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Pittsburgh bows out of major education meeting

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

A priest who serves as secretary for education in the Pittsburgh diocese has barred staff and educators there from attending the National Catholic Educational Association convocation because Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister will be a featured speaker, NCR has learned.

Chittister, a noted Catholic author and speaker, has been a strong advocate for women’s full equality in the church. The convocation will be held in Milwaukee in April.

In a vaguely worded, one-page memo, dated Nov. 22, the priest, Fr. Kris D. Stubna told educators in his diocese, “It has become apparent that the program does not have the quality that would warrant participation and expenditure on the part of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.”

The memo was sent to elementary and secondary principals, catechetical administrators and youth ministers in the 220-parish diocese. The boycott is likely to reduce attendance at the convocation by several hundred people. Despite that impact, an official for the association said Chittister would remain on the program. Her topic is spirituality and educational leadership.

The four-day convocation is expected to draw between 10,000 and 12,000 participants. Members pay $140, and non-members pay $210.

Stubna would not give specifics regarding his decision to issue the memo, but the education association, responding to inquiries from NCR, said Stubna had written the association to object to Chittister’s role. His letter was dated Nov. 14.

The association, a professional organization for Catholic educators, has no direct ties to the church’s hierarchy, though it relies on support from diocesan staff and educators. President of the association’s board is Bishop Robert J. Banks of Green Bay, Wis.

The association’s response to NCR was in the form of a prepared statement in which the organization acknowledged it “had been in dialogue with Fr. Stubna about this issue for several weeks.” Like Stubna, association officials were not willing to discuss the specifics of the disagreement over Chittister.

Chittister, reached by e-mail in Rome, said she was surprised and distressed to learn of the boycott, though she realizes that some might disagree with her views.

“I presume my commitment to the ordination of women might be a stumbling block to those who believe, contrary to the experience and proof of history, that theology never develops,” she said.

Chittister said Stubna’s actions amount to “intimidation and censorship, both of which are shameful in a so-called academic community.”

“That someone would deal with basic ideas differently or see things from another perspective only stands to reason,” she said. “That is the very nature of idea development. What does not stand to reason, in my opinion, is to deny other people the right and opportunity to do the same. … That would seem to me to be a sad position for educators to take who claim to be training the next generation to think.”

Other general-session speakers featured on the program are Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, who heads the Milwaukee archdiocese, and Howard Fuller, distinguished professor of education at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

In his memo to diocesan staff and educators, Stubna made the following points:

  • No diocesan staff will attend the association’s meeting;
  • No diocesan expenditure will be permitted for any expenses related to the meeting;
  • No continuing education credit will be granted for any part of the 2001 convocation for anyone in the diocese.

Stubna wrote, “Our participation in the NCEA has always been predicated on the assumption that our ministry as Catholic educators in the church would be strengthened and nurtured. Our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, has consistently maintained that any presentation of faith and Catholic education in the name of the church must have completeness and authenticity. It appears that the program set forth by the NCEA at its upcoming convocation suffers from a lack of completeness in its program and an incompatibility with authentic teaching. These circumstances, in fact, are detrimental to the faith development of persons in ministry. Regrettably, these failures make it unacceptable for Catholic educators in the Diocese of Pittsburgh to participate in the convocation.”

The vice president of the education association, Claire Helm, said Stubna and the association’s president, Leonard DeFiore, had exchanged letters about Chittister’s role. Helm said Stubna did not issue an ultimatum regarding Chittister’s participation in the convocation. “He just expressed his concerns about her presence on the agenda,” Helm said.

In an interview with NCR, Stubna said: “We’re simply raising issues that we think the program, in general, this year suffers from a lack of completeness and some incompatibility with what we consider to be authentic teachings of the church. I just can’t, in my position, allow the diocese to give credit for a program that has some flaws in it like that. It’s really a formation experience. This isn’t a social gathering or a fellowship experience. It really is a formative experience for our people in ministry, and it has to be formative in ways that support our objectives and our goals. I think we expect our catechists and our teachers to be in a position, in whatever ministry they’re in, whether in school or [religious education programs], to present the complete faith as set forth by the catechism of the Catholic church; to do it in a way that promotes fidelity to the church.”

