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Catholic journalism as a chancery bulletin board.

Let's mention no names. To do so would hurt a fine reporter and possibly jeopardize his career in a Catholic institution. It isn't the names that matter, after all. It's the attitude the event belies that will make or break the church.

About six weeks ago, a reporter from a Catholic diocesan newspaper, rushing to meet a deadline, pursued me for a telephone interview. I never thought another thing about the conversation until last week, when I opened my mail to find a copy of the edited interview and a letter of apology from the reporter.

Despite the contrary opinion of the staff, the reporter explained with a kind of sad embarrassment, the editor had decided not to publish the interview because a teacher of theology at a small, local seminary found the ideas expressed there "theologically inaccurate."

Well, I figure, that's not surprising. Any ideas about the role of women that are designed to stretch present practices in accordance with deeper traditions of the church about the nature of grace, the purpose of the incarnation and the authenticity of the sacraments would be considered "theologically inaccurate" according to present norms.

That's why people of that persuasion don't want those ideas out. They don't want to risk the discussion they generate. They don't want Catholics to even think such things for fear we might all begin to see differently, for fear the sensus fidelium, the good sense of faithful people, might prevail over the system. They don't want Catholics to think.

So I have decided to publish that report's interview in this column -- not because it's mine, but because this is a currently crucial question in the Catholic community and I think the Catholic community has a right to pursue the spirit of truth wherever that spirit may be, as well as discern where it isn't. Together. With open hearts.

You decide whether these ideas accord with what you know to be the theological vision of the gospels or not. Here is the interview:

How did youcome to your commitment to feminism?

Through scripture. I've never even read any of the secular feminists' books. I know that's shocking. It didn't happen to me that way. It happened through my experience in the church. I was radicalized in the mid-1960s. I saw things done that were shocking to me, and I just knew they weren't right. I also saw things in my own family -- the way women lived, the way they were treated.

As a young sister, I saw the sisters as competent and wonderful, but I also saw that to the outsider they looked like they were part of the system, but to the insider they were not part of the system.

Then I began to hear the scriptures in a different way. My community went into the experience of renewal and I began to trace the history of our own order. Between church history, the history of our own order and scripture, I became very committed to the full liberation of the Christian community.

You believe the church mirrors the male-dominated, patriarchal stucture of the secular world?

Yes, and in some ways it lags behind the institutions of the secular world. The identification of women saints is a positive institutional reflection of the spiritual value of women. The general administration of the sacraments says that women are capable of receiving grace and of being this new person (through baptism).

Then the structures say that though a woman can receive grace she can never be a channel of grace. The structures say that femaleness is the one substance God is powerless to work through. God can draw water from a rock, part the seas and raise the dead, but God cannot use a woman as a (sacramental) channel of grace. That's ridiculous.

You assert in WomanStrength that the fundamental question is whether women are truly human beings. You argue that if that question is answered in the affirmative, all other questions related to equality become givens.

That's exactly what I'm saying. The reason the women's movement has moved so slowly in the church is that we're asking the wrong question. The question is not should women receive equal pay, lead a group, be ordained? The question is basic: Are women really full human beings?

Remember, the church struggled with the same question where Indians and blacks were concerned. You had someone like las Casas arguing in Spain in the 16th century that Indians were real human beings. This is an old question in the church, and now it is being applied to women.

So you're saying theology and the structures of the church reflect confusion about whether women are full human beings?

They're in conflict. They say one thing theologically and another structurally. It's schizophrenic. What theology says is that woman has a soul, is savable, has the moral capacity to make life-giving decisions. You don't administer the sacraments to a dog. Do you follow what I'm saying? You only administer sacraments to creatures who are capable of growing and demonstrating a fully graced life.

Our theology says baptism makes new persons of us all. But they don't really mean it. It makes new persons of half of us and half persons of the rest of us. A man can receive the sacraments and give all the sacraments. A woman cannot receive all of them or give all of them. We have a theology that says men and women are equal beings, but then we have structures that say God created pink and blue souls and the pink ones leak.

The Vatican maintains men and women are equal but have different, separate roles.

The problem with that is that it is in conflict with the theology of baptism, incarnation, redemption and resurrection. Jesus didn't become male. Jesus became flesh. We used to say that, but now we have dropped "Jesus became flesh." "Became man," we say, meaning became male, when we should be saying, "Became flesh, became human." That was creedal in the early centuries, then it got changed.

You're saying true equality does not allow for separate but equal roles for men and women?

Yes. We argued once in this country that it wasn't a woman's role to vote -- that was equal but separate. "We're going to take care of you, dear. You don't need to think and you're not capable of it. We know that, but it's all right. That's the way God wants you to be."

