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March 1, 2006 Joan Chittister: From Where I Stand
Vol. 3, No. 35

  A recipe for renewal or a recipe for revolution?
"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. She is founder and executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality in Erie.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

Not since John F. Kennedy, in 1960, faced the question of church-state relations in a pluralistic society has the topic surfaced more forcefully, perhaps, than it has this week.

"I do not speak for my church on public matters," Kennedy said, "and the church does not speak for me."

This week, 55 U.S. Catholic Congresspersons, a majority of Catholic Democrats in the House, issued "A Statement of Principles" that will certainly be read as a direct response to church officials who attempt to influence U.S. policies by putting public church pressure on Catholic lawmakers.

In the election of 2000, George Bush became president of the United States by one of the most contested popular votes in U.S. history. It was an election that went all the way to the Supreme Court. In 2004, George Bush's electoral majority came dangerously close to being equally thin and equally contested.

In each case, pollsters say, the Catholic church, in tandem with right-wing Evangelicals, had a great deal to do with moving traditional Democratic voters into the Republican party in the hope of reversing legislation that made abortion legal.

At the same time, it wasn't so much what was done as the way it was done that raised questions that could mark both the country and the church for years to come.

Catholic lawmakers were told that to be "good" Catholics, they had to vote against abortion in any form whatsoever.

Legislators who voted for any proposal that could be considered supportive of abortion in any way whatsoever were denied invitations to Catholic events or denied the right to speak in Catholic facilities.

Some Catholic bishops publicly refused communion to legislators who had voted for bills that influenced some aspect of abortion legislation, even in a pluralistic society, regardless of the position of her own church, synagogue, mosque or temple on the subject.

Catholic priests provided Republican campaign operatives with parish directories to aid in the identification of potential Catholic voters and swell the ranks of the Republican Party.

Some priests even instructed parishioners from the pulpit that to vote for a legislator who did not vote against abortion was itself sinful.

The interpretation of those actions, however well-intentioned, raised serious civil and theological questions in a society that is based on the principle of religious freedom for all -- religious, agnostic or atheist.

What morality was to be the state morality? Or to put it another way: Is freedom of religion only for Catholics?

Would people ever elect a Catholic to office again if they decided -- as they believed in 1960 -- that Catholic politicians really took their direction from the Vatican rather than the Constitution?

Was the country going to be deprived of the Catholic point of view in discerning other matters of import if Catholic politicians were forced to withdraw from politics in order to maintain good standing in the church? Were Catholic lawmakers going to be denied the support of their church in times as serious as these if they didn't?

Why are other "Catholic" questions that deal with other life issues treated differently? Why aren't Catholic prison guards being told they cannot conduct a prisoner on death row to the gas chamber? Why are Catholic executioners not being told that they cannot give lethal injections? Why are Catholic chaplains to the military not being required to announce their opposition to nuclear war? Why aren't Catholic scientists told they cannot support stem cell research?

The questions require a Solomon to answer. And Catholics politicians have wrestled with the questions, I know. I joined a group of Catholic thinkers who met with Catholic legislators in Washington last summer to discuss these and other questions.

And this week, Democratic Catholic lawmakers in Congress published their Solomonic response for all the world to see.

The document makes four points:

First, that these legislators are "committed to reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies and creating an environment with policies that encourage pregnancies to be carried to term."

Second, that the abortion question is about a great deal more than abortion itself. Laws that deny a living wage, health care and child care, they argue, provide the context for abortion and so are also pro-life issues.

Third, that they as Catholic legislators bring the depth of the church's commitment to social justice to the full spectrum of life issues.

Fourth, that they believe that the church is "the people of God" and called to be a moral force in the broadest sense.

And -- note well -- that's where the document crosses the line into the new church.

"We believe," they end by saying, "[that] the church as a community is called to be in the vanguard of creating a more just America and world. And as such, we have a claim on the church's bearing as it does on ours." (Emphasis added.)

Now we are into theological stew like we haven't seen for decades. Take one part "primacy of conscience," add one part "people of God," salt with "as much bearing on the church as the church has on ours" and stir. Depending on how you see it, that is either a recipe for renewal or a recipe for revolution.

In this pluralistic world where black and white can both stay grey for a long, long time, the legislators make another point that none of us can afford to miss. They say, "As legislators, we are charged with preserving the Constitution which guarantees religious freedom for all Americans." (Emphasis added.) If Catholics withdraw from the fray of politics because we are too Catholic for it, we may like even less the morality we get from it then.

From where I stand, it seems to me that the laity of the church has heard the church's recognition of the "lay vocation." And, furthermore, they are beginning to take it seriously.

In centuries to come, historians could well see this moment as a turning point in the church as major as the use of the vernacular in the liturgy or the theological education of women, or the separation of church and state ever was. I'd stay tuned if I were you.

Editor's Note: To read the full statement, follow this link: Statement of Principles By Fifty-Five Catholic Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator at the address below.

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