Cover story -- NCR celebrates 40th
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Issue Date:  December 10, 2004

Chittister to NCR: 'Stand up, speak out'


When NCR’s 40th anniversary issue arrived in my little inner city convent, I leafed through it, making mental notes of the headlines and the bylines that I’d come back to later when I had more time to think about the ideas. But as I rifled through NCR’s review of its years, I began to realize that I wasn’t really so concerned about the content of that particular NCR as I was about the idea of NCR itself. And I began to realize that I wasn’t holding a paper. I was holding three ideas that that paper had years ago brought to pulse in me.

The first idea came from the Roman philosopher Boethius: “Every age that is dying,” Boethius taught, “is simply a new age coming to life.” In fact, I thought, NCR had heralded and given hope to each new age of my life. To the nonsectarian possibility of a Kennedy-Catholic ascension, despite the historical Catholic-Protestant divide, to the legitimacy of a Catholic peace movement in the midst of a brutal war, to the dawn of a new church in the womb of the old church, in every instance, NCR, like a rope bridge over a gorge, had helped me find my way safely from one theological world to the next.

The second idea came from the Zen. “Holy One,” the disciple said, “how shall I know the difference between knowledge and enlightenment?” And the Holy One said, “When you have knowledge, you light a torch to find your way. When you have enlightenment, you become a torch to show the way.” All through those years, NCR had given me the factual background my mind needed to make the spiritual decisions my soul needed. NCR had been both light and torch for me.

And the third insight the anniversary edition touched in me that day was the life-changing part it played in my own history. It was 1964. I was in graduate school at Notre Dame. I was only a few years professed. I was an English teacher at a small Catholic high school in rural Pennsylvania. I had no credentials, no positions and not a single election to my name. Then, out of nowhere, NCR ran the story that shook the campus. A young Benedictine prioress, the paper reported, had been removed from office by the then-president of our Benedictine federation on orders from the Congregation for Religious in Rome. In an attempt to update religious life, which Vatican II had mandated religious to do, this prioress had allowed pieces of her hair to show from under her headband. Well we can wince or groan or laugh at such patent foolishness now, but those things had the aura of the moral then. In the end, in fact, the old Roman guard trumped the new documents of the council. In the end, too, that prioress left religious life entirely.

That community divided into three separate groups, depending on which church they each decided to follow: the church of the past, the church of the present, or the church yet to be seen. The community’s schools collapsed. Their finances collapsed. And that delicious interplay of history and mystery, the lifeblood of this church, was lost to all of them and to the people they served as well.

People rushed to the barricades to defend the faith, laity and cleric alike, and they accused NCR of being unorthodox, of being against the church, of being unfaithful to the pope, for publishing such a story about hair. And something else happened too. Because of that article, something new happened in me. Because of that tiny little paper and its persistent pursuit of truth, I, a little nobody from nowhere, wrote my very first letter of protest to the sister-president, whom I myself would, ironically, later succeed in office. She had, I told her from my young perch, allowed herself to be used as an instrument of oppression in the name of a faith, which I felt convinced was bigger than authoritarianism, bigger than obedience to a system, bigger than unorthodox orthodoxy. I was only a kid then, with a gleam in my eye, the image of a Galilean Jesus in my heart, and a little newspaper in my hand that was giving me a vision of both obedience and orthodoxy that rang more to me of the prophets and the martyrs than it did of either docile children or ecclesiastical climbers.

A world was splitting open, and NCR had taken me into the middle of it. It was just as Boethius knew; it was a world in transition. It was just as the Zen master demanded: It was a time to distinguish between the torchbearers and the torch. It was necessary, NCR convinced me, to find my own voice at a time when the path was not clear, at a time when new blood was needed, at a time when there was far more clamor than clarity. Other newspapers gave me knowledge; this one had enlightened me. NCR brought light, a path and a voice to a time of dizzying transition.

For those who will guide this little paper into the next 40 years, I suggest we are back in the company of ghosts we had once thought long dead. We are facing a church now that is tempted to cling to the last remnants of medievalism in the name of tradition. But the church is, at the same time, a keeper of the treasure house, clarion in its call, sure in its support of the poor who are indeed always with us.

We are facing a government whose idea of victory is vengeance, while at the same time this country’s power to do good, if we will, is unparalleled in all of human history. We are facing a society, which, at a loss to agree on social values in a world reeling from the findings of new science and hard pressed to staunch its seeping borders, is on the verge of becoming a global village badly globalized.

