Joan Chittister and the Vatican

I have just finished reading Tom Roberts biography of Joan Chittister. I put together this reflection as a result of what I read. With acknowledgement to Tom Roberts wonderful book, about a remarkable woman:

Reading Tom Roberts biography of Joan Chittister, and in particular the account of her dealings with the Vatican, stirred up a lot of memories and emotions for me.
Joan had been invited by Myra Poole to speak at a conference on women’s ordination to be held in Dublin in 2001. She said she would not speak on ordination, since she did not consider herself sufficiently qualified in that area, but that she would speak on the following of Jesus, discipleship. She was scheduled to open the conference.
A couple of months before she was due to go to Dublin she was called to the office of the prioress, Christine Vladimiroff. Christine presented her with a letter she had got from the Congregation for Religious in Rome.
The letter, addressed to Christine, emphasised that Pope John Paul had ended all discussion on this subject with a definitive teaching. Joan’s participation in the conference “would cause scandal, further dissent and deceive the faithful”; it would constitute “an outrageous disservice to the church in Ireland and elsewhere”. Vladimiroff was directed to order Chittister “by way of a formal precept of obedience” not to attend the conference. Failure would result in appropriate punishment.

Reading this, I was reliving my own experience of four years ago, and I could relate completely to the feelings of fear, hurt, anger and confusion that Joan recounts. Roberts quotes her:
“I doubled over. I had literally been kicked in the stomach. I stayed like this, bending at the waist while sitting, my face staring at the floor; but then I sat up:
“Christine, before there is any discussion, before we say a single word, there’s something I need to tell you”.
“I am going to Dublin”.
“I thought you’d say that”.
“I’m going. These men are not going to do this. They have no right”.

That was exactly how I felt when I got the letter from Michael Brehl ordering me under formal obedience not to attend a meeting of the ACP. But I envy Joan her courage and her clarity. I was not nearly as decisive in adopting my position.

But of course, in this instance, the pressure was really on the prioress, Christine Vladimiroff. Would she, could she, issue the formal obedience. She entered into a period of discussion with the Vatican authorities, trying to explain to them the Benedictine understanding of obedience, and how it was different from the Vatican understanding. In the end she refused to issue the order, and wrote a statement for the Vatican. She gathered the whole community, 130 of them, into the chapel, read out her statement, and placed it on the altar with her signature on it. She invited any who wished to add their names. All the women present walked up and signed their names, and the letter, with unanimous approval went to Rome.
Joan spoke in Dublin, and no censure or punishment of any nature was issued against either Christine or Joan.

Joan was shocked that someone who had “given her life to the church at age sixteen and was still there fifty years later” would hear: “You do this or else”. She explains”
“This was not a women’s issue for me. This was a justice issue that happened to be rooted in the women’s question. It was a matter of ‘Who do you think you are that you can tell me what to think, tell me to whom I may speak, tell me where I can or cannot go. Who do you think you are? I am a big, grown-up girl, and I can go into this myself, and, trust me, I will maintain my faith, and I will be a member of the church. That doesn’t make me a moral infant or an immoral woman, and if we have to shoot this out in the street, we’re going to, because I’m going to Dublin”.
She continues: “This letter was the equivalent of mugging a woman in an alley, where the assailant will have his way. Well, you may. You will win, but I refuse to be complicit in the silence. I will scream and I will tell, and I am not going to give in to this kind of intimidation and ruthless, brutal use of power because I am a woman without power. It is that simple”.

Take the woman angle out of it, and Joan was expressing so much of what I felt going through the similar experience, and why I too decided not to be complicit in silence, but to scream and tell!