Sister Joan  Chittister

By David Brancaccio-
Nov 11, 2004.

"Not in our lifetime has religion been this powerful a dividing line in American politics. "

   Joan Chittister has been one of America's key visionary spiritual voices for more than thirty years. Sister Joan, a social psychologist and communications theorist with a doctorate from Penn State University, is a best selling author and well-known international lecturer.

A regular columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, Sister Joan has received 11 honorary degrees and awards (including the Distinguished Alumni Award from Penn State in 2000) and recognition from countless organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality, especially for women — in the Church and in society.

Currently she serves as co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the UN, facilitating a worldwide network of women peace builders, particularly in Israel and Palestine. She was a keynote speaker at their October 2002 conference at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

In September 2004 she attended and addressed the Pan-Asian Youth Summit in Hiroshima. In March, as a founding member of the inter-religious International Committee for the Peace Council, she was in Thailand as a chair for the conference, "Women and Religions: Advancing Gender Equity in a Globalized World." In 1995 she attended the Fourth UN Conference of Women in Beijing and, in 1999, the Parliament of World Religions in Cape Town, South Africa. She is currently a member of the international and inter-religious Niwano Peace Foundation in Tokyo, Japan who award the prestigious annual Niwano Peace Prize.

In 1996 she was an invited fellow and research associate at St. Edmund's College, Cambridge University. In 2001 she held the Brueggeman Chair of Ecumenical Theology at Xavier University. Sister Joan earned her M.A. in Communication Arts from the University of Notre Dame.

Four of her 30 books have received awards from the Catholic Press Association. Her most recent books include: CALLED TO QUESTION, A SPIRITUAL MEMOIR; and SCARRED BY STRUGGLE, TRANSFORMED BY HOPE. Her 1990 book on monastic spirituality, WISDOM DISTILLED FROM THE DAILY, is considered a classic in contemporary spirituality.

She has served as president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, (an organization of the leaders/superiors of the over 75,000 Catholic religious women in the U.S.), president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses (1974-90), and was prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie for 12 years.

She is the founder and executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality located in Erie, Pennsylvania.

From our studios in New York, Bill Moyers and David Brancaccio.

MOYERS: Welcome to NOW.

We begin with the gospel according to Bob Jones University in South Carolina. The school proclaims itself the "Citadel of Biblical Christianity" for its conviction that every word of the Bible is literally true. In his critical primary fight with John McCain four years ago, George W. Bush cemented his standing with the religious right and turned the tide in his favor with a speech on the Bob Jones campus.

Last week, on the morning after the election, the President of the university, Bob Jones III, posted this letter addressed to President Bush on the school's Web site:

"Congratulations.... In your re-election, God has graciously granted America — though she doesn't deserve it — a reprieve from the agenda of paganism. Because you seek the Lord daily, we who know the Lord will follow that kind of voice eagerly. Don't equivocate. Put your agenda on the front burner and let it boil. You owe the liberals nothing. They despise you because they despise your Christ.... You will have [the] opportunity to appoint many conservative judges and exercise forceful leadership with the Congress in passing legislation that is defined by biblical norm.... Pull out all the stops and make a difference. If you have weaklings around you who do not share your biblical values, shed yourself of them. Conservative Americans would love to see one president who doesn't care whether he is liked, but cares infinitely that he does right.

Sincerely your friend, Bob Jones III."

Jones added a post script, quote: "...we could not be more thankful that God has given you four more, speaking, and making decisions as one who knows the Bible to be eternally true."

BRANCACCIO: A Bob Jones University spokesman said it would be a misreading of the letter to suggest "everyone who voted for the Democrats is a pagan." I guess that needed to be said.

The election returns confirm that Christians of similar views were indispensable to the President's re-election. Not only in the Bible Belt but across the country, conservative preachers took to their pulpits to talk about the election. They spurred registration drives to get their congregations to the voting booths. Some churches were even asked to turn over their membership directories to the Bush campaign.

Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition, was back. Some 45,000 churches got advice from an organization linked to him. James Dobson hit the road to hold rallies and mobilize the faithful. Dobson is the most popular radio preacher in the country, his programs heard daily on more than 3000 stations.

He went all the way to South Dakota to stoke the crowds to defeat the Democratic leader, Senator Tom Daschle.

Conservative Protestants were joined by conservative Catholics. After President Bush reportedly complained to the Vatican that U.S. bishops were not doing enough to support him on key social issues, several bishops, including Charles Chaput, the Archbishop of Denver, went after John Kerry. They said Kerry, a Roman Catholic, should be denied communion for his views on abortion.

It all paid off. President Bush carried the Bible Belt — the old states of the confederacy plus Oklahoma and Kentucky — and the swing states where conservative Christians were critical to his margin. According to voter surveys, the President won 79% of white evangelicals and 52% of the Catholic vote.