Explain what you mean by "the icon, the rebel and the saint."

The icon is the woman men have made up for women to be. She is the frilly feminine figure in society. She is for the use of society. She has basically been taught to live vicariously, through others. You know, "my son, the doctor; my husband, the lawyer."

What do you do with an icon? You put it on the wall, light a candle in front of it and you drag people in once in a while and say, "See our wonderful icon." But it doesn't permeate the house.

The rebels are those women who have known they had special calls and gifts: Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, Joan of Arc, Judith in the Bible.

The saint is the contemporary woman who loves being a woman and will be the gentlest, kindest, most loving woman she can be, but she will not be it at the expense of what God also made her to be. She is not a victim, and she has a right to and a responsibility for her God-given gifts.

Responsibility is the key here. God didn't make these women to see these gifts shrivel on the vine. Every human being has a moral responsibility for the development of the talent, as it says in scripture.

How does Mary figure as a model in your analysis of women in the church?

Mary has been reduced to an icon. Mary has tended to become a silent-female female. She made the strongest decision in history and is largely ignored for having done it. She was willing to take the social risk -- she faced stoning -- that came with the incarnation.

She was asked and she said yes. She made the decision and had to bear the consequences. She is a very strong figure. She clearly directs Jesus. We especially see that happening in Cana. She obviously stays with the apostles through everything. She is in the upper room with them when the Holy Spirit descends.

You have in Mary an independent woman with an independent relationship with God. The relationship between God and Mary was not mediated by a man. She is the model of woman who enjoyed equality, independence, authority and achieved sanctity.

You say in WomanStrength that nurturing power and integrative power are kinds of power for which women have a particular gift, and that these kinds of power can bring women into the sanctity needed for our time.

Nurturing power and integrative power mediate and moderate other kinds of power, for example, competitive, economic, political. When you're nurturing a society, you're calling forth its gifts; you're not pitting people against one another. When you're integrating a society, you are working on the strengths of the total society; you don't have to keep one half of them down.

Women have been allowed to be nurturing. The question now is not will women be allowed to be nurturing, but will this society nurture women? And if they are nurtured, they will be allowed to be integrative, by which I mean being brought to wholeness. I would like our whole society to move toward the kind of power that comes from nurturing and integration.

Doesn't the Last Supper leave us with a male priesthood?

I always get worried because I know people keep coming back to the Last Supper model of the Eucharist. In the first place, if it was a geniune Passover supper, it was a strange one because you can't have Passover without women.

But let's assume it was a genuine Passover supper. Then who decided women were permitted to receive the Eucharist? If it is -- strictly -- "Do this as I have done it here tonight," if that is our only latitude, then who decided women can receive the Eucharist?

But when women say, "If we can receive, why can we not celebrate the Eucharist," they say it's heresy. I think our other available models of the Eucharist were the models of the entire Christian community in the early church celebrating equally in the presence of God.

What would you like to see in the church by the year 2000?

I would hope by then that we take women theologians, homilists and seminary professors for granted. I hope we will have begun to model decision-making that involves women and men equally.

Everyone focuses on ordination. I have begun to focus on what isn't being dealt with when we talk about ordination. What we're talking about only obliquely is authority in the church. The reason ordination is such an obstacle to the development of the Christian community is that authority in the church is tied to ordination.

We have to begin to see authority in the church as more than a clerical reward. Right now, all authority is tied into clericalism. What would the church look like if authority were not defined by clericalism?

But you believe if we had that kind of power-sharing, we have women's ordination?

Of course we would, eventually. The point I'm trying to make is that as long as we collapse clericalism and authority we are going to miss the full dimension of both questions. We'll never know what a priest is meant to be because we've made him potentate instead of priest. Authority and priesthood have to be separated, and we can't see them as separate questions because for so long we have taken for granted that all authority is clerical.

Are you pleased that the women's pastoral is at least temporarily on the shelf?

Absolutely. Whether it is a prophetic act or not, it will someday look like a prophetic act. Anyone who signed that document would in 10 years be very embarrassed. That document was progressively more regressive.

I believe the bishops who worked on that, particularly Bishop Imesch, really did the best they could. But what they were allowed to put out at the end did not deserve to be printed.

You are hopeful for the future of women in the church?

It isn't a matter of hope. It's the inevitability of the Spirit. You don't have to develop hope when something is clearly correct and clearly of the Spirit. It's just going to be.

That was the interview.

"Inflammatory," the editor called it.

"Provocative," the staff called it.

"Catholic journalism," they call it. "A chancery bulletin board," I call it.
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Author:Chittister, Joan
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:May 28, 1993
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