On Facebook, Diane of Te-Deum blog embedded this interview between Christiane Amanpour and Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, whom Amanpour calls “a practicing nun.”
Because she’s a class-A journalist, is the haughty Christiane. She’s like the Anna Wintour of elite broadcasters, but even less interesting.
Full disclosure: as a Benedictine Oblate, I’ve read and gleaned much wisdom from Sister Joan’s books on Monasticism; she has a lot of good and instructive things to say about the psalms and the Holy Rule. She lost me a couple of years ago, though, when I read one of her rewrites on the Creed which, in fairness, was probably just a creative exercise, or a way of breaking through something in prayer, but which nevertheless left me cold.
I was going to fisk the interview but time really won’t permit, so I’ll share a couple of thoughts and you can judge for yourself.
First off — this whole brouhaha re the LCWR leadership is based on an 8 page document, quickly read, and more than a quarter of it is spent quite rightly praising the work religious sisters have done. When Sister Joan gets passionate about the ministry the sisters have embraced, she is right to be passionate, but since neither she nor Amanpour mention it, it seems only fair to acknowledge that the document recognizes all of that.
The assessment worries about a “radical feminist” turn taken by the leadership of the LCWR. Amanpour asks what that could mean. Sister Joan answers by defining radical feminism, rather narrowly, I think, as a mindset of extreme separatism; an idea that menfolk were irrelevant to women in the world.
Many might argue that extreme feminism is an outlook that is suspicious of men and their motives, oriented and agendized toward promoting superior feminine sensibilities throughout the culture, among both women and men. I was amused, though, I have to admit, when right after saying that no nun, no sister would ever speak badly of men as a whole, she immediately cites the real problem as being one of radical patriarchy.
Yes, yes, I know what she “meant.” But it came off as an ironic self-contradiction.
Amanpour then characterizes Benedict’s tenure — quite unfairly, or perhaps simply in ignorance, as “no more Vatican II”.
Oh, puleeze! If only the council recommendations had been implemented as written, rather than filtered through an amorphous “Spirit of Vatican II” that brooked no opposition and sometimes sowed a great deal of confusion, perhaps as a church we would all be in better shape, now. It disappoints me that Chittister allows Amanpour to get away with it, but I suspect it’s because she does believe it to be true.
Still, I found it amusing that Chittister describes the tension within the church as being between a “medieval” absolutism — that there is only one right or wrong answer to anything (“and [the damn patriarchy will] tell you what it is”) and then makes a big song and dance about the wisdom of modern relativism. And she’s absolute about it: “The modern mind, born in the scientific age, says there are many answers to many things.”
Until, of course, we’re told “the science is settled.” Then we’re not supposed to question it. It’s just a different sort of patriarchy, I guess.
I’m sorry, but I find so much of this to be prideful boomer conceit; everything that came before us is wrong, unenlightened and stupid. As Vizzini would say, Aquinas? Augustine? Ambrose? Morons!
Chittister also allows Amanpour to get away with the easiest and laziest of arguments: these men didn’t handle the sex abuse scandals well, so they have no credibility, anyway; “it hasn’t been nuns that have been responsible,” Amanpour blubbers. It’s a subject completely irrelevant to this issue, but since Chittister allowed it — and nods in agreement — I have to call her on it; she knows perfectly well that religious orders of sisters have made huge payouts after accusations of abuse and have not always been quick to co-operate with investigations, which is a story the American press hasn’t liked to cover. The subject didn’t even belong in the interview, but once it’s broached, it’s a pretty bad moment, all around, for Amanpour who took the cheap route, for Sister Joan, who let her, and of course, the church, who may do penance for it all throughout all our lifetimes.
Amanpour then gets into the “life issues” and Sister Joan, bristles with offense and says she wants to laugh in irony, or something. She starts off fairly well, but I think she’s a bit disingenuous to say that the reason abortion is not specifically addressed by so many of the LCWR leadership is because they want to treat “everything” as a life issue, and that she doesn’t want to call social justice “social justice” because everything is a life issue.
Okay. Fair enough. But neither woman addresses what has upset Rome, which are instances — admittedly not widespread — where sisters have acted as escorts to abortion centers or suggested that abortion cannot be defined as really evil, because you know…everything is relative; marriage cannot be defined as being solely between a man and a woman because, you know…everything is relative.
Understand, the LCWR is a canonical organization, formed at the behest of the Vatican and answerable to it. The Vatican expects its canonical groups to, you know…reflect the teachings of the church, for whom everything is not, cannot be, relative.
Chittister loses it, though, when she goes off on a tangent declaring that thanks to science, no one can say with certainty what life is, anymore.