MOYERS: For them, David, it's payback time.

On the day after the election, Tom Delay, known as "the hammer" of the Christian right in Congress, said, "We're going to be able to lead this country in the direction we've been dreaming of for years. We're going to put God back in the public square."

And James Dobson, flush with victory, is leading a campaign to prevent Republican Senator Arlen Specter from assuming his chairmanship of the judiciary committee, because they say he is not trustworthy on supporting conservative judicial nominations.

For his part, Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority — there he is with Bush's chief political advisor Karl Rove — who talked to religious right leaders every week from the White House, Jerry Falwell has announced that he will lead a new faith and values coalition to continue the momentum of November 2.

Falwell said our goal, quote, "is to help make President Bush's second term the most successful in American history. And to elect another one just like President Bush in 2008."

Not in our lifetime has religion been this powerful a dividing line in American politics. You'd think that line was between Christians and non-Christians. But it isn't. It's a line between a particular group of Christians, a large group of Christians, who regard their version of divine truth as definitive and immune to challenge…and everybody else.

In that other category are millions of faithful Christians, among them is Sister Joan Chittister. She is a Benedictine nun who served as a prioress of her order for 12 years.

She's a social psychologist, she leads a worldwide network of women for peace and runs a spiritual Web site. Sister Joan has a Ph.D., 11 honorary degrees and was the recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award from Penn State. And that's not all.

She is the author of 30 books, including CALLED TO QUESTION: A SPIRITUAL MEMOIR, SCARRED BY STRUGGLE; TRANSFORMED BY HOPE, and this classic in contemporary spirituality, WISDOM DISTILLED FROM THE DAILY.

Sister Joan is also a regular columnist for the independent Catholic newspaper, THE NATIONAL CATHOLIC REPORTER.

Welcome to NOW.

CHITTISTER: Thank you, Bill.

MOYERS: It's always surprising to discover that nuns look like you.

CHITTISTER: Yeah, that's right. Well, as in what does a nun look like?

MOYERS: I read a column you wrote a week before the election in which you said the election won't be over when it's over. Well, as we've just seen the Religious Right says it's over. And they say they've won. What do you think about that?

CHITTISTER: Well, I think the word religion is being used very loosely in this day and age. I don't think that is religion.

This whole notion that my truth is everybody's truth, there's something wrong with that in a world of differences.

MOYERS: I can hear them saying this. I can hear James Dobson and Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson say, "I was called by God to do what I'm doing." You feel called by God.

CHITTISTER: I do. But I don't feel called by God to impose my life on yours. I believe that I'm called by God to keep God a constant question in the human heart. I believe that anything that isn't… that anything that uses God as an instrument of oppression on other people is not of God.

And I believe that their belief is a powerful witness. I just simply do not believe that it can be imposed on the beliefs of people who are witnessing to another face of God.

MOYERS: What do you mean impose?

CHITTISTER: Well, I believe that when, to have the voice of religion, to have the religious voice in the public arena, as far as I'm concerned, is very faithful to the intention of the founding fathers. Therefore no established church, no established church, no single church or tradition that monitors and weighs and measures everybody else's attitudes, approaches or moral decisions. I believe that that's absolutely essential especially in a pluralistic world where we're all looking for the voice of conscience in our hearts. But when you take the religious voice and you turn it into a religion in the center of the system, do it our way, there's something wrong with that.

MOYERS: But they are saying they're acting from moral concerns. That they are trying to carry their moral values into the public square.

CHITTISTER: And so did the Puritans and the Prohibitionists.

It was exactly... they believed that their moral values should be carried into the public arena. And we did it. When the Puritans did it, they burned witches all in the name of God. When the Prohibitionists did it, they decided what you could and couldn't discipline yourself to do.

MOYERS: But I don't hear these people talking as harshly as that. They're not going to burn you at the stake, although some of them might think you're a witch right?

CHITTISTER: Well, yeah…

MOYERS: Or pagan.

CHITTISTER: Listen carefully for the twigs.

MOYERS: They're not… do you see them as extremists like that?

CHITTISTER: I do, in many instances. When you begin to use that kind of religious criteria and translate it into law, into God's call for Armageddon, why are we in Iraq now? God apparently wants us there. Not my Jesus.

MOYERS: All right, then they would say, "We went to Iraq to overthrow a brutal dictator who was persecuting his own people and to prevent Iraq becoming a terrorist haven." You know what they say.

CHITTISTER: Sure and we have a terrorist haven in Iraq right now. We don't have the so-called dictator anymore. But if those are our criteria, then we're going to be, for religious reasons, in a lot of other countries in the next 12 months.

