Sr. Joan Chittister: An American Catholic in Rome
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Posted April 16, 2005 at 4:10 p.m. CDT

The underside of the issue

By Joan Chittister, OSB

All of life,” the playwright Tennessee Williams wrote, “is an unanswered question, but let’s still believe in the dignity and importance of the questions.” It is the role of questions in the development of the faith that has become one of the most common topics of conversation surrounding the election of a new pope.

But let the reader beware: Questions and the answers they prompt are often as important as the material that generates them. This week, for instance, the international “We Are Church” group focused first on the woman’s issue as a key topic for a new papacy to consider. The questions reporters asked and the answers they got to them only exposed the problem even more.

Read Joan Chittister's weekly columns
Previous and current columns from An American Catholic in Rome

Adolescence or adulthood: which? Posted April 22, 2005 at 3:30 p.m. CDT
And he shall be called . . .  Posted April 20, 2005 at 4:30 p.m. CDT
I missed the smoke; I got the idea Posted April 19, 2005 at 10:00 a.m. CDT
Never mind the papabile, consider the papacy Posted April 17, 2005 at 3:30 p.m. CDT
The underside of the issue Posted April 16, 2005 at 4:10 p.m. CDT
Antigone or Ismene: The new choice Posted April 15, 2005 at 6:24 a.m. CDT
Win a couple, lose a couple Posted April 13, 2005 at 2:05 p.m. CDT
When demonstrations are not demonstrations Posted  
Posted April 12, 2005 at 11:56 a.m. CDT
The purpose of the interregnum Posted April 11, 2005 at 3:37 p.m. CDT
Be aware of Greeks bearing gifts
Posted April 10, 2005 at 10:42 a.m. CDT
He was the grandfather of their souls Posted April 8, 2005 at 10:21 a.m. CDT
Poignant and paradoxical Posted April 7, 2005 at 8:09 a.m. CDT

Two years ago this week, Sr. Chittister began writing a weekly Web column for NCR. Click on this link to read From Where I Stand by Sr. Joan Chittister,OSB.

“Can you imagine,” Tom Roberts, editor of NCR, asked Professor Adriana Valerio of Naples, “a forum in which this discussion (about women’s issues)  could take place?”

The response, I thought, stung a bit in its directness. “Six hundred women theologians of Europe work constantly to bring the debate of these questions to the world,” she said.

The implications of the simple answer were themselves damning. Women are publishing, researching, holding public and professional discussions, talking about these things every way they know how, but institutions, especially the church,  refuse to address the issue. As a result, every day more and more women become conscious of the inadequacy, the disinterest, of the very groups that claim to protect their rights, to guard their dignity, to honor their very beings

“This is not a woman’s problem,” she went on. “This is about the Church and its unity. We don’t speak about women; we are talking about the church.” When you look at the issue from that point of view, it is clear that you are using the topic that regards half the population of the globe as a measure, not of the value of women, but as a gauge of the basic morality of the institutions that deal with them, including the church.

A reporter from the Catholic News Service asked: “In regard to the revision of textbooks (which you are calling for) what women would you put in them and is this being done?” I thought instantly of the present hagiography of women saints written almost entirely from the point of view of the virtues defined for them by men their chastity, their obedience, their self-sacrifice, their devotion and waited myself to hear who or what she would include. I wasn’t surprised to hear her take another direction entirely. “Women have spoken and written texts that are invisible today,” she said. “They are lost to the historical memory of the church. The first thing a new pope would have to do is to give people freedom of speech. Women theologians have none in the church. If she speaks in public, it’s because she speaks at a secular university. If she taught in a Catholic university and said these things, she would be punished. This includes males who themselves support women's ideas, as well.”

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A reporter from Reuter’s News Agency pushed the question to its obvious end: Did Pope John Paul II hear these demands and questions directly? Did the things you want happen?

Valerio’s answer to this one went to the core of the problem. “This question relates to the bishops as well as the pope,” she said. “Of course the pope could meet with us. We would be more than happy to do so but the bishops have a responsibility (to take this issue to the center of the church) and see that the studies are begun.”

In three questions that would have been seen as innocuous if applied to almost any other social issue, the whole situation was laid bare for all to see:

First, women are trying to be heard and are being ignored.

Second, women’s ideas are being smothered in Catholic circles by being pushed to the outside edges of the institution.

Third, bishops in a special way are required to bring to the center of the church the needs of all the members of the church. Clearly they must not be doing that or the issue would be getting the attention it deserves. If the pope is not hearing all the questions, then bishops are as responsible for the lack of theological development in the church as is the pope himself.

The answers may disturb some people but what is even more disturbing, perhaps, is the thought that the questions might never have been asked. Worse, they might not have been answered so honestly. Surely Tennessee Williams was right.

However difficult the answers may be to understand, we must still “believe in the dignity and importance of the question.”

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