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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

June 8, 2004
   Vol. 2, No. 9

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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.

The picture is an illusion

By Joan Chittister,OSB

Remember the old adage about "a picture being worth a thousand words." Not always. It all depends on whether the picture and the words meant to accompany it go together. As in, it's a picture of idyllic love to see a smiling woman nesting in the arms of the handsome man standing behind her, unless, of course, he's whispering in her ear, "Act normal. Smile and say hello or the gun in the back of your neck is going to go off." Then the "picture" is really an illusion. A lie. Clever, perhaps, but purposely misleading.

I just saw a picture like that. And you probably did, too.

Flushed with the notion that Catholics are now on the brink, for the first time in history, of backing away from a commitment to life in all its stages to defining life simply in its narrowest, most remote form, George W. Bush moved quickly in this election year to capitalize on the "Catholic Question."

If abortion were the only life issue Catholics really cared about, then he was surely the perfect "Catholic candidate." To seal the situation, he made the canny political decision to go even higher than local Catholic bishops for affirmation. He decided to change his already arranged European schedule to opt for an audience with the pope.

Trailed by cameras, scheduled to be broadcast live in the United States at 7 a.m. and then positioned for CNN's rolling newscasts for the rest of the day, the whole affair -- audience hall, Swiss Guards, clerical corps and papal palace -- was certainly an election year coup.

But the really clever thing about the whole scene was the unrecognizable dissonance between the picture and the words.

Reporters followed the story with sidebar features of street interviews: "How did Catholics feel about the president's audience with the pope." Some people said, in essence, "So what? It won't make any difference to the way I vote." Others, in the words of one older woman, said, "I think it is very important to see that the president cares about all the Catholic citizens, too."

No doubt about it. George Bush has to care about the Catholic vote, a vote traditionally attuned to causes of justice and deprivation, world peace and social issues, oppression of the poor and dignity of life. If you are a president who is credited with more capital punishment than any other governor in the nation, a "doctrine" of pre-emptive war and the death it brings to the innocent, national deficits and the social programs it necessarily curtails, the "Catholic vote" has got to be a major concern. How better a way to get it then than to ally himself with the pope?

But that's when the picture turned into an illusion, the kind of which Christian Nestell Bovee wrote when he said, "A pleasant illusion is better than a harsh reality."

If people could have understood the words of the pope the day of the president's visit as clearly as they heard the words of the president, they would surely have wondered how allied the two really are.

The fact is that the pope's definition of life far exceeds the president's.

What's more, the pope's evaluation of the invasion of Iraq far negates the president's. "Your visit to Rome takes place at a moment of great concern for the continuing situation of grave unrest in the Middle East, both in Iraq and in the Holy Land," the pope told Bush. "You are very familiar with the unequivocal position of the Holy See in this regard."

The pope's "unequivocal position" in regard to the invasion of Iraq, as he reminded Bush, in public, cameras rolling, in front of an audience of government staffers and Vatican clergy, had been "expressed in numerous documents, through direct and indirect contacts, and in the many diplomatic efforts which have been made since you visited me, first at Castel Gandolfo on July 23, 2001, and again in this apostolic palace on May 28, 2002." Bush didn't paid a bit of attention to any of this. The pope, in fact, had never approved of the "pre-emptive" invasion of Iraq.

The pope, in other words, scolded the president about Iraq on his own public television network for all the world to hear.

Except that they didn't because, given the complications of the Parkinson's disease that plagues the pope, no one who saw the pictures of Bush sitting beside the pope could understand the pope's words.

Bush -- who refused to see his own Methodist bishops when they tried to meet with him to express their opposition to the invasion of Iraq -- chose instead to present the pope with America's highest honor, the American Medal of Freedom. It was, after all, the Catholic photo op of the campaign.

It made great photography -- cherubs overhead, white papal robes and red-satin clad clerical chamberlains in attendance. It made good theater. It made interesting press. And maybe it even made an effect on the Catholic voting population.

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But it definitely did not make for truth in advertising. "This is not a just image; this is just an image," Jean Luc-Godard wrote once. The truth of the words was clear but in this political legerdemain where the flash bulbs shimmered, the words, unclear to the ear, would be forever lost on most of the people on the street.

Nevertheless, the truth remains in the text: This is not a president whose concern for life matches the life concerns of this pope. The president may have come across as a single issue president but the pope did not come across as a single issue pope.

The hope, of course, is that in the Catholic tradition, all the life issues, not simply one, will be factored into the voting profile of Catholics as they were factored into the text of the pope who struggled, unsuccessfully but deliberately, to make them plain.

From where I stand there is only one thing the pope could have done to make the picture as clear as the words: he could have refused the medal from the president who refused the words. Then those who saw the images would have suffered from no illusions about either the breadth of the Catholic message or the panoply of concerns that those must have who court the Catholic vote.

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