Confused, fearful and misled, our country is in retreat from commitment and in hot pursuit of old-time private morality and moral checklists as a substitute for the hard, searing work of living out the kind of moral meaning that feeds crowds and cures lepers and embraces children and raises the dead to life. Surely the question tonight on the verge of NCR’s 41st year is: Which world will NCR chose this time? What voice will we hear from NCR now? While at least part of the church says obey in the face of theological inconsistency, and at least part of the government says unite in the face of international scorn, and at least part of the society says choose life at birth and then votes for death by inches every moment thereafter. There are some bishops who say that sex is the only sin that really counts politically, while legislators practice pornography of nuclear weapons, the indecency of poverty, the lust of unjust wages, the debauchery of lower taxes for some, the loss of Social Security programs for others. And the rape of the planet goes unmarked, unchallenged, unnoted and totally uncensured ecclesiastically.

NCR must give us enlightenment again, must teach us the origins of these problems as well as the implications of all possible answers. How shall we know what that is in this changing age, in this changing age? The answer is a simple one, the answer has always been clear. The answer is eternally constant: by taking as our moral criteria for what is really fit to print, whatever the moral values of the world around it, the eternal, fundamental morality modeled on a mountaintop for all to hear. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus said. In a world where one out of every 318 people on the planet today is a refugee, following the garbage cans of the world looking for food, and following resources stolen from their own lands that have become jobs in other places, NCR must speak of limits and living within them.

“Mourn with those who mourn,” Jesus tells us. NCR must grieve with those who sit in cesspools in Guatemala tonight, starving, while we sit in chaise lounges, in our clubs, and sweatshop children work 70 hours a week for 20 cents an hour to make the shoes we’re buying for $150 a pair.

“Blessed are the meek and humble of heart,” taught the Jesus who allowed himself to be baptized by John. NCR must say a great anti-American truth: that the United States of America is not God. That our ways are only different, not best; that we must respect other living things, all living things, and humbly be willing to learn from each other.

“Hunger and thirst for justice,” teaches the Jesus who cures lepers. NCR must call the country to seek equity, demand equality, to practice a law that is just -- both here and at Guantanamo Bay. Only when we are seen to provide for others what we demand for ourselves will we really be safe, really be secure, really be a moral nation and a moral church.

“Be merciful, merciful, merciful,” said the Jesus who listened day by day to the outcast. NCR must never let us forget that our messianic self-image is a lie. Since 1998, 2.5 million patients have been dropped by HMOs claiming inadequate reimbursement. Of the 22 donor nations of the world, the United States ranks 22nd in per capita foreign aid. Americans believe we lead the list. And these two things in the richest nation in the world!

“Be pure of heart,” teaches the Jesus who contended with both Herod and Pilate. NCR must lead us to require truth from government and integrity from a church that is too often more concerned with saving the system than saving the people. Only one-third of the bombs dropped in Iraq are not precision guided, they tell us, but of all the smart bombs used, only 7 percent, the military says, have been really accurate. And even the accurate ones destroy nonmilitary targets and people for blocks around. And NCR must also unmask the theological propaganda that refuses to be self-critical, and so becomes self-justifying, not pure of heart at all as lay men and women stand at closed gates waiting to be heard.

“Be peacemakers,” insisted Jesus, who said, “Peter, put away your sword.” NCR must warn us as Christians that we are making havoc and calling it liberation, we are making war and calling it peace, we are imposing democracy at the end of a gun -- and failing. In the 22 countries the United States bombed from 1946-2003, in not one did a democratic government, respectful of human rights, become permanent as a result.

Say these things and you speak in the voice of the one we follow, the one we seek.

Say these things and the world that’s dying will become a new world coming to life.

Say these things and you will not only inform, you will enlighten.

Say these things and you will be to the next generation what you have been to the last: a light, a voice, a transforming influence -- a truly National Catholic Reporter.

Congratulations on 40 years of truth telling, transformation and voice. In the face of growing attempts at U.S. hegemony around the world, the ethical questions surrounding the genetic manipulation of food production, the oppression of sexual minorities, the religious polarizations concerning definitions of life, the unraveling of basic democratic principles in the United States itself, the oppression of the feminine -- its values, its goals, its agendas -- everywhere, our blatant disregard for the United Nations and the Geneva Conventions, the emergence of a new Puritanism and an old isolationism in American politics: NCR stand up, speak out and speak on.

Be who you are, be who you have always been. And if you really love the church, whatever you do, NCR, for the sake of the Galilean, for the sake of the next kid with a gleam in her eye. Whatever you do, don’t lose your nerve now.

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, a longtime contributor to NCR, presented this talk at a dinner in Washington Nov. 12, marking NCR’s 40th anniversary.

National Catholic Reporter, December 10, 2004

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