MOYERS: Depending on the sources, Sister Joan, there have been some 37,000 civilians killed in Iraq, or maybe a 100,000. Why is abortion a higher moral issue with many American Christians than the invasion of Iraq and the loss of life there?

CHITTISTER: Could I ask you that question? Because that is the moral question that brings me closest to tears. I do not understand that, Bill. You see, I'm absolutely certain that some of the people that we're killing over there are pregnant women. Now what do you do? Now what do you do? That's military abortion.

MOYERS: Somebody said to me… that's what?

CHITTISTER: That's military abortion. Why is that morally acceptable?

MOYERS: Somebody said to me the other day that Americans don't behead, but we do drop smart bombs that do it for us.

CHITTISTER: And that are not smart as we think they are.

MOYERS: What do you mean?

CHITTISTER: Well, what is this smart bomb stuff? We've still got a image in our head from 1991 of this little golf ball dropping down a furnace. It's not working that way.

MOYERS: Dobson, Falwell, Robertson and a lot of secular pundits and columnists are saying that this election was decided by moral issues. Do you think moral issues were that decisive in this campaign?

CHITTISTER: Well, I don't believe… I'm not exactly sure that they were as decisive in the end. And I'm not sure that there's any way we can measure that. But even if I say, "Yes, they were," the fact of the matter is that they are some moral issues, they're not all moral issues.

The fact of the matter is that they're all in contention with something else which is also a moral value and also equally important unless you put it completely out of your mind or your heart. For instance, let's look at the abortion question. I'm opposed to abortion.

But I do not believe that just because you're opposed to abortion that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking. If all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed and why would I think that you don't? Because you don't want any tax money to go there. That's not pro-life. That's pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.

MOYERS: This seems to me to be the dilemma of American democracy today and of American religion. That there are dogmatists who do not want to admit that the other side might have some claim to credibility.

CHITTISTER: Dogmatism will always get you there. Ask a Catholic. We've been there.

We do it well. It was dogmatism that split us in the first place in the 16th century. It's dogmatism, this whole notion that there is a truth, the truth. that is the eternal truth and the unquestionable truth means that whatever the holy spirit, whatever, whatever the impulses of a creating God goes on creating. We have to close our mind to those.

We learned at the end of a telescope that it got us nowhere. Galileo tried to tell us then scientifically, look at this. We didn't want to listen.

The religion threw Galileo into house arrest for two or three years. Why? Not because of his science, that's silliness. Because of his theology. The theology taught that we were the center of the universe. We were God's rational and best creatures. When the little telescope, when he handed the Pope a telescope and said, "Look, we're not the center," they wouldn't even pick up the telescope. That's dogmatism. And that's what we have to be very careful of.

MOYERS: Do you have anything in common with the Religious Right?

CHITTISTER: I have Jesus in common. That's enough for me provided that we're all allowed to talk about and to hold in our hearts that aspect of the Christ life that we really believe must be raised at this time.

MOYERS: And what are those? What are the moral issues that you would like to see us pursuing as a people, as a country right now?

CHITTISTER: Well, I believe we got the cue on the mountain. I think…

MOYERS: The sermon on the mount?

CHITTISTER: I do. I do. The Beatitudes, as far as I'm concerned are the most overlooked and underdeveloped aspect of Christian scripture.

MOYERS: Well, for all the people who are watching who don't know what the Beatitudes are, what are you talking about?


MOYERS: The sermon on the mount.

CHITTISTER: The sermon on the mount, Jesus gets up, faces a crowd who's saying to him, "What are we do now?"

And he said, "Remember the poor. Keep the poor as your criteria." We have 1 out of every 318 people on this planet this morning, Bill, are refugees. They're following garbage cans in the back of restaurants around the world. They're following the resources that we took from their countries that are now jobs in somebody else's country.

MOYERS: Blessed are the poor?

CHITTISTER: The poor, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. We've got somehow or other to recognize that when we go into a country and pay a little kid 20 cents an hour for a 70 hour week to make our shoes and our jeans, we have to ask ourselves how is it that we can export our industry but we can't export our Fair Labor Standard Act.

MOYERS: So, blessed are those who seek justice?

CHITTISTER: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. Blessed are those who mourn. Remember those who are in grief, those mothers with dry breasts in Africa right now are mothers. And we're pro-life? Where are we?

Where are we in Darfur? Why do we have an army in Iraq for killing other mothers when with the power of this country, if this is going to be a moral country. Blessed are the peacemakers, the peacemakers, not the war mongers who are simply planting seeds of war for the next generation. That's our criteria. The Beatitudes must be our criteria.

MOYERS: See, this is the issue. People read scripture and reach different conclusions.

