11/13/2010 08:21 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Where Are Women's Voices for Peace? A Conversation with Sister Joan Chittister

For more than 55 years as a Benedictine Sister, Joan Chittister has been a powerful voice for justice, human rights and the place of women in the church. Katherine Marshall sat down with her recently to discuss feminist distrust of the church, the Benedictines' passion for peace and why women make great peace builders.

What got you involved in issues of women and peace?

Purely and simply, it is because I became a Benedictine. I did not come to the issues through the peace movement or the women's movement. I have never been part of any secular organization. It came through the Church.

The Benedictines are over 1,500 years old; no institution of the Church is older, except perhaps the Church itself. And the Benedictine model has always been about peace, at every and any level. Yes, that means inner peace and a contemplative bent, of course. But the significance of peace goes far beyond. The Benedictines as a religious order worked for centuries basically to reclaim Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. That was a time of great insecurity. People were not safe on the roads or in their towns, and there were no soldiers to protect them. Benedictine monasteries served as hospices, each one no more than a day's ride from the next. We were absolutely the first motels in Europe, and offered hospitality for hundreds of years. In the chaotic Europe of the time, the monasteries were the anchor and the sign of peace at every level.

So if you are a Benedictine, peace is on your mind. Benedictines take a vow of stability, not of chastity and poverty. That entails a lifelong commitment to a particular community in a particular place. That sense of community is very important to us, and it is how we see ourselves and our social and civic responsibilities. It is right in our DNA. In addition, we very much see ourselves as a women's order; Benedictine nuns were the first to educate women in Europe.

And so after Hiroshima and World War II, how could we, as an order, not be very conscious and alert to what peace means in our time? I was prioress in the period after Vatican II. We saw it as a call to our communities to change and to act. What else are we here for? So the corporate commitment of the Benedictine sisters embraced the causes of nuclear disarmament, of ecological stability and of commitment to the poorest of poor -- especially women. For us, these were not separate causes, and we were keenly aware of the linkages.

How old were you when you joined the Benedictines? Did you have an interest then in women's issues?

I became a Benedictine nun at 16! That was in 1952, after I had plagued the prioress for two years to take me.

My concern for women's roles and welfare were very much on my horizon even then, though I did not have the language then to express it. I saw my mother's life, from a very early age: she was truly brilliant and special, but she was totally undereducated. Left a widow at 21, during the Depression, with a child, she could not support herself and never forgot it. My stepfather was a good man but she was twice as smart. I saw the distorted division of labor between them and knew that it was wrong.

She was the one who was needed, but he had the job and position. My mother was clearly a feminist though, again, she did not use that language. I remember clearly that all my life she stressed that I must study and work hard so that I could take care of myself. It was a life experience that was burned into my mind. I knew from the time I was six years old that life was upside down, and that life was very precarious.

So when I met the ideas of feminism, I simply said, yes, this is right. I did not have to throw off any role or shake off ideas. I just jumped off the high diving board. It was the only show in town that made any sense.

Do you see divides between the religious and secular worlds increasing or decreasing? How wide is the gap?

In the United States, Europe and Australia, secular habits and institutions are pretty well established. And the divides can be quite yawning. And I understand them. I understand why religious women are skeptical about the feminists and vice versa. Their respective images, of bra-burning feminists and insensitive priests and nuns, have been formed in the historical patterns of past decades.

Until the mid 1960s, within the Church, it was simply unthinkable that a nun would question a priest. There was no women's authority and no women's agenda. At a meeting once, a lay woman stood up and refused to participate until the nuns left. I was the youngest nun in the room and was shocked by her anger at us and her insistence. When I asked why she wanted us out, she said: "Because you nuns have said 'yes, father' all your lives and taught every generation of women after you to do the same." I began to realize that women were angry at us for not enabling them to become full adults.

I came to my commitment to women's issues through religion and through the women in my life, including wonderful nuns. But some women have to leave religion to be able to come to the confidence and understanding that will allow them to think for themselves. I think it may be necessary for nuns to be able to hear these voices outside the religious systems. They can become healers between the systems. I don't know of any other way to do that, unless religion begins to look more women-friendly.

You now serve as co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, facilitating a network of women peacebuilders. Why should we focus on women's roles for peace?

I am completely convinced that until women are more than token members of any movement and institution, there will never be peace or action on environment or real action on poverty. Women bring real differences in terms of style, goals, agendas, presence and real skills in conflict resolution. The fact that existing institutions do not deal with women in any systematic fashion is a real issue.

What differences do you see in approach and style between women and men?

You see differences everywhere, in the tone and agenda of discussions. To take one example, when I was at the LCWR (Leadership Conference of Women Religious), a priest was asked to be a consultant on some organizational issues. He was someone whose style was to get things done, then tell others how to go about the next steps. After the first meetings with the LCWR he was ready to quit because the style was so different -- it was a group decision making process. But some time later he told me that he came to see that the work was energized as a result of the process.

I have seen more than one man go through a similar process of learning. The male model of decision-making is fast and seems effective, but, understandably, it is immediately rejected by the other side. It becomes a taffy pull, a tug of war. The cooperative decision-making process, in contrast, engages all personally so that they want to get the work done. It slows down decisions in most instances, but it does it better.

Where is action most sorely needed? Where should we be exploring and pushing as we move ahead?

The most important advice is that we have to tap into women's agendas and then honor those agendas. Whenever the Bishops meet somewhere, women should meet in a commission right across the street. They should discuss exactly the same agenda and at the end publish their recommendations. This is not flip: It's a serious recommendation, because we need women's political inputs on every major political issue there is.

Giving voice is of the first importance. If this world is ever going to change, if this world is ever going to have peace, women must be involved.

An extended interview with Sister Joan Chittister can be found here.

This interview is fourth in a series of conversations with activists working for development and peace who draw their inspiration and direction from their faith. The series is based on interviews led by Katherine Marshall, as part of policy explorations for the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University and the World Faiths Development Dialogue.