Joan Chittister’s visit: a Sophia women’s reflection

The Sophia network of Catholic Women reflects on the wisdom of Joan Chittister which came through her talks in Wellington in July.

Joan Chittister's visit: a Sophia women's reflection Archdiocese of Wellington As God works through us we become co-creators with the creator, was a key idea through  Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister’s talks in Wellington last July.

A contemplative co-creative spirituality pondering all that is going on in the world around us and all over earth, then discerning what action we can take to bring our worlds into line with the vision of the loving creator.

The Sophia network of Catholic women has written a critique of her visit through a discernment process of their own.

Joan saw as major, de-humanising threats: war, the build up of toxic armaments, famine, poverty, environmental degradation, violation of human rights, racism and discrimination. Her message and challenge to us was to contemplate how we might help God’s vision for all people.

The cult of individualism, fostered in western society, and the Christian church with its dominant individualist theology, is a contributor to the present global situation. We need to lift our gaze from practising individual piety to achieving a public morality which honours Mother Earth and cultural difference—a voice and actions that work for a just and fair society.

Joan described this as a spirituality of the world. For her it is bringing the temple to the world, rather than the theology that stressed bringing the world to the temple. For Joan, ‘carrying out God’s work in the world is the spiritual life’. She talked of the importance of the need to put the ‘tree of life’ back together again and become whole rather than perfect. As she notes ‘life is not a ladder but a weave of differences in concert’. We appreciated the freshness of her approach to the issues facing us now and in the future.


Joan is a feminist thinker. She particular endorses eco-feminism which situates ‘God as the fullness of life’—no gender, no formulas but multiple images. She chastises the decision-makers in the church for their emphasis on masculine images of God when there are many feminine images in scripture. Joan argued that these masculine images and the use of male pronouns promote the invisibility of women.

For many women, including a number in our group, these masculine images affect women’s worship and spirituality through difficulties in finding authentic ways of praying and ministering. Thus, Joan holds firm views on the discrimination leading to women’s lack of voice and position in the decision-making structures of the church.

Jesus’ ministry in the mess

Nevertheless, she is not impressed by the sight of ministry as professional service. She used the story of the Transfiguration where selected apostles witnessed visions of the prophets and God on Mount Tabor. They were so overwhelmed. Peter, in particular, wanted to build sacred buildings in which they could stay and behold these wonders for the years to come.

However, Jesus showed them that new testament ministry required that they return to the messy and wounded world below—to take the heart of the temple to the world. This, Joan stressed, is the essence of ministry today: not only to witness to the oppressed around us but to add our voices to the calls for a moral world for all.

For us as Catholic women who welcomed the vision of Vatican II and who have concerns about recent developments and directions in the Catholic Church, Joan had good news. She reinforced that the direction charted and the decisions made then, and recorded in Vatican II documents, are still the authentic vision and platform of the church today. She reminded us that only another council of Vatican II significance could overrule that vision and those decisions.

Among the various directions embraced by Vatican II and enacted in Joan’s life since then was a serious call to ecumenism. At an international level Joan works with Jewish and Muslim women’s groups to seek the commonalities, rather than the differences, they share.

Joan also emphasised the importance of relationship—a central concept of eco-feminism. When people are in genuine relationship, domination and exploitation cannot exist. She believes that more nurturing of the earth might have happened if Christian theology had emphasised the creation story in Genesis 2, which calls for relationship with all creatures rather than that of Genesis 1 with its focus on domination—the way of the weak. She ended with an eco-feminist challenge to women who have experienced domination to be the prime movers in seeking ecological justice for Earth.

Sophia welcomed Archbishop John Dew’s ‘mature approach’ in sanctioning Sr Joan Chittister’s visit to the diocese. We affirmed his openness to the many contemporary views of church in this post modern world and how they kindle the growth of personal and communal spirituality.

Next month we will look at Joan Chittister’s seven deadly sins.