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Peoria bans teachers from conference


Catholic officials in Peoria, Ill., have barred diocesan educators from attending a major national Catholic educational meeting because of objections to its program. Peoria’s ban is similar to one announced by the Pittsburgh diocese a month earlier.

The meeting, the annual convocation of the Washington-based National Catholic Educational Association, draws thousands of Catholic educators from around the country. In many dioceses, educators are encouraged to attend and, in the case of parish teachers of religion, some dioceses grant continuing education credits toward diocesan certification.

This year’s convocation will be held in Milwaukee April 17-20.

In a memo obtained by NCR, the vicar general of the Peoria diocese ordered the boycott, saying, “Unfortunately, this year we are not assured that authentic Catholic teaching will be presented throughout the programs for the convocation.”

The vicar general, Msgr. Steven P. Rohlfs, addressed his memo to principals of Catholic schools, religious education directors and chaplains. It was dated Dec. 20.

The memo in Peoria, like one sent to Catholic educators in Pittsburgh a month earlier, cited no specific objections to the program, and Rohlfs, at press time, had not responded to an inquiry from NCR. Rohlfs said in his memo that the diocesan directive originated with Bishop John J. Myers.

In the case of Pittsburgh, NCR learned that the boycott had been prompted by a scheduled talk by Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister. A noted speaker and writer who supports women’s ordination, Chittister is among featured speakers. The convocation also includes some 400 sessions for educators at all levels, from elementary to seminary.

The memo in Pittsburgh was signed by Fr. Kris D. Stubna, who said he was acting with the approval of Bishop Donald D. Wuerl.

Four points in the memo from Peoria were nearly identical to one distributed in Pittsburgh. In both dioceses, officials are prohibiting staff from attending the convocation, prohibiting diocesan, parish or school funds from being used to pay expenses related to the meeting, and prohibiting any member of the diocese from gaining education credits from participation in the convocation.

Claire Helm, vice president of operations for the educational association, said she assumes that Peoria officials, like those in Pittsburgh, were objecting to Chittister’s talk. “I’m assuming , but I don’t really know,” she said. “I know of no other speaker or topic that’s generated that reaction.”

Helm said registration for this year’s convocation “looks pretty strong.” Further, she said, the association had received considerable support for its decision to keep Chittister on the program.

“We’ve received a steady stream of letters and e-mails from people concerned about those objections to her presence and expressing the hope that she would remain on the program,” Helm said. She said she found the assertion that Chittister does not represent church teaching to be “troubling.”

“The fact of the matter is, we would never invite someone to speak who we felt was not faithful to church teaching,” she said.

Chittister said her reaction to Peoria’s move is similar to her reaction to Pittsburgh’s ban: that it violates the tradition of Catholic education.

“This is an unfortunate but an important situation,” she said. “It’s not about me. It’s about the attitude, our attitude as a church, toward thinking, ideas, and development of a mature faith.”

The convocation “is an educational arena. If ideas can’t be examined there, and we don’t trust our teachers to do that, let alone our administrators, where shall it be done, and what will that say to the rest of the world about the considered value of Catholic thought?”

National Catholic Reporter, January 26, 2001