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Of force, fear


The Protestant theologian Martin Niemoeller wrote at the end of World War II: “They came first for the communists, and I didn’t speak because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me and, by that time, there was no one left to speak up.”

Like the rest of my generation, I lived through institutionalized racism and the Vietnam War, Christian anti-Semitism and religious intolerance far too silently. Now we find ourselves faced with the Vatican silencing of School Sister of Notre Dame Jeannine Gramick after her years of ministry to the gay and lesbian community, and we are again confronted with the issue of our own silence.

This is not a column about homosexuality, though given the findings of modern science, the insights of psychology and the witness of history, homosexuality is clearly a subject worthy of serious, ongoing reflection. It is not a column about due process, though that is surely a subject worthy of a great deal of thought in a world where human rights are fast becoming the basis of even international relationships. It is not a column about the role of religion in life, though to ignore such a subject is always to risk crossing over from worship to magic.

No, this column, rather, is about something even greater than those things. It is about the darker aspects of human nature that militate against due process, human rights and the most fundamental of religious values. It is about force and fear and what it does to the best of humankind. The picture is not a pretty one. It raises questions of grave moral import for us all.

This column is about the problem of who is permitted to talk about what and who gets the right to say so and what happens to the soul of a people and the fiber of a church when reflection is suppressed and questions are denied.

In the post-World War II culture in which most of us have been raised, a great deal of ink has been spilled over the pages of history about Christian soldiers, public figures, Christian neighbors, Catholic clerics who did nothing whatsoever to save Jews, to confront Hitler, to say a word of reason to a government gone mad with power. In our own time, we look back with shame and wonder why we never so much as questioned segregation, why we asked so few questions about the role of the CIA in Central America, why we so naively accepted so many official explanations as true that later, it became clear, were obviously false. And down deep we know it is because we knew what happened to people who did such things: They were ostracized or harassed or arrested.

In the church, the corrosive spiritual effects of having no arena -- no right -- for people to discuss questions of science and relics and witches and faith and the ordination of women and the sacrament of marriage and the requirement of celibacy and the validity of slavery and the nature of the universe go back centuries. The question is, how can the truth become so obscured for so long? How is it that otherwise good people will close their minds to the obvious, will call white black and bad good?

The answer keeps coming back to the same insidious center: Someone somewhere snuffs out the light, and the rest of us fail to light it again. Someone somewhere has the power it takes to cow a people into silence, into submission, into sin. We know that for asking forbidden questions such as those, they excommunicate people or condemn them publicly or call them heretics or torture them for years at the psychological stake. They do all those things in the name of piety, in the name of obedience, in the name of salvation, in the name of God. They make the current sin a virtue and they enslave the people to fear. Better to say nothing, I learn early, and save my own life, my own position, my own security -- my own soul -- than to raise honest questions, to say another truth and save the gospel.

Now we are watching it happen again. We are in the throes of a culture of ecclesiastical silencings designed, I’m sure, to save the church by imposing gag orders on the human soul and mind. The mandate to Gramick -- of which, of course, we are expected not to speak -- requires that she not question the process that condemns her, not speak her case, not criticize its conclusion, not raise her questions. Despite the fact that her only problem, it seems, is not what she says but what she refuses to say: her own private thoughts on the morality of homosexuality.

But what is being served by a call for such unquestioning intellectual submission, for loyalty that betrays the questions, for obedience that is at best intimidation? Certainly not the authenticity of the church. Certainly not the integrity of the process. Certainly not the nature of religious life if, as Vatican documents say, religious life is really the prophetic dimension of the church. If the cause is so clear, why is it necessary to enforce it at the end of a stick? Why is it necessary to threaten to put on the streets a woman religious who has served that church well for 40 years by ministering to one of the most neglected groups in society? If the process is so just, why can’t it be examined? If the conclusion is so obvious, why is it necessary to plague a person with expulsion to maintain it? What is it about this truth that does not itself persuade? And if scandal is the problem, surely answering one scandal with another is hardly the answer.

Great sin we seem as a church to abide quite well. For pedophilia, ecclesiastical torture, war crimes and Crusades we neither silence nor excommunicate. But great questions, and the people who raise them, great company all -- Teilhard de Chardin, John Courtney Murray, Leonardo Boff, Yves Congar -- we stamp out ruthlessly. Until, of course, those challenges -- the design of the universe, the nature of women, the place of religious pluralism, the supremacy of conscience -- return to haunt us, to measure us, to condemn us. And they always do.

The greatest question of them all, of course, is which is really the greater sin in a time of doubt: the use of force to keep standard ideas intact or the passive capitulation to fear that keeps the rest of us silent at a time when real faith demands that we question and question and question? One thing for sure: History will faithfully remember who did what when it was needed most.

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister writes from Erie, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, August 11, 2000