CHITTISTER: That's what scripture's supposed to do. Scripture is not a driving test. Scripture is a challenge to the heart and this moment. Scripture is the whole scripture. But we don't believe it's frozen in time.

MOYERS: Why are you a Christian?

CHITTISTER: Well, because of the Jesus story is my story. There's nothing else that really touches my heart or my spirit the way Jesus does. There isn't any other answer for me. There's no question about that.

MOYERS: Why are you a Catholic? I mean, the Catholic Church is still a paternalistic hierarchy. You're never going be a Bishop, because doctrine forbids it. Your own Pope says, "Never." So why do you remain a Catholic?

CHITTISTER: Well, we've said "never" to a lot of things. We're very good at never, and then we say 400 years later, "as we have always taught." I'm a Catholic because I believe that the church is a treasure house of the Christian tradition.

MOYERS: You remember when the President called on the Pope earlier this year?


MOYERS: You said something quite harsh. You said after the President's visit with the Pope that, quote, "This is not a President whose concern for life matches the life concerns of this Pope."

CHITTISTER: That's right.

MOYERS: How is that?

CHITTISTER: This Pope had said very clearly three times in a row that he disapproved of this incursion into Iraq, and that he did not accept the notion of a preemptive war. That's a major life concern. This was the biggest PR trick I had seen in American history maybe ever.

MOYERS: Great photo op. Lyndon Johnson did it when the Pope came to New York in…

CHITTISTER: Tell me about it. But, when Lyndon Johnson did it at least the Pope could be understood, and what he himself was saying physically. This man is suffering from Parkinson's. He said, if you read the text later, he said to the President, "Thank you very much for the medal, but you know that you and I disagree on this Iraq thing. I have told you three times." That's in the text.

MOYERS: The President went to present the Pope with America's highest honor, the Medal of Freedom…

CHITTISTER: That's right. And, it isn't that the Pope doesn't deserve it. He did. He does.

MOYERS: But in your eyes, Sister Joan, can the Pope be right about Iraq, and wrong about abortion?

CHITTISTER: The Pope can be right about anything, and wrong about another thing. Yes, I mean, we have a terrible misunderstanding about what infallibility is. We grow as a church from the Pope on down.

MOYERS: But the church does not grow on the issue of women.

CHITTISTER: This woman's question is a dangerous question.


CHITTISTER: Because they're trying to deny that it's a question. People… I have never said that I know the answer, but I know it's a question, and it ought to be allowed to be reviewed.

MOYERS: What is the question?

CHITTISTER: Bishops have called for that.

MOYERS: What is the question?

CHITTISTER: What is the role of women? What is the role of women in the church? Is there such a thing as a woman being called to priesthood? Those are questions. Cardinals have called for that. Bishops have called for that.

I'm in good company calling for that discussion. I have never insisted that I know the answer. I do know that it's a question, and the church isn't going to be… isn't going to come to fullness 'til it's addressed.

MOYERS: But, while you're contemplating, meditating, lecturing, writing these wonderful books, the religious right is going to be running the government of the United States.

CHITTISTER: Uh-huh. So will I.

MOYERS: What are you going to… how's that?

CHITTISTER: Oh, I'll write my letters. I'm doing my things. We have Sisters demonstrating at the School of the Americas every single year. I'm not going to stop that.

MOYERS: That's the school in the South where Americans have been training military officers from Latin America.

CHITTISTER: That's right. Yes. Yes.

MOYERS: So, you think more people should get out and protest. Take to the street with this?

CHITTISTER: I think each of us should become part of the conversation any way we can.

MOYERS: Let me read you and share with our audience something I read just this morning. Michael Feingold is a theater critic here in New York, playwright, spent 25 years in the theater. He said this, quote, "This is the election in which American Christianity destroyed itself. Today the church is no longer a religion but a tacky political lobby with an obsessive concentration on…compel[ling] someone else's daughter to bear an unwanted child and depriv[ing] someone else's son of the right to file a joint income tax return with his male partner." Do you think he's right when he says this is the election in which American Christianity destroyed itself?

CHITTISTER: Well, I think American Christianity has brought itself to the brink. And I'll tell you why. There's a disconnect between our private morality, or private piety and the call of the Gospels, the call of Matthew, of the Beatitudes, to this public concern for a world that comes out of the mind and heart of God.

MOYERS: Her latest book is CALLED TO QUESTION, A SPIRITUAL MEMOIR by Joan Chittister. Thank you very much, Sister Joan, for being with us on NOW.

CHITTISTER: Thank you, Bill. And God bless you.

Top of Page.


[...BACK] [Editorial] [Feature] [Opinion] [News]
[Politics] [Columns] [Contact Us] [Archive] [Late News]
Hosted by Geocities
Copyright © 2000-2004: All material is the property of the author.