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She’s a Benedictine, Bible-based feminist


Joan Chittister is a courageous soul. She is not known for timidity, but even she admitted to stomach jitters as she stood in a hallway behind a packed auditorium last month ready to take her critique of patriarchy into the proverbial lion’s den. She was to speak at a religious institute on a large hill overlooking the Vatican.

More than 500 mostly religious leaders, many of them congregation heads, were lining the aisles and leaning against window sills as the Benedictine from Erie, Pa., sat down before them.

She was half of a program sponsored by SEDOS, the international Catholic documentary service. Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, master general of the Dominican order, followed her, speaking on the spirituality of missions. Radcliffe is a feminist of another stripe, along with Chittister a real sign of hope in the contemporary church.

If their style of delivery was a marked contrast, the spirit they shared was evident when the cheerful Dominican leaned over and gave the Benedictine a bear hug and kissed her on the cheek.

“Fasten your seatbelt,” Chittister told the audience as she began her talk. From there it was full speed ahead. Her talk wove together prayer and spirituality with analysis aimed at offering an understanding of the church and society in the contemporary world, all by way of a strong feminist perspective.

“It is precisely a woman’s experience of God that this world lacks,” she said. “God the lawgiver, God the judge, God the omnipotent being has consumed Western spirituality and, in the end, shriveled its heart and swallowed its soul.

“A spirituality that listens only to the spiritual wisdom of some and not of all, to men but not to women, is no spirituality at all. It is simply the ecclesiastical offshoot of a sinful system.”

Truth be known, Chittister is a traditionalist. She never strays far from her Benedictine biblical base. But she is a very contemporary nun, pleading everywhere for Catholics to get involved in facing the pressing social and economic issues of the times. But these cannot be fully understood, she maintains, without an adequate understanding of the evils of patriarchy.

“Feminism ... is not a woman’s question,” she explains. “It is the human question of the century. It is the spiritual question of all time. It’s not about getting what men already have. Not on your life! That’s not nearly enough. Feminism is about getting a better world -- for everybody.”

Over the years Chittister has become a walking publishing house, a one-person speakers bureau. It’s not that her feminist critique is new. It’s not. It is simply that she articulates it as few others do. With oratorical force and humor, too.

Chittister sees Christ as liberator. She speaks as a feminist, she says, because she wants to help free men as well as women from patriarchal chains. This requires understanding what holds them back.

In Chittister’s world, the Catholic church is tightly hobbled and is totally unable to tackle the spiritual challenges of the times. This is because the Catholic church structure, an accident of history, is patriarchal and, worse, acts out of fear more than it acts out of faith. She acknowledges that women strike fear in the hearts of the church leadership, send them trembling. But she also believes the feminist message, carried now by women and many men, can restore long lost balance in Catholicism.

No wonder some church officials feel threatened by what Chittister says and what she represents. Chittister is the reason Pittsburgh educators were barred from attending a National Catholic Educational Association convocation (NCR, Dec. 22).

The problem with barring people from events they might want to attend is that it often backfires. My guess is that for every missing Pittsburgh educator at the educational association gathering this year another two or three Catholic educators, curious about the commotion, will take their places. I further suspect those who do attend the convocation and get a chance to hear Chittister will leave inspired by her comments and better fueled to return to the work of teaching Catholics.

The religious who heard Chittister speak last month listened with eyes wide open. Many were being exposed to ideas that are relatively new to them. But to judge from nodding heads and the sustained applause that followed Chittister’s remarks, she had touched souls and given her listeners much to consider.

Chittister tells the story of a meeting she had some years back with a top member of the Roman curia. He told her point blank that her likes were a threat to the church and that American women religious were infecting Catholicism.

“You are right,” Chittister replied. “And it’s too late to stop that infection now because the disease is the Holy Spirit.”

Tom Fox, NCR publisher, can be reached at tfox@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, January 12, 2001