Joan Chittister

Leading with Wisdom

Joan Chittister
Joan Chittister

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.)

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Sister Joan Chittister, the Dissident Nun, Shares Her Secret Life

Sister Joan Chittister, center, in Chiapas, Mexico. Image via Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Penn. / RNS

Veteran Catholic writer Tom Roberts thought he knew Sister Joan Chittister — the maverick Benedictine nun who dares speak her mind to her church.

He didn’t.

When Roberts, editor at large for the National Catholic Reporter, went to interview her three years ago in Erie, Pa., at the community where she entered religious life at age 16, a secret she’s held for a lifetime came to light.

Religion, Scripture, and the Value of Women

Gender equality wordcloud, mypokcik / Shutterstock.com
Gender equality wordcloud, mypokcik / Shutterstock.com

The third edition of the Shriver Report, a media initiative spearheaded by Maria Shriver to call public attention to women’s evolving role in the home, workplace, and society, was released this month.

With a large body of articles, research, polls, data, and personal stories, the report assesses the unique needs, pressures, and realities women face. Contributors within the faith, health, academic, economic, and political communities are represented, coupled with intentional cultural and social diversity. This gives the Shriver Report a richness of deep and thoughtful voices. The aim is to strike up provocative, meaningful, national conversations on how progressive policies can be better directed to advance gender equality in the United States.

One of the most eye-catching article headlines for me in reading the report was “ Are Women Devalued by Religions?” In the article, sister Joan Chittister remarks on how our assumptions about religion influence our actions, and how the outworking of our actions shapes the norms and policies we guide our lives by. Unfortunately, these assumed beliefs can lead to commonly accepted views that completely distort what God has to say about women.

Sister Joan Chittister's Stanford Baccalaureate Address

Sister Joan and Bono, 2008. Photo by Gold Wong/FilmMagic)/Getty.
Sister Joan blessing Sojo friend, Bono, at the '08 Women's Conference in California. Photo by Gold Wong/FilmMagic)/Getty.

Editor's Note: Sister Joan Chittister, the Benedictine Catholic sister, author and social justice stalwart, delivered the Baccalaureate address at Stanford University a few weeks ago. Below is the text of her address. 

Bertolt Brecht, German dramatist and poet wrote: "There are many elements to a campaign. Leadership is number one. Everything else is number two."

And Walter Lippmann said: "The final test of a leader is someone who leaves behind themselves – in others – the conviction and the will to carry on."

But how do we know what it means to really be a leader and how do we know who should do it?

There are some clues to those answers in folk literature, I think. The first story is about two boats that meet head on in a shipping channel at night.

As boats are wont to do in the dark, boat number 1 flashed boat number 2: "We are on a collision course. Turn your boat 10 degrees north."

Boat 2 signaled back: "Yes, we are on a collision course. Turn your boat 10 degrees south."

Boat 1 signaled again: "I am an admiral in her majesty's navy; I am telling you to turn your boat 10 degrees north."

Boat 2 flashed back immediately: "And I am a seaman 2nd class. And I am telling you to turn your boat 10 degrees south."

By this time, the admiral was furious. He flashed back: "I repeat! I am an admiral in her majesty's navy and I am commanding you to turn your boat 10 degrees north. I am in a battleship!"

And the second boat returned a signal that said: "And I am commanding you to turn your boat 10 degrees south. I am in a lighthouse."

Point: Rank, titles and positions are no substitute for leadership.

A Sign and a Choice: The Spirituality of Community

The Benedictine sisters in Erie share a rich community life centered in prayer and ministry and, under Joan Chittister's leadership, have become well known for their commitment to feminism and peacemaking. Joyce Hollyday interviewed Chittister while enjoying their hospitality.

-The Editors

Sojourners: You are part of a tradition that goes back more than 1,500 years, and one of the major aspects of that tradition is the importance of community. Religious life has always taken the shape of community. Could you talk a little about why that is so?

Joan Chittister: It's Basil, a Father of the Church, who says, "Whose feet shall the hermit wash?" That question is the basis of the spirituality of community.

The function of the Christian community in sharing the bedrock of Christian spirituality is the upbuilding, the co-creation of the kingdom; the bringing of the kingdom now, the bringing of now for the kingdom. So, like the community recorded in the book of Acts, the major witness of the new Christian community is the creation of an alternative way of life.

Benedict of Nursia, founder of the Benedictines, deepened his own spirituality to the point that he had a new vision of the Christian life. He looked around post-Constantinian Rome and saw a well established, politicized church. It was a church that had been made church by virtue of the baptism of the emperor and his decree that all his subjects would likewise be baptized.

An analogy would be an emperor who was a basketball player decreeing that basketball should be the only sport in the empire. So everybody plays it; but that doesn't make everybody a basketball player. So the emperor decreed that everybody was Christian, but that didn't make everybody a Christian. Benedict was immersed therefore in a "pagan Christian" culture.

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