Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

July 15, 2005
   Vol. 3, No. 10

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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.

When is conversion not conversion?

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By Joan Chittister, OSB

Just when you think that things are quieting down -- at least on one front -- someone sets off a landmine. This time it's a theological one.

On July 11, the Church of England voted, 11 years after the ordination of the first Anglican women priests, to begin the legislative process that will now admit women to the episcopacy. Don't for a minute think that the issue is finally resolved. Either for them or for us.

Theology is a tricky subject. You have to be careful when you're trying to understand exactly what is being said -- or how. It has an eel-like quality to it. It slips and slides. It changes its mind a lot more than the tone of its teachings imply. It can get all entwined in history -- called tradition -- and interpretation -- often called revelation.

If you're Roman Catholic, you're good at this: As in the shift from usury, which used to be a sin, to the Vatican Bank. Or the shift from the selling of plenary indulgences, which was once a promise of remission of sins, to their complete disappearance. As in the shift from "infallible" to "definitive." Or the shift in the nature of fetuses. Years ago a fetus could not be buried in blessed ground because they weren't fully developed human infants, my mother was told. Now even stem cells are protected as potentially privileged human beings.

Some of theology, at least, is, apparently, a movable feast. The problem is that its tenets often only get changed long after it has done eons of damage to society, people and church alike.

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In the meantime, theology raises a lot of questions:

How was it, for instance, that white converts could receive the Eucharist immediately but American Indian converts like St. Kateri Tekawitha had to wait until they had proven that even Indians could control their impulses and so would not violate the host?

How was it that cultural understandings pretending to be moral absolutes, like segregation, could be so soundly theologized?

How was it that public prejudices that purport to be eternal truths, like the prohibitions against mixed marriages, could shift to the point where those marriages now can now be shared by both ministers?

How is it that birth control can be determined to be so clearly sinful but nuclear weapons are a matter of theological doubt?

How is it that women, also made 'in God's image and likeness" -- according to God, at least -- have their access to God controlled by men?

Answer: Who knows?

The new news is that Roman Catholics do not have a monopoly on examples of circuitous theology presented from age to age as part of revelation. Anglicans are now in a theological bind of their own.

In the first place, the Anglicans ordained openly homosexual priests but are now divided about whether or not gays can be bishops as well as priests.

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Now, the Church of England has determined that it will allow females to become bishops -- meaning that ordained women were not eligible for bishoprics before this time.

And that is where the theology gets fuzzy. More than that, thanks to them, it gets fuzzier for us. Their questions create new questions for us, too.

If women and homosexuals are "fit matter" for priestly ordination -- still a question for some denominations -- why wouldn't that be the same "matter" that's theologically necessary for episcopal consecration? So why is it a question at all? Especially when 87 percnt of the bishops, 78 percent of the clergy and 66 percent of the lay representatives to the Synod voted for it?

But it is. To those who argue that a ban on the episcopal ordination of women undermines the credibility of the church, others respond that Christ's apostles were all male and it is wrong for women to have authority over men in a religious capacity.

In fact, some Anglican priests are threatening to become Roman Catholics if the Church of England follows the theological principle of woman's ordination to the ultimate acceptance of women bishops. And the Roman Catholic church, history attests, will surely accept them.

That's precisely what must make the rest of us wonder about the consistency of our own theology: Is this really a theological question at all? Or is it simply a matter of sexism or homophobia? Is such a motive really "fit matter" for genuine conversion if the only thing in question here is the role these already ordained women ministers will begin to play in the structure of the church itself? Is that a matter of faith or a matter of discipline, a matter of theology or a matter of prejudice?

If the Roman Catholic church believes that a celibate priesthood is an essential dimension of Roman Catholic witness in the world, how is that we can accept married priests whose only disagreement with the theology of their church is their resistance to the promotion of women whose priesthood they have already accepted? What is "conversion?" Is this a real conversion to the Roman Catholic faith -- or is it just an attempt to run away from the leadership and authority of women?

From where I stand, it seems that our theology of conversion may be as much in question as their theology of ordination these days. But one thing we can count on: there will be a good theological reason for it.

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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