PITTSBURGH — Two Catholic dioceses have decided not to support the upcoming National Catholic Educational Association convention in Milwaukee, primarily because of the inclusion of a prominent dissenter, Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, as a keynote speaker.

In Pittsburgh and in Peoria, Ill., diocesan officials have informed Catholic educators that because the program for the convention fails to uphold Church teaching, no diocesan funds will be spent to send teachers to the April 17-20 meeting, nor will continuing-education credit be granted for any of the sessions. In Peoria, the directive extends to parishes as well.

The three main speakers for the Milwaukee meeting are Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, Sister Chittister, a theologian who has been outspoken in her support for the ordination of women as priests, and Howard Fuller, director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Milwaukee's Marquette University and an advocate of school choice.

Sister Chittister is to give an address on “The Spirituality of Leadership.”

“This is the first time we've been in a position not to support the NCEA,” said Father Kris Stubna, education secretary for the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

But after assessing the overall tone of the Milwaukee meeting, he said he expressed his concerns in private correspondence with the NCEA. “We indicated . . . that we found it to be lacking in its support for the teachings of the Church.” He declined to comment on any person or session of the program.

However, an internal memo sent to Father Stubna's staff in October cites “several objectionable speakers” at the convention, “most notably Sister Joan Chittister,” as reasons for the decision.

Bishop John Myers of Peoria decided to take similar action after learning about Pittsburgh's decision, said Msgr. Steven Rohlfs, vicar general in the diocese.

Msgr. Rohlfs said Sister Chittister's participation in the program was a key issue for the diocese because of her support for women's ordination and open disagreement with Church teaching on homosexuality and other issues.

“Usually NCEA has many fine things attached to it, but it was because she was the major speaker of a plenary session to which everyone would be expected to go,” Msgr. Rohlfs said. “We thought it was a bad choice.”

Pope John Paul II addressed the issue of women's ordination in the 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (Priestly Ordination). To remove permanently all doubt about the question, the Pope said, “I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful.”

Speakers Must be Trustworthy

Msgr. Rohlfs said because the NCEA meeting is regarded as part of the formation of catechists, it is important that participants be able to trust that what is being said is consonant with Church teaching. “That's the real neuralgic issue here: The level of trust that our teachers and catechists can be formed at such an event,” he said. “We've presumed that in the past and we hope to presume that again.”

Dr. Claire Helm, vice president of operations for NCEA, said Sister Chittister was among the speakers recommended by Catholics in the Milwaukee Archdiocese. “The diocese of the area basically gave us a roster of folks they wanted to have.”

She said the association always seeks such recommendations from people in the area where a national meeting is to be held.

“I think that because [Sister Chittister's] been around so long and the topic on which she was chosen to speak about is not controversial . . . that's why the folks who recommended her didn't see it as an issue. We obviously didn't either and we didn't realize what an issue it was in some parts of the country.”

She said Sister Chittister was not invited to speak on women's ordination. “She has great credibility in the area for which we invited her.”

Helm added there are no plans to withdraw the invitation to Sister Chittister, nor has there been pressure to do so. The response of the membership to date, she said, has been supportive of having the nun as a conference presenter, and registration for the meeting does not seem to have been affected. NCEA's annual conference usually attracts 10,000 to 15,000 participants, Helm said.

Nuns Criticize Bishops

Meanwhile, Benetvision, a center for contemporary spirituality sponsored by Sister Chittister's religious community, the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pa., is providing her supporters with information about how they can protest the actions of the Pittsburgh and Peoria dioceses.

A sample text of a letter to Bishop Myers posted on the community's Web site calls the bishop's decision unacceptable, an imposition of one's personal views on others, and an injustice.

Sister Chittister could not be reached for comment, but a spokesman for her said the community had received upwards of 500 responses, all but one of them positive and in support of Sister Chittister.

Msgr. Rohlfs of Peoria estimated he and Bishop Myers had received about 30 postcards as part of the Benetvision campaign. A few dioceses also have contacted Peoria, Msgr. Rohlfs said, to say that they agreed it was unfortunate NCEA had chosen Sister Chittister as a speaker.

Dr. Mel Kuhbander, superintendent of schools in the Diocese of Peoria, said he has received little response to the decision from teachers.

Said Kuhbander, “When I explain to them that the decision does not intend to suggest that any teacher or principal working in the diocese is incapable of forming his own conscience, but that rather it is a decision to insure that people on the program do represent the magisterium in the position of the Church, they say, ‘OK, we understand.’”

Judy Roberts writes from Millbury, Ohio.

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