all.

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