Benedictines Chittister and Forcades delve into women's role in church
WASHINGTON — Memory was at the core of an Oct. 11 exchange between two prominent Benedictine sisters both known as radical thinkers in their circles — Sr. Joan Chittister, 83, and Sr. Teresa Forcades, 53 — at All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington, D.C., for a fundraising event hosted by the Women's Ordination Conference titled "Radicals and the Rule."
As a young scientist in the early 1990s, Forcades was taught that DNA's three-dimensional double-helix structure is called the "Watson and Crick model" for the two men who apparently discovered it: "That's James Watson and Francis Crick, two names."
Forcades later learned it was actually a woman, Rosalind Franklin, who discovered the shape of DNA in the 1950s, years before Watson and Crick. But Franklin's name — a woman's name — was left off the model's official title.
"In 30 years, the science had forgotten her," said Forcades, a Catalan physician and theologian known for her public health social activism and views on feminist theology.
The Catholic Church, by contrast, has preserved the memory and history of women going back thousands of years in a way that "no other institution has done," Forcades said. In China, for example, where is the history of women from, say, the 12th century? Who are these women? Of course, women in Eastern cultures had important social initiatives, Forcades said, but their records have disappeared.
The church is struggling to move forward to address the oppression of women, Forcades acknowledged. Nevertheless, "every day, the church is placing in front of my eyes [an example of] a woman that is highly honorable —"
Chittister jumped in before Forcades could finish the thought.
"Maybe you're being bought off," Chittister said.
"Bought off?" Forcades asked.
"Maybe it's one of the cleverest sexist tricks," Chittister said, then shared a story, and memory, of her own.
As an 8-year-old in Catholic school, Chittister used to go to the nearby church every night after school and stand in front of its stained-glass windows, "looking for a woman."
"Here is an institution that has preserved great women for over 2,000 years — the kind that created you and me, the kind that gave us a model that there was another place to go and another way to think," Chittister said.
"But at the same time, I have to ask: Why is it that the institution that has saved the memory, the work, of the strongest women in history for 2,000 years is not the church that recognizes this membership of these women?" she asked.
'The ideal of human life is sanctity, and that has always been open to women.'
—Sr. Teresa Forcades
The two sisters, who had not met before this event, wasted no time diving into the complex subject.
"Modernity began with the exclusion of women," Forcades said.
In "modernity" — the phrase she used to describe the post-Renaissance period of history that continues to this day — human reason was made out to be the highest "ideal of human life." From modernity's outset, Forcades said, women were excluded from pursuing this ideal because they were barred from receiving an education and attending university.
While reason is the ultimate ideal for secular society, Forcades made clear that the church has never said that the ideal of human life is the priesthood, which only men are allowed to attain.
"The ideal of human life is sanctity, and that has always been open to women," Forcades said, though she also mentioned she supports the Women's Ordination Conference and will continue to advocate for women's ordination to the priesthood.
Before turning it back over to Chittister, Forcades questioned if the best way to address the Catholic Church's sexism is by casting stones at the institutional church from a perspective that the society outside it is more welcoming to women.
"I don't know about that," she said.