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Chittister visit irks neighboring chancellor

NCR Staff

A Benedictine priory in the Omaha, Neb., archdiocese has been chastised by the chancellor of the neighboring Lincoln, Neb., diocese, in response to the “distressing news” that Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister was invited to speak at the priory’s retreat center.

The chancellor, Msgr. Timothy J. Thorburn, told the Benedictine Mission House, Christ the King Priory, in Schuyler, Neb., that he would discourage anyone seeking a religious vocation with the community and would prevent promotion of its retreat house, St. Benedict Center, in the Lincoln diocese.

“It was very disturbing that [Chittister] was speaking in an area very close to the diocese of Lincoln,” Thorburn told NCR.

The Benedictine Mission House consulted with Omaha Archbishop Elden Curtiss about Chittister’s one-day program June 19 at St. Benedict Center. According to a spokesperson for the monks, Curtiss requested that the Benedictine nun not touch on the subject of women’s ordination or make “aggressive arguments against the church.”

Chittister told NCR she will deliver talks titled “Ecology, Theology and Feminism: In Conjunction or In Conflict” and “A Heart of Flesh: Feminist Spirituality for Women and for Men.”

In the Lincoln diocese, Fr. Robert Matya, diocesan vocation director, cited the Benedictine Mission House’s “endorsement of [Chittister] as a credible speaker,” as he withdrew an invitation for a representative of the community to attend the diocese’s annual Vocation Education Day, just days before the Feb. 27 event.

Meanwhile, in a Feb. 26 letter to the Benedictine community in Schuyler, Thorburn used language from Lincoln Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz’s 1996 excommunication order of members of Call to Action, a Catholic reform group that includes other bishops among its members. In the letter, Thornburg said Chittister “is a dissenter from Catholic teaching in many areas and, in fact, is an active member of Call to Action, an organization whose teachings ‘are always perilous to the Catholic faith and most often [are] totally incompatible with the Catholic faith.’ ”

Because of the scheduled program with Chittister, Thorburn wrote, “I shall be obliged in conscience to do all that I can to discourage anyone from considering a religious vocation in your community, from frequenting the St. Benedict Center, to repent for my past speaking favorably about it and to do what I can to prevent the advertising of your facility in the diocese of Lincoln.”

The nine monks in Schuyler, seven of whom are from Germany, opened the retreat center in 1997. The community’s primary ministry since it was founded in 1935 is fundraising for foreign missions.

Thorburn, who is director of the Lincoln diocese’s Our Lady of Good Counsel Retreat House in Waverly, Neb., sent a copy of his letter to Archabbot Wolf Notker, head of the monks’ congregation, the Missionary Benedictine Congregation of St. Ottilien, in Germany.

Notker told NCR, “Our houses are independent, and I don’t like to interfere. I personally appreciate Sr. Joan Chittister. If they want to have her there, it’s their own business. Of course she may have statements that don’t please everybody in the church, but I think we should be open enough to listen to other opinions.”

Notker said he sent Thorburn a letter telling him that he respected his opinion and thanking him for his support for the Benedictine missions in the past.

Fr. Michael Gutgsell, chancellor of the Omaha archdiocese, told NCR that he had heard nothing about the concern of the Lincoln diocese officials.

Gutgsell said that Curtiss discussed Chittister’s scheduled talk with the prior, Benedictine Fr. Germar Neubert, after some private individuals protested the talk. Gutgsell said Curtiss did not give any directive that the talk be canceled. The archbishop was unavailable for comment.

Gutgsell said that while anyone has the right to act on a concern, a diocese’s bishop would be the appropriate person to exercise oversight. “Since the priory is in the Omaha archdiocese, the archbishop of Omaha has the responsibility to make sure that the event, person or activity under concern is not a danger to church teaching,” he said.

Thorburn said he did not want to comment on any decisions made by the Omaha archdiocese. “However, I believe that someone who does not believe in the teachings of the Catholic church should not be held up as a legitimate person to learn about the faith from,” he said.

Benedictine Br. Tobias Dammert, spokesperson for the priory, told NCR that Curtiss only requested that Chittister not speak about women’s ordination or make critical attacks on the church. “We have talked to Sister, and she is aware of the situation, but she will certainly speak what needs to be said,” Dammert said.

Chittister said, “I have never said anything contrary to the spirit of Jesus in the gospels and I have no intention of starting now. I see nothing in either lecture that violates that position, however. So no, nothing has been changed.”

She added, “I can appreciate the fact that most bishops are trying very hard to enable thinking and protect the unity of the church at the same time. I respect that. I do believe in questions, however, and I do not believe that anything is ever served by censorship.”

Dammert, who is vocation director for the Schuyler community, said he did not anticipate that the actions of Lincoln diocesan officials would have much impact on vocation inquiries, since in the past most of those have come from the Omaha archdiocese. The retreat house has not been advertised in Lincoln because that diocese has its own retreat house, he said.

Regardless of whether the controversy hurts these areas or their fundraising efforts, “we want to be open to various aspects of the church and to make people welcome,” Dammert said. “It needs to be an open church.”

National Catholic Reporter, June 4, 1999