The Vatican has banned even discussing female priests. That hasn’t stopped Sister Joan Chittister

chittisterJoan Chittister might seem an unlikely type to defy the Pope, let alone get away with it. Her dress is sensible, her voice matter-of-fact bordering on clarion, its timbre reminiscent of the kind of sister who for better or worse acquainted generations of parochial schoolers with Catholic discipline. But the liberal church activists who came to hear Chittister speak last week at a Los Angeles conference knew better. They were aware that Sister Joan, her vows notwithstanding, is a longtime feminist firebrand in the midst of a daring gambit. “If Scripture has nothing at all to say about the ordination of women,” Chittister asked, “on what basis do we use Jesus as our right to obstruct it?” Her audience thought for a moment, clapped and finally broke into cheers.

Female ordination may be one of the last live bones of contention between the Roman Catholic Church and its U.S. flock. Most American believers have long gone their own way regarding birth control or abortion. But that is not an option when it comes to who celebrates the sacraments, even though 71% of American Catholics surveyed in a May 2000 Gallup poll favored having female priests. Still, Rome has not budged on the issue. In 1994 Pope John Paul II emphatically restated the ban in a pastoral letter, and the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared his decision “infallible” and “not…open to debate” [due to the constant teaching of the church]. The gag order, even more than the edict, drove church liberals to distraction.

So much so that Chittister, 65, found a way to flout it that the Vatican could not ignore. The tussle began last spring, when Rome learned that the resident of the Mount St. Benedict monastery in Erie, Pa., had agreed to address the first international conference of a group called Women’s Ordination Worldwide in Dublin. The conference clearly challenged the debate freeze, and there were even rumors it might “ordain” its own female priests. Accordingly, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life sent a letter directing Chittister’s prioress, Sister Christine Vladimiroff, to issue a “precept of obedience” forbidding Chittister to attend on pain of undefined “just penalties.”

At least one other superior receiving similar orders complied. Vladimiroff flew to Rome to discuss the issue. She returned unswayed, and on the night before Chittister’s departure for Ireland, Vladimiroff handed her a letter–co-signed by 127 of Mount St. Benedict’s 128 active nuns–stating that she would not relay the command. The grounds: Mount St. Benedict is run on a model of “co-responsibility” rather than a “superior-subordinate” model, and prayerful consensus did not support the travel ban. “Silencing is inappropriate. It’s patronizing and treats adults as children,” Vladimiroff told TIME. “I cannot ask myself to be complicit” in it.

Several other female Benedictine monasteries added their support. Thirty-five of Mount St. Benedict’s younger nuns pledged that if Chittister were punished, they wanted to share her penalty. Chittister flew to Dublin and in an act of nervous bravado told the crowd, “We’re not going to let a little letter from Rome get us down.” There were no ordinations.

And then Rome blinked. Papal spokesman Joachim Navarro-Valls stated that there were no plans for disciplinary measures “in this case.” A spokeswoman for the Dublin conference crowed that “the Vatican has conceded that it can’t enforce” the ban or discussion and that the conference has opened “a door that the Vatican thought it could keep closed.”

Well, maybe. “In this case” hardly constitutes a white flag. “What ever happened to obedience?” complains a ranking Vatican official. “This is a cancer. Do you let it grow?” And yet, having first threatened Chittister and then appearing to honor Vladimiroff’s principled refusal, the Holy See, should it reverse course again, risks looking like a faceless male bureaucracy intent on crushing a pair of modern Joans of Arc.

Chittister revives the duel each time she speaks out, as she did last week in L.A. Says a cautious Vladimiroff: “I believe we were blessed with a grace to see the issues clearly, and I’m hoping that the Vatican may also be blessed with new insights into the most loving way to deal with it.” But, she adds, “I worry for me. I worry for the community. And I worry for the church, whom I love.”  (source)

CHITTISTER: “The church has historically discussed slavery, usury, the divinity of Jesus. Why would you not discuss issues pertinent to women?”

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