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Chittister cheered despite boycott

NCR Staff

It was all over but the cheering by the time Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister spoke at the final session of the National Catholic Educational Association convention here. Five dioceses had protested her presence as one of three keynote speakers at the April 17-20 meeting. Most but not all of their teachers had, on instruction, duly stayed away.

School teachers, administrators and parish catechists from other dioceses across the country had met for four days of talks and seminars designed to inspire and assist them in their work.

But when Chittister strode to the podium April 20 to address the gathering, she received a rousing welcome, the crowd rising to their feet to salute a figure who appears to be as much the poster child of Catholic liberals as she is the bane of religious conservatives within the church.

Calls by bishops, or their administrators, in the dioceses of Pittsburgh; Peoria, Ill.; Lincoln, Neb.; Tulsa, Okla.; and LaCrosse, Wis., for teachers and school administrators to boycott the conference, or at the very least Chittister’s part in it, because of Chittister’s support for women’s ordination, reflects the touchiness of a topic that provoked a minor hullabaloo even in the normally uncontroversial educational association. Though issues had occasionally roiled the waters in the past, administrators said this was the first time in their 98-year history that a particular speaker had prompted such concerted opposition.

“We are not a very controversial group,” said Barbara Keebler, director of communications, who pointed out that Chittister had been invited to the conference to speak on the issue of spirituality, not women’s role within the church.

Before the conference, two diocesan officials -- the secretary of Catholic education in Pittsburgh and the bishop of Peoria -- had been on record as opposing Chittister’s presence on the speakers’ roster. They were joined later by the bishops of Lincoln, Tulsa, and LaCrosse. Officials in those dioceses declined to comment on their opposition.

Another bishop, Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee was one of the keynote speakers at the conference.

If the bishops’ intention was to silence discussion, the strategy seems to have misfired, with many of the teachers and administrators attending the conference critical of an effort to squelch open exchange of ideas.

“One of the basic freedoms we have as Americans is that people are able to assemble and to speak and listen to others,” said Chris Scallan, a teacher in Beloit, Wis.

“The more the church tries to silence people like that, the bigger hole they’re digging for themselves,” said a Wisconsin middle school teacher who didn’t wish to be identified.

While acknowledging that bishops have a right and responsibility to guide those entrusted to their care, Michele Campbell, the principal of St. Rose High School in Belman, N.J., said she nonetheless found the bishops’ action regrettable.

“It’s very unfortunate for the church to divide itself in this manner,” she said. “We’re teachers. That means we’re supposed to be intellectuals. We’re supposed to help our young people open themselves to ideas and opinions. How can we form an opinion if we don’t hear things?”

Dr. Claire Helm, vice president of operations and director of leadership development for the association, said planners had followed usual procedures in selecting Chittister to speak.

“I’m not sure anyone on the initial planning session anticipated the reaction her presence brought. She was selected because she was well-published and well-thought of in the area of spirituality,” Helm said.

If the opposition to Chittister, an internationally recognized speaker, the author of 20 books and a professor of ecumenical theology at Xavier University, took the association by surprise, it also caught Chittister unawares. In an interview following a book signing at the conference, Chittister said the decision by several dioceses to withhold diocesan funding and continuing education credits for teachers attending the conference surprised, saddened and embarrassed her. But the warm reception she’d received at the conference had also given her “an insight into a thinking church.”

Chittister spoke of the irony that all issues but women’s status in the church seem open to discussion today. “We can talk about cloning, about nuclear war, about pedophilia. But we can’t talk about women. At most we ought to honor their questions with some serious discussion.”

While eschewing any interest in ordination for herself -- “If you ordain women tomorrow, I would not be there. Joan Chittister has absolutely no call to be a priest” -- Chittister returned to the question of the “full equality of women within the church” in her keynote speech to educators on spiritual leadership.

She challenged her audience to consider a panoply of social ills, from pollution to sweatshop labor to nuclear war to the ravages of AIDS in Africa, but throughout the talk it was her references to women’s status in the church that drew spontaneous applause from schoolteachers and administrators.

“Teach them [students] to ask how it is that one sex can take upon itself the right to define what God wants of the other one,” Chittister said. “Teach them to ask what kind of God it is that would give a woman a mind, a soul, a baptism and a call and then forbid her to answer it when a sacramental church is in danger of losing the sacraments.”

When she was growing up, Chittister said Catholics had been so ghettoized tht there was a Catholic arithmetic book, a Catholic geography book, a Catholic history book, even a Catholic spelling book. Now she mused that perhaps it was time for a Catholic arithmetic that would look at the distribution of food, a Catholic geography book that would examine the expoitation of resources and a Catholic speller that would spell “male” and “female” e-q-u-a-l.

Chittister’s talk earned a standing ovation from the crowd, some of whom sported “I Support Joan Chittister” badges. The association had anticipated about 10,000 people would attend the conference, but more than 14,000 people turned out.

Helm said it was difficult to say at this point whether the furor aroused by Chittister’s speaking at the convention would make the education association more cautious in the future.

“I think because we’ve been at this so long, we’re learning all the time how to do it better. I’m not sure it will automatically change the process. We haven’t had our debriefing session, so I can’t speak to what we’ve learned from this year’s conference,” Helm said.

The theme of the convention was “Catholic Education 2001: Leading the Way.” The conference offered scores of seminars and workshops of interest to teachers and administrators and hosted a one-day symposium on school choice.

Margot Patterson’s e-mail is mpatterson@natcath.org

The full text of Chittister’s talk is on NCR’s web site, www.natcath.org/ncr_onli.htm click on documents button

National Catholic Reporter, May 4, 2001