Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

June 16, 2005
   Vol. 3, No. 6

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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.

I don't want to play anymore

By Joan Chittister, OSB

Remember the game where you blindfold a person, stand them in front of a piņata, spin them around five or six times and then tell them that if they can now find the target and hit it with a stick, they'll win whatever they can scoop up when the candy inside falls to the ground? Well, I'm beginning to feel like I'm living one of those games. Only I've lost sight of the target and the prize inside this one isn't worth the effort.

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If winning means that I have to give up things I have always been told were far more important than the prize on offer, my fear is that we will all lose -- silently, inexorably, decisively -- and think we're winning.

Watergate, that low point of U.S. history in which deceit, dishonesty, robbery and conspiracy to obstruct justice blighted every major segment of the executive branch of government, emerged before our eyes again last week.

The identification of Mark Felt as "Deep Throat" -- the anonymous source to whom Washington Post reporters Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein turned for confirmation of data during their investigation -- has been called a hero by many. There are others, however, who take the position that Felt's cooperation with the media in their efforts to determine whether a low-level break in of Democratic Party headquarters could be traced all the way to the White House, was itself a crime. Felt, they argue, should receive the same kind of jail sentence the conspirators themselves served.

The situation has generated a whole new kind of Watergate debate.

In their relentless endeavors to determine whether or not the presidency -- the President himself, in fact -- was part of the attempt to scuttle the Democratic Party during a presidential election, Washington Post reporters Bernstein and Woodward followed tips that led from foreign bank accounts, through the Department of Justice, to the CIA, to the White House staff, and straight into the Oval Office.

Mark Felt, second in command of the FBI at that time -- himself appalled by the widespread "cancer on the presidency," acted as a monitor who either confirmed or denied the accuracy of the data the reporters had managed to unearth from other sources.

He exposed no FBI secrets. He volunteered no independent data. He provided no classified FBI reports. He jeopardized no FBI agents or field work in the process, as for instance, White House officials themselves did in the 2003 case of the malevolent identification of CIA undercover agent Valerie Plume. Felt simply confirmed what he himself knew to be accurate in other people's information.

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And, as Shakespeare says, "there's the rub." This is where the target begins to shift. All of a sudden, Mark Felt, "Deep Throat," has himself become the target.

Felt, whose cooperation was instrumental in unmasking the depth and breadth of corruption in the Nixon administration, has now become -- thanks to some of those who were part of it -- some sort of question in the American psyche. The whole concern is whether or not Felt's participation in the investigation is patriotic or traitorous.

"He broke the law," Charles Colson, one of the Watergate conspirators who served time for that crime in a federal prison, argues. "He broke his FBI oath of secrecy and should go to prison."

In an era when an act that allows the shredding of the Constitution in terms of people's legal rights and privacy is called "The Patriot Act," I suppose we ought not to be surprised by that kind of reasoning. Nevertheless, the question strikes at the very heart, not simply of what it means to be a real American patriot, but of what it means to be a Christian, a moral human being, and a person of character.

The argument, it seems, is that Mark Felt had taken an oath to maintain loyalty to the FBI itself, which precluded, apparently, any loyalties beyond that.

Colson even argues that in a conspiracy that involved not simply a set of political thugs but the CIA, the Attorney General of the United States, the Legal Counsel to the President and a host of his highest ranking aides, Felt should have simply reported his concerns to the White House. That kind of thinking boggles the mind.

Mark Felt, in Colson's mind, committed the greatest anti-American crime of them all. In fact, in a prime-time television interview, Colson gasps at the thought that grade school children are being taught to see Mark Felt as an American hero.

Such reasoning implies that it would be better to lose the Constitution, the country, our national integrity, and any kind of hope for justice in the future, apparently, than it would be to "undermine the government" by determining our loyalties carefully.

Watergate Prosecutor Ben Venisti makes the two choices clear as this debate accelerates: "FBI officials," he responds, "do not take an oath to preserve the FBI. They take an oath to preserve the Constitution."

There is no doubt that at first glance the possibility emerges that Colson's arguments are simply farce. After all, who can take them seriously? Except that, as Colson says, the children are listening.

The kind of thinking that insists that Mark Felt should have maintained an oath to the FBI rather than risk himself to save the Constitution and the government of this country leads us all to wonder how much of our government is in the hands of people who think like this. It seems they more prefer loyalty to themselves than to the elements upon which this country has been founded.

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It's a sad day for the United States, not simply because a president took part in a political burglary. It's a sad day, when after years in prison, the people who engineered that politically debasing crime go on attacking those who did everything they could to save this country's honesty and honor. And, most shameful of all, perhaps -- they do it under the guise of repentance and Christian conversion of heart.

From where I stand, one thing seems clear: Charles Colson will never meet the criteria for inclusion in a revised edition of John F. Kennedy's "Profiles in Courage." Mark Felt, on the other hand, will surely qualify.

Let the children of the world be told that, too, so they never for a moment wonder where the real target in the national game of honor really stands.

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator. Put "Chittister" in the subject line. E-mails with attachments are automatically deleted.
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