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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

October 14, 2003
   Vol. 1, No. 29

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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.

Coming soon: 'an effective and intelligent campaign'

By Joan Chittister,OSB

While the world celebrates the 25th anniversary of the papacy of John Paul II and the beatification of Mother Teresa, a strong woman who made the path as she went, something going on in the background makes a tantalizing counterpoint to both events. The first two situations are being analyzed everywhere. In print. On TV. In classrooms. In the churches. The second is being largely overlooked -- as in, it seems, ignore-it-and-it-will-go-away. Maybe. But don't count on it. The fact is that one is inextricably linked to the other.

In one major review of the accomplishments of John Paul II, for instance, the writer lists the topics to which John Paul II has drawn the attention of the word: moral relativism, moral teachings, the inviolability of human life, the relationships between faith and reason.

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Then, the essay notes the commitment of this pope to the morality of the church itself. At his direction, the church admitted having been in error in condemning Galileo -- and at the same time, of course, setting itself back hundreds of years as scientists were forced to choose scientific truth over a faith that required ignorance.

He acknowledged, too, the writer noted, the deviant maneuvers of the church during the Wars of Religion and the brutality at the base of far too many missionary endeavors of the church.

But, I noted with interest, the review said nothing at all about the fact that this pope had also written an encyclical on women -- the first in the history of the church -- and an apology for any role the church played -- "plays" I would think would be the better word -- in the diminishment, invisibility and oppression of women around the world to this day.

The writer, an expert I'm sure on Vaticanology, didn't even notice those pieces. The presence of a statement on women, half the human race, just wasn't important enough to be noticed, perhaps.

And that's the shame of it. The fact is that in his famous apology to women, John Paul II wrote:

"Such respect (for women) must first and foremost be won through an effective and intelligent campaign for the promotion of women, concentrating on all areas of women's life and beginning with a universal recognition of the dignity of women."

Accent on "effective and intelligent campaign for the promotion of women" and "on all areas of women's life." Surely here was the beginning of a new world for us all.

But where is the "campaign"? What is the papal strategy to enhance the equality of women in the church?

The fact is that the campaign never materialized. On the contrary. Those things that did change for women in the church immediately after Vatican II -- the admission of altar girls to the liturgical ranks of a parish, changes in the language of the liturgy to recognize the inclusion of women as well as of men in both the theology and the body of the faithful, the presence of women eucharistic ministers and theologians and lay ministers in the ecclesial community -- are now victims of a campaign intended not to develop them, but to slowly, silently, surreptitiously roll them back. The campaign is to still the voices of equality, to silence the thought that equality might even be debatable, desirable, possible, to smother the questions about even so obvious a question as the restoration of the deaconate for women. The campaign is to make baptism a more male event than a female one and sacramental theology a by-product of gender.

That's where the second event -- the counterpoint -- to the current celebrations of what has been and what is to come in the church provides another insight into the church of our day. In England, Catholic women, like the German women before them, are opening a seminary of their own. Applications are due by Nov. 1.

CWO, Catholic Women's Ordination, a British organization founded in 1993 has a campaign, too. They have dedicated themselves, they say, "to calling upon the Roman Catholic church to recognize and make canonical the priestly calling of women." They have campaigned through public vigils at cathedrals, by letter writing campaigns, through conferences, meetings and liturgies. Now they are opening training courses to prepare women for ministry, both ordained and lay.

They intend not only to certify both women and men in theology but to "begin the process of building for a future" that sees church differently. They are talking about renewing the church, as well as ordaining women.

"The priestly ministry of the Roman Catholic church is in a critical state," the CWO course of studies reads. "It clings to outmoded conceptions of authority, leadership and accountability."

The group stresses the fact that they have no intention whatsoever of ordaining women, or anyone else, anywhere. But they do intend to prepare women for ordination, to assess their suitability for the ordained ministry, to present them as ministers-in-waiting in a church whose ordained male priesthood is shrinking by the day. Lined up in rows. Waiting. Silent accusers of a theology of sexism.

The Roman philosopher Boethius taught that every world that is dying is simply a new world coming to life.

From where I stand, this looks like another world a-dawning just as this one begins to celebrate its close. At very least, it is surely as important a factor in this week's round of celebrations as any paeans to the past. In fact, it may tell us more about the past than we care to know. And more about the future, too, if we only realized it. As a pope who apologized to women for the part the church plays in their suppression beatifies a strong woman who brought another injustice to the public stage, strong women are on the move again.

This second event, the opening of a seminary for Roman Catholic women and the acceptance of applications up to Nov. 1, isn't getting any press, of course. No one even seems to be connecting the two occasions. At least not yet. But if I were you, I wouldn't dismiss it all too quickly. Wait 50 years. Then decide which campaign really worked.

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