Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

August 11, 2005
   Vol. 3, No. 12

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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, Joan Chittister is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer on topics of justice, peace, human rights, women's issues, and contemporary spirituality in the Church and in society. She presently serves as the co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the United Nations, facilitating a worldwide network of women peace builders, especially in the Middle East. A speech communications theorist, Sister Joan's most recent books include The Way We Were (Orbis) and Called to Question (Sheed & Ward), a First Place CPA 2005 award winner. A member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, she is founder and executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality in Erie.

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

Sometimes contradiction is the most Catholic thing

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By Joan Chittister, OSB

Fortunately, we're having a unity problem these days. For those who are upset by it, it may be that they have confused unity of heart with uniformity of mind. Pity.

The Roman Catholic charism of unity is an effective and admirable trait. It gives the church clarity. It gives the church great social power, too. When Rome speaks, the world assumes, a billion Catholics around the world march. Certainly their bishops do.

That makes it easy, from era to era, to burn heretics at stakes, or condemn scientists, writers, and theologians or to leaflet for political candidates in church parking lots, maybe, after the local pastor reads the local bishop's moral evaluation of a candidate's moral mettle. And all of that in defiance of all other history and writings of the church to the contrary.

That kind of unity makes the church a clear sign, a political force to be reckoned with. It also too often, too many times, makes it an institution to be feared or ridiculed. As a result of its singular social impact, in ways few other religions experience, Catholicism easily becomes overly identified with public issues and intellectual underdevelopment.

In fact, Catholic Christianity is a most unique religion where religions are concerned. Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and Muslims all embrace common sets of values, common practices, common concepts of God and morality, of life and death, many of them not unlike our own. At the same time, unlike Catholicism, they have no global command center that purports to speak for all of them, let alone to give all of them orders.

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The difference is anything but neutral in its effects.

Protestant churches, history records, commonly split when they have a disagreement. They simply go away and leave one another in peace.

Catholic congregations, on the other hand, commonly shift into silence. Catholic parishioners who disagree with the current theological interpretations of the church, often move to the margins of the institution to wait for better days, still Catholic but skeptical of immediate postures. Scientists agreed with Copernicus and Galileo, for instance, but ceased to say so after Galileo's trial. Some Catholics, on the other hand, simply leave the church entirely when they themselves cannot reconcile the tradition they love with the demands of their own conscience. As many did in recent decades, for example, over the laws of the church on marriage and birth control.

As a result of such organizational impact on the civil society around it, the public face of the church is an imposing one to some, a clear beacon in the dark; to others, a danger to the common good.

Clearly, unity -- the strength and the glory of the church -- has its dark moments.

Riven by the reformist debates of the 16th century, the Roman Catholic church learned the hard way to prize unity. Then it learned at Trent how to impose it to the point of unthinking conformity. It learned to discipline and excommunicate and punish those who raised new questions too soon or new answers too confidently. Unlike the Greek church which weathered the iconoclasm controversy without schism simply by living through it for generations, Rome has always had a penchant for answers. Quick ones. Immediate ones.

As a result, guidelines, guesses, by-gosh-and-by-golly get short shrift in Rome. We have answers. Let the rest of the world wonder and worry about new ideas, new trends and tendencies, but not us.

That's why a little ferment in the church of Rome is such a fascinating, such an interesting, and maybe, such a healthy thing. The notion that we might admit we have questions and allow experts in each field to work out the answers in public before declaring them to be "what we have always taught" gives the world a model of search and discernment long overdue in a church that preaches a theology of the Holy Spirit.

If so, we seem to be in the middle of it now. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, purportedly a personal friend of Pope Benedict XVI, has publicly declared -- in an op ed piece in The New York Times of all places (July 7. 2005) that neo-Darwinian evolution as taught now is contrary to Catholic doctrine. And this in the face of the almost universally acknowledged findings of science that evolution is now established science, not mere speculation.

What's more, Schönborn dismissed the statements of Pope John Paul II to the Vatican Academy of Science that evolution is no threat whatsoever to Catholic doctrines of creation and the nature of God, as "vague and unimportant." The findings of the International Theological Commission, under the presidency of then Cardinal Ratzinger, that saw no incompatibility between God's providential plan for creation and the results of a truly contingent evolutionary process in nature he does not even mention.

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Instead, Schönborn rests his position on a 1985 document on creation and counsels that "intelligent design," a variation of the fundamentalist position on creationism as a direct act of God, should be taught to all Catholic children. Or to put it another way: he suggests, as far as the scientific community is concerned, something tantamount to arguing that the Providence of God is better understood if we teach that the world is flat, circumnavigation or no circumnavigation.

But all of that, however important, is not what's newsworthy about the incident. In fact, we've had centuries of situations where traditional church thought has been challenged by emerging experience, however unhappily.

What's important in this case is that George J. Coyne, S.J., head of the Vatican Observatory, a 73 year old scientist of international repute, has answered the op ed piece, also in public and with even more pointed and professional comments. (See God's chance creation.)

Coyne says, "If they respect the results of modern science and, indeed, the best of modern biblical research, religious believers must move away from the notion of a dictator God or a designer God, a Newtonian God who made the universe as a watch that ticks along regularly." We cannot, he argues, go on attempting to deny the findings of science to fit older theological formulations of doctrine.

Theology is not science and cannot afford to sound as if it is. The fact is that theology has no better definitions of God than science does. God is God. Above human definition. Beyond human analysis. Outside of human understanding. None of our theological formulations will ever accurately define that, will never adequately tell us how God works. Or why. Not if God is really God.

It looks like we're in another one of those crossover moments in time when quick answers could doom us.

From where I stand, it also looks as if "The Tablet," the London-based English Catholic weekly that released Coyne's article this week might be making the same point about the relationships between Catholic theology and Catholic journalism.

The loss of Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese (See NCR May 20, Editor of Jesuits' America magazine forced to resign under Vatican pressure and From Where I Stand May 12, Do not weep for me, weep for yourselves.) as editor of the U.S. Catholic publication America, for presenting both sides of a subject -- the very nature of good journalism --rather than simply the official Catholic position, brings the whole notion of the role of the church in the operation of secular disciplines into question. The differences between the way the two deal with any given topic ought not to be automatically seen as either a weakness of the faith or a sign of infidelity in the discipline.

See what I mean? Uniformity and unity are not synonyms. Thank God.

(Editor's note: There will be no From Where I Stand column next week. The next column will be posted Aug. 12.)

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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