Without specifically saying so, Stubna indicated that his decision to boycott the convocation had the approval of Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl. “This decision came only after extensive conversations with NCEA and with our own diocese,” Stubna said.

Helm said the association took Stubna’s criticism “extremely seriously,” but the invitation to Chittister would not be withdrawn. Helm said Stubna’s criticism, which could result in perhaps hundreds of fewer participants at the convocation, “was certainly not handled lightly or dismissed as simply a minor complaint.” The 98-year-old organization trains Catholic educators and provides educational programs.

Stubna said “several hundred” teachers from the Pittsburgh diocese attended last spring’s convocation in Baltimore.

The financial impact of Stubna’s decision “in terms of numbers ... is probably not as significant,” Helm said. “But that’s a big diocese, and any statement like that I think ... would be very troubling certainly if it was felt that the convention wasn’t going to be helpful, which it’s designed to be.”

Stubna said his department oversees 2,000 schoolteachers in 120 elementary and 11 high schools, nearly 6,000 volunteer religious education catechists and more than 100 professional or semiprofessional youth ministers who together serve the educational needs of more than 100,000 youth.

“Obviously it’s my hope, too, that our concerns will also have an impact on the kinds of decisions that people at NCEA will make for their future convocations,” Stubna said. “Pittsburgh is a large diocese. We generally have a good number of people attending, so I would think they would obviously be sensitive to our concerns.”

Stubna said this was the first time in his eight years as education secretary that he had taken such action against the assciation. “I would obviously hope that it represents a unique kind of time and that this won’t happen again, because, generally speaking, the NCEA has always provided a very strong and solid program,” he said.

He also said his decision was not designed to send a message to the association’s officials. “I can honestly say my concerns rest solely with being a person of some integrity with regard to directing our teachers to those kinds of programs that are going to support their formation,” he said. “This is the very first time that we’ve raised concerns about the NCEA program.”

Stubna said he has refused to grant continuing education credits for other organizational gatherings that don’t measure up, such as the East Coast Conference for Religious Education. “We haven’t given credit for that for eight or nine years now,” he said.

With both Stubna and the association unwilling to elaborate on the boycott, some Pittsburgh educators are seeking more information.

St. Joseph Sr. Margaret Berry, principal of St. John of God Elementary School in McKees Rocks, Pa., said she has written to Stubna and “asked him respectfully for the reasons” behind his sending the November memo.

“I don’t know the reasons why the letter came,” said Berry, who has attended previous association meetings. “As an educator, I think I need to know the reasons why. ... I understand why we would not get diocesan money if a program were totally against, for instance, the teaching of the church. … I don’t know the reasons for it. I have taken the appropriate steps to find out the information.”

St. Joseph Sr. Janice Vanderneck, a religion teacher at St. James Catholic School in Sewickley, Pa. said she has contacted the association and plans to write Stubna in hopes of getting more information about the dispute.

Vanderneck, who has read some of Chittister’s books and articles, said, “Making that kind of a proscription on a diocesan staff really doesn’t take into account their ability to critique and discern for themselves.” Further, she said, to bar her, along with other educators, from participation “lacks any respect for my ability to make good professional decisions about information that I hear, talks that I hear and things that I read.”

Several other educators in the diocese declined to comment on Stubna’s memo.

The association’s Helm said Stubna’s is the only complaint the group has received regarding the upcoming meeting. When it’s over, the association’s staff will evaluate the gathering and take another look at Stubna’s complaint, Helm said.

“We’ve had a hundred years of these conventions,” Helm said. “I don’t know of one of them that probably hasn’t generated some heat or, better yet, light, about somebody on the agenda. There’s no way that we’re going to ever satisfy everybody. I think he has a right to disagree. I think it’s fair to say I respect his right to do that. To say that we were intimidated by that is probably not accurate. We took it very seriously, and Sr. Joan is still on the convention agenda.”

National Catholic Reporter, December 22, 2000