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Women in Washington: clear 'windows' onto the church.

Women were expected. The seating was nonhierarchical: round tables and no head table. It was the setting that was the Aug. 30 surprise - women religious breakfasting with President Bill and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in the White House East Room along with 100 other people from a broad and interfaith range of involved religion-based groups.

Candid comments were anticipated and apparently welcomed, reported attendees. "We represent mainstream Catholic views on a whole number of issues. We're the Catholics who put you into office," Loretto Sr. Maureen Fiedler told Clinton. Fiedler is spokesperson for Catholics Speak Out and Catholic Organizations for Renewal, two groups with memberships of over 50,000 working for reform within the Roman Catholic Church.

Of course, historically, women religious are not total strangers to the White House, though earlier presidents undoubtedly have seen sisters solely as direct service givers.

President George Bush welcomed Mother Teresa to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in 1990. More than a century ago, during the Civil War, frontier religious congregations responded to Abraham Lincoln's call to serve as battlefield nurses: the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, Ill., were honored by Ulysses S. Grant for their ministry, and the Nazareth, Ky., Sisters of Charity have a letter from Lincoln, dated Jan. 17, 1865, assuring them that soldiers would not be billeted in their convent.

(Congress - familiar for two decades now with the activist women religious from Network, the Catholic social justice lobby - also has a woman religious, Mother Joseph Pariseau, founder of the Sisters of Providence in 1856, in the Capitol statuary hall. She was Washington state's second representative.)

What was refreshing about the Aug. 30 breakfast was that these women religious - and at least five were present, including Network's national coordinator, Mercy Sr. Kathy Thornton - were attending as "windows" on the Catholic community and as commentators on the pressing socioeconomic and political realities of the day.

As Loretto president Sr. Maureen McCormack commented afterward: "The president kept emphasizing that people of diverse religious, ethnic, age and geographic backgrounds need to engage in dialogue with one another to re-create the common good."

Clinton said he'd like this to be an ongoing group where he could exchange views with people who, he said, care about their citizenship as well as their God.

Clinton speaks from hope, but the administration needs to understand that the breakfasting Catholics want action, not just conversation, on health care reform, poverty, education, housing, Haiti, Nicaragua - issues women religious particularly know much about. These Catholics cannot be fobbed off with promises alone.

"The Clinton administration is willing to listen to our opinions on issues in a way the previous administrations just were not doing," said Fiedler. For now, she said of the meeting, "We may not always change the national policy, but it is certainly worth trying."

Can the Catholic church duplicate the same approach? Imagine a Vatican Synod on Religious Life that would listen, over breakfast - key figures at each table - to women and men religious attending as speakers, not just as auditors, and then discussing what was said.

Imagine a U.S. Catholic church with a built-in process for listening to what the vast majority of U.S. Catholics had to say on issues such as birth control, women's choice and gay/lesbian rights?

Maybe the U.S. bishops will mimic the Clintons and this year host a series of "exchange of views" breakfasts during their Nov. 15-18 Washington, D.C., meeting. Round tables, of course.

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Title Annotation:Aug. 30, 1993 White House prayer breakfast
Author:Vidulich, Dorothy
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Sep 10, 1993
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