A bit much, sister. Essentially she is saying that “we know so much more now, than we ever did before, that in truth we know nothing.” And that sounds like a humble and true sentiment and on some level it is humble and true. But we do know some things, and one of the things we know is that God loves us into being and that our lives are sacred enough for God to Incarnate in order to teach us exactly that.
It goes on and on. Ultimately, Amanpour and Chittister agree that the church just doesn’t like women and ignores them, regardless of what history might actually say on the subject. Neither of them seems the tiniest bit inclined to consider that “the patriarchy” were — for centuries and centuries — the only bunch of guys willing to tell women to run with their heads, in autonomy; who said “go ahead and build the schools, hospitals and monasteries and do what you feel called to” while society in general was telling women to sew, learn French and simper.
Hey, I’m just trying to be fair.
One bone I absolutely must pick: Amanpour makes a point of displaying the number of sisters in America in 1965 and then today, and it is meant to be an indictment of the church and its meanness to women. Chittister, to her credit, recognizes that a combination of increased opportunity for women and the distractions of “Nintendo” and the modern age have a lot to do with the difference in numbers, but it always bothers me when the press uses those mid-20th century numbers as though they were definitive of religious life. Better to compare the number of religious today to the number 100 years ago; the post-WWII increase, for both priests and religious, were huge and hugely out of proportion — an aberration that perhaps owed as much to the effect of a fairly sympathetic and increasingly available press (and the heroic portrayals of priests and religious in books and movies) as anything else. Media hold wide sway over the culture and can genuinely promote or denigrate a life-choice to powerful effect. Certainly the same media that once made the consecrated life look heroic and worthwhile have spent the last few decades making vows and celibacy out to be something unsavory and often downright nuts.
Religious life was always the rarer choice, but it is currently on the increase, both in America and around the world.
Enough. Watch it for yourself. Perhaps you will disagree with me.
In a related story, Sister Simone Campbell, another prominent American religious was recently quoted as saying:
“I have allowed a very narrow perspective on what is life, because I actually feel like I’m going to develop a rash or something if I use ‘life’ in that broader sense,” she said.
She has avoided framing social justice concerns as “pro-life” issues, she said, “because I don’t want to be thought of as in (the pro-life) camp. Because of my pride, as opposed to my faith.”
I saw a few people criticize her for that on Facebook, but I actually think that’s a very compelling admission for Sister Simone to make; it’s very introspective, perhaps more honest than Chittister’s bit, and yes, humble. It’s not easy to admit that you’ve been prideful, and as the story relays, there is an element of snobbism attached to the “life” vs “social justice” issue:
Sister Campbell questioned many Catholics’ focus on that one issue [abortion], criticizing the pro-life movement as not considering the entire spectrum of Catholic social teaching, but then she acknowledged that “progressive” Catholics like herself have contributed to the discord between pro-life and pro-social justice Catholics.
Some — particularly if they see themselves as sophisticated and educated — simply do not want to be thought of as “pro-life obsessives”, for whom there is no other issue. And if that is true, then it probably behooves the pro-life movement to ask themselves how they can help change that in a positive way. As sister says:
We need “to reclaim the fullness of our faith,” she said. We need to go beyond left vs. right, socialist vs. capitalist, she said: We are Catholic.
I like that. A lot. “Getting beyond left/right, socialist/capitalist” sounds so much better than going “beyond the church, even beyond Jesus.”
UPDATE: After spending a few decades at CBS news, Deacon Greg watches the Amanpour trainwreck and is offended as a journalist
Joanne McPortland brings her giant brain to bear on both this interview and the cultural embrace of 50 Shades of Grey, with a great title that gives way to a terrifically thoughtful and ultimately tragic post:
We crave bondage and discipline with the divine. If we go against that inbuilt impulse—if we let our stubborn need to be “right” and “free” force us to sever ties with with one another, as the LCWR and the CDF threaten to do, or to sever ties with God as so many Anastasias and Christians do in the real world—we will find ourselves cut loose, adrift, alone, easily exploited. Damned.
Max Lindenman: “I wish I could quit you!”
Mark Shea: No, the church does not hate “nuns who help the poor”. Sigh.
The Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan release a statement.
Colleen Carroll Campbell argues that the church is doing its duty.
The schism is coming and Benedict is being blamed, on whatever pretext can be found. If he’d just give in, after all — stop being an absolutist, stop being a sign of contradiction and teach the times to the church, instead of trying to teach the stodgy old church to the times! If he would only make it like unto the Church of England! Then he’d be an absolute hero.