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November 10, 2005Joan Chittister: From Where I Stand
Vol. 3, No. 21

 The inconsistency of the morally dizzy
"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

Are we confused, or what?

If nothing else, this week's news alone ought to make a person morally dizzy.

An Episcopalian church in Pasadena is being investigated by the Internal Revenue Service for violations of its tax-exempt status because last year during presidential election season, its former rector, the Rev. George Regas, gave a sermon against war.

The IRS has not taken action, however, in response to the sermons or activities of some churches on behalf of anti-abortion candidates.

Many pastors even allowed political groups to use church directories as a way to target potential voters, for instance. Bishops went so far as to write letters to be read from the pulpit labeling the pro-choice positions of major candidates as "immoral." At very least, they sought to bring pressure by impugning the morality or questioning the good-faith membership of those who would vote otherwise.

In some Catholic dioceses, particular politicians who said they themselves were opposed to abortion but had voted pro-choice for other political or social reasons were denied the right to receive Communion.

But none of those cases, illegitimate as they may seem in the light of the Regas case, have become targets of the IRS.

Is it possible that issues that favor the administration's positions are not a tax-exemption issue for churches but those that oppose them are?

Consistency, it seems, can be its own kind of moral problem.

For instance, in the recent Synod on the Eucharist, bishops were not told that they should withhold Communion from politicians who voted pro-choice. They were simply told that local bishops could withhold Communion in such cases if they so chose. If they so chose.

So, is such action really immoral only if the local bishop says it is? And in that case, can he do such a thing over any issue he chooses? And on what theological grounds?

Or to look at the situation through the lens of another equally difficult but different topic: This week Democrat Timothy M. Kaine became Virginia's first Catholic governor. One of the main criticisms of his ability to govern came from the fact that, as a Catholic, he considers capital punishment immoral -- a position that is also held by the church. But, he promised, as governor he would uphold the law and enforce the death penalty, regardless because "it is the law."

How does this case differ from the election issues over abortion? Some of his critics wondered how it was possible to really consider something "immoral" but do it regardless. In this case, the church said nothing at all about the dilemma.

Or what about Supreme Court justices. With the appointment of Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, there would be, for the first time in U.S. history, a majority of Catholic justices on the court. At this point, there is no report of any Catholic bishops anywhere saying about Supreme Court justices what they said about candidates for political office. So, are Catholic justices morally required to vote to strike down any law before the court that allows abortion under any circumstances or be denied the sacraments of the church? And if not, why not?

On other fronts, the moral confusion of the era doesn't get any less problematic.

Is preemptive war -- a war George Bush has authorized based on supposition -- moral or immoral? Is the use of strategic nuclear weaponry -- weapons that will necessarily kill thousands of the innocent -- moral or immoral? No one has said a word about that kind of morality yet. And if a pastor preaches on it, will his church lose his tax-exempt status?

And what about torture? President George Bush is clear. Sort of. "We do not torture," he pronounces vehemently. Then he works with all his might to get a law passed that will excuse the CIA from our own laws -- not to mention international ones -- regarding torture and so legitimize it. What's more, he intends to veto the major government spending bill to which this legislation is attached if Congress does not approve the exemption. So are we committed to torture or not?

We are in compliance with all international laws governing the treatment of prisoners, we're told. Then we find out that we have eight secret prisons in other countries, including that old nemesis, Russia and its infamous gulags, which we criticized as barbaric for so long.

The Red Cross has never examined or evaluated or monitored this network of underground prisons. But if they already cited the public ones they did see -- Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib -- for being below international standards, it seems highly unlikely that we will get great moral marks for our secret ones. Otherwise, why are we hiding them?

What's more, the furor in Washington about these things in large part is not that they are either secret or outside international review but only that someone whose morality may well lean more toward legality than brutality leaked the information so the rest of us could make a moral judgment about it ourselves.

Most of all, what is the obligation of a church in any of these issues when that church does not itself seem to be consistent about any of them?

It seems that we ought to stop and look again at this thing called "the separation of church and state."

It's not that the voice of the churches ought to be smothered at times like these. On the contrary. The purpose of refusing to allow an established state church in this country was not to keep religion out of social issues. It was to assure ourselves that all churches could be equally heard on all major social issues. Without recrimination. Without exercising undue pressure on the body politic. Without loss of the wisdom and values and truth in each of them.

From where I stand, it seems to me that we are deeply confused. We better look again, all of us, together, at just what churches as churches -- not as private citizens -- can and cannot do in terms of political activities.

And, oh yes, we better look closely at what the IRS can and cannot do, as well. Otherwise, we may well be on the brink of getting exactly what we do not want: an established church spawned by the moral -- or immoral -- beliefs of whatever administration happens to be in office.

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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