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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Sister Joan Chittister is a visionary voice, controversial figure and spiritual leader in the Catholic church. The Benedictine nun currently serves as co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a U.N.-sponsored organization of faith leaders working for peace. She's a regular columnist for the National Catholic Reporter and the author of many books.

Her reviews about the Catholic church, its beliefs and behavior have earned her both high praise and sharp criticism, and Sister Joan joins us from member station WQLN in Erie, Pennsylvania. Welcome to the program, Sister Joan.

Ms. JOAN CHITTISTER (Nun, Co-Chair, Global Peace Initiative of Women, Columnist, National Catholic Reporter, Author): Thank you, Liane.

HANSEN: Pope Benedict XVI made a concerted effort to meet with victims of sexual abuse during this visit here. And for a long time the Catholic church was in denial about the claims. What do you think this admission and the pontiff's actions, first of all, say about him, his character?

Ms. CHITTISTER: Well, I thought it was wonderful. It was public, it was serrate, it was direct and I believe it was from his heart. I think it was the right thing to do. If people say, well, it was an apology but what good is an apology? The fact of the matter is that he took responsibility for the church and in one of its worst moments in modern history.

I think it's important to understand that the bishops themselves were in a very difficult situation. They had always been trained - as we all were - to avoid scandal. So the Pope's voice at this time showing the despair of the universal church over such behavior and such a policy in the church is a refreshing one to all of us, I think.

HANSEN: The subject of women didn't seem to have come up during this…

Ms. CHITTISTER: Did you notice?

HANSEN: …U.S. visit.

Ms. CHITTISTER: Yes.

HANSEN: Yes. And in the American Catholic church there's long been a movement to open the doors of the priesthood, for example, to women. Is this a closed subject for this pontiff?

Ms. CHITTISTER: I hope not. Immediately after his inauguration, he said something had to be done to further the position of women in the church. I'm not arguing that that's a direction quotation at this moment but I know it was a statement of substance that implied a new future, a new awareness of the question, a new attempt to raise women to a proper spiritual and sacramental stature in the church. We're in a period where the church is being perceived as exclusionary. That somehow or other women are missing from it, and women are feeling that.

The new Pew religion survey says that Catholicism has lost 25 percent of its native membership in the last ten years. That the only reason that the figures have held firm is because of the immigrant population that has come into the United States during this period. I'm here to tell you that a lot of that loss is women.

They tell me everywhere I go, I'm so tired of hearing I was a Catholic once; I was born Catholic; I used to be Catholic. And it's woman after woman after woman. Why? Because they're missing from the church. They do not see themselves in the church. There just isn't anywhere that the whole recognition of the full humanity of women isn't simmering up across the globe.

HANSEN: What do you make of his interfaith outreach?

Ms. CHITTISTER: He did open a Muslim dialogue, he is maintaining a contact with the Jewish community. There isn't any other choice. This is a totally pluralistic society.

One of my clearest moments of revelation in my own mind was about 15 years ago when I was being driven across Dublin and the Irish woman who was driving the car pointed to her left and said, oh, and there's our brand new mosque. I said, what? Pardon me? She said, oh, that's a $10 million state-of-the-art mosque. I said, mosque? I tried to imagine my Irish grandmother. I could see her rising from the grave.

The fact of the matter is there is no place on earth now that can claim any kind of theocratic culture. We live in a pluralistic world both spiritually, institutionally, politically and socially and we have got to learn to live together if our religions have any real authenticity to them at all.

HANSEN: Joan Chittister is a Benedictine nun who currently co-chairs the U.N.-sponsored Global Peace Initiative of Women.

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