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Interview with Joan Chittister

The Benedictine nun, human rights advocate and co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women talks about her writing, the Catholic church and the current U.S. political climate

By Nancy Fornasiero

Q You wear so many hats — spiritual leader, speaker, activist — but let’s talk about your role as an author first. Has the practice of writing deepened your sense of spirituality?

A Every January, February and March I go to Ireland to do nothing else but write. I stay at a friend’s small stone cottage four and a half miles above the village, right under the Ring of Kerry. I sit looking out at the bay and start by talking to myself: “What’s it all about, Joan? What do you want to say?” My writing process is a spiritual process. I’m always exploring; that’s the spiritual dimension. I’m always asking, “Why is this important? What will this mean to others?” It’s an internal and external exploration, and I don’t do massive levels of research. I’m a communication theorist and social psychologist by training. I bring a lot of that to my books, along with my Benedictine background. My writing is driven more by questions than answers, so I don’t go to my computer with a set idea that I’m planning to sell to somebody else. That way, hopefully, when the material comes out, it has an authentic voice.

Q I heard you once say that you like to hold the newspaper in one hand and the Gospels in the other. What are you noticing most in the news these days?

A Well, the electoral tsunami in the United States comes to mind right away. It’s stunning. I never dreamed that anyone would get up on stage and systematically begin to destroy both the Gospels and the constitution. I couldn’t have imagined it. Our leaders have an ethical responsibility to raise people to a higher level of humanity. When people running for office say, “Those people have to go,” or, “This is what you have to think,” well, come on. In a pluralistic society? The United States of America prides itself on its constitution and on the fact that it never established a national religion so that it could honour all beliefs. So that it could allow them simply to function within the ethical framework that says: “Thou shalt do no harm to the other.” It’s very distressing to see people flock to hear harm done in the name of good. A sizable portion of the population of the United States is apparently perfectly willing to exclude, to suppress, to deny and to destroy the very principles upon which the country has been built. However, my heart still tells me that, ultimately, the American public is not going to allow this to happen.

Q You’re often referred to as a “dissenter” in the Roman Catholic Church. Is that term accurate? Does it bother you?

A Not really. I dissented from the notion that anybody can tell you that you’re not allowed to pursue a subject, to think about a question or to examine an issue from another position. I will always dissent against that because the highest quality we’ve been given is our rationality. We are responsible for the positions we take. Blind obedience is blind. We all have a responsibility to make moral decisions, and that morality can’t be somebody else’s morality.

Q In that case, what should be the basis for our morality?

A Our own relationship to a higher law: the commandments; the scriptures; the model of Jesus; the fundamental questions of life; faith, hope and charity. It’s certainly not about last year’s church council stipulations. Now, the church often does do a good job in trying to guide us to morality. But we have slipped a good many times. I’m Catholic, so I know that! It took us 400 years to admit that putting the scriptures into the vernacular is not the mortal sin we accused Luther of. It took us 400 years to look at Galileo and decide that maybe science and religion aren’t really incompatible. At least the church has been much better recently, for example, in saying that there is no necessary conflict between evolution and faith. I don’t get up in the morning to rebel against anybody or anything. But I do believe that my obligation is to take positions on important questions that somehow reflect the whole tradition, and not just a 19th-century tradition.

Q As a progressive thinker, what’s your opinion of Pope Francis?

A He’s a beautiful man, and I love him like everybody does. He’s the smiling face of the church, and God knows we’ve needed a smiling face for a good many years. You can’t talk about the model of Jesus and the love of God and scowl while you do it. Has he changed anything? No, not a thing I can think of that has anything to do with doctrine and dogma. But I do think he’s setting up an environment that enables people to realize they have an obligation to pursue questions out of the depth of the tradition.

Q What would you say is the biggest challenge facing the Catholic church today?

A The women’s issue is huge. And we’re not talking about American feminism; we’re talking about half the population of the globe. We are talking about teachings that have allowed women to be raped, beaten, enslaved and abandoned, and all in the name of God, in every tradition. And if Christianity has anything to do with the model of the scriptures, then we must take the women’s issue seriously. How can our major decisions be made by only half the human race? We are hearing with one ear, we are seeing with one eye and we are deciding things with only half a brain. And it shows. One of the most refreshing things that I’ve heard in a long time was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s answer to why he appointed an equal number of men and women to his cabinet: “Because it’s 2015.” We need more of that. We’re hundreds of years behind.

Q So your concerns around gender inequality go beyond the culture of the Catholic church?

A Yes. I genuinely believe that it’s the major problem currently facing the human race.

And I think the second biggest thing is the liberation of animals. Until we recognize the value of animals, we are all in jeopardy. Did you know that the second Genesis story, the naming of the animals, is actually an older story than the first Genesis story? The first story is about the theology of domination: “This world is all for your use. You can do anything you want to it.” Where has that gotten us? But in the second story, God says, “Name these animals.” Why is this important? You don’t name animals that you kill; when you name animals, you take them into your family and take responsibility for them. We won’t save the globe as long as we figure that we can take these living things and, with great barbarism, destroy them. Let’s remember that animals can last without us, but we cannot last without them.

Q Do you think this disconnect with nature could be part of the reason humanity is losing touch with spirituality in general?

A Good question. Get Two Dogs and a Parrot [Chittister’s latest book] and read the introduction. The stories in it are delightful, but don’t be fooled, it’s a very serious spiritual book and should be treated that way. I used animals in it because I think so many people can relate to them. I follow every story with an essay on what we know psychologically or spiritually about that animal. I explain that the creature is a call to us to recognize a part of ourselves and what we need to do to develop that aspect. I wanted to look at the question of whether animals were here to teach us anything. I really had the time of my life writing this one.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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