Rosalie G. Riegle is a nonviolent peace activist and oral historian. Her latest books are Doing Time: Resistance, Family, and Community and Crossing the Line: Nonviolent Resisters Speak Out for Peace.
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Leading with Wisdom
MANY KNOW Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister as a prophetic spiritual writer and an engaging speaker; others call to mind her sister-leadership, her feminism, and her defiance of the Vatican. What Tom Roberts’ startling new biography uncovers, with the full cooperation of Sister Joan, are the horrors of a childhood filled with violence and poverty and the vivid details of her growth as a spokesperson for women’s equality in the Catholic Church.
The book’s three parts each deal with a phase in Chittister’s spiritual growth. The early years, with harrowing accounts of protecting her mother from a brutal and alcoholic stepfather and entering an Erie Benedictine community still steeped in old-world traditions, conclude with Chittister receiving her Ph.D. from Penn State, a first for her order.
Part two chronicles the tumultuous middle years when religious communities everywhere were adapting to a radically changing world. Chittister grew in critical consciousness about the role of women in the church and served three terms as prioress of her order, helping her community to move from its traditional vocation of teaching to serving a changing neighborhood. Their projects, under the umbrella term of peacemaking, took the form of urban gardens, art workshops, afterschool programs, peace centers, houses of hospitality, and soup kitchens, and eventually to the formation of online communities of monastic spirituality. For those who haven’t read Chittister’s own writing on these years, Roberts could have included more information on pre-Vatican II convent life here.
Part three finds Chittister moving beyond the community of U.S. sisters to worldwide leadership, ably assisted by her lifelong friend Sister Maureen Tobin. Chittister traveled on peacemaking journeys to Palestine and Israel, worked in Haiti and the Philippines, and took part in several worldwide conferences, including the 1995 U.N. World Conference on Women in Beijing and an ecumenical conference in Nairobi. All this while still plagued by the ravages of childhood polio!
In 2001, Chittister was invited to speak at the first international conference of Women’s Ordination Worldwide, to be held in in Dublin. Vatican officials ordered her prioress, the late Christine Vladimiroff, to “forbid and prohibit” Chittister’s participation. Roberts details the courage of Vladimiroff and the community as they collectively resisted the Vatican in support of Chittister.
When Chittister addressed the Dublin conference about discipleship, she asked “What do the people really need?” answering that “they need the sacred, not the sexist ... more prophets of equality, not more pretenders to a priesthood of male privilege. They need discipleship, not canonical decrees.” In her assertion that Christian discipleship will, sooner or later, “tumble a person from the banquet tables ... to the most suspect margins of both church and society,” she foreshadowed some of Pope Francis’ wisdom. She begged that the question of women as priests be seriously considered in papal circles, lamenting that it had not yet happened. (It still has not yet happened.)
A Resistance Leader
VATICAN II attempted to change the Roman Catholic Church from an insular and defensive purveyor of 19th century religious practices to one with an incarnational theology and a vigorous recognition that the laity are called to be holy and to participate actively in the Church. Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen tried to live this out in his Seattle archdiocese, making changes that empowered both men and women and trying to build a diocese that was indeed “the people of God.”
A record of this important work and its devastating fallout are at the heart of A Still and Quiet Conscience. Hunthausen’s early years growing up in a close and very Catholic family, attending an old-school seminary, serving at Carroll College and as bishop of Helena, Mont., and now living in prayerful retirement, are interesting bookends. However it is a fearsome Vatican investigation into Hunthausen and its ambiguous result that are the center of this well-researched and helpfully indexed book.
I was angered when I read of the duplicity, divisions, and cover-ups within the Catholic Church in the last years of the 20th century. The “irregularities” cited as the reason for the investigation into Hunthausen were practices also found in other (uninvestigated) U.S. dioceses, such as letting people discuss the ordination of women, allowing unleavened bread at Communion, and allowing the gay rights group Dignity to worship on church grounds.
Incubating Peaceful Revolution
Pursuing the Spiritual Roots of Protest. Cascade Books.
A Reign of Terror
Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom. W.W. Norton and Company.
Schema For Peace
In “Critical Mass” (January 2012), Karen Sue Smith’s summary of changes in the U.S. Catholic Church since Vatican II, I was dismayed not to see any mention of the profound influence of the sections on peace in “The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.”
A Life in Letters
All the Way to Heaven: The Selected Letters of Dorothy Day, edited by Robert Ellsberg.
Repairers of the Breach
A program that educates Iraqi students in the U.S. is helping to rebuild Iraq, one student at a time.