Sister Joan Chittister, a well-known American nun, feminist and scholar, was looking forward to speaking at a Catholic education conference in Australia next year, figuring there would be plenty to discuss in a country where Catholic schools educate roughly one in five children.
But then Sister Joan, 83, received an email a few weeks ago effectively telling her not to come, saying that the Archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, had not endorsed the invitation.
No reason was given, she said. But to Sister Joan and her supporters, the message was clear: The leaders of the church don’t like her ideas — especially her call to empower women and laypeople — so they plan to suppress them.
“It is pathetic,” Sister Joan said on Monday in an interview from Erie, Pa., where she has lived and worked with the needy for most of her life. “These teachers for the next generation of thinkers are being denied the right to pursue ideas.”
“I see it as a lot bigger than one conference,” she added. “I see it as an attitude of mind that is dangerous to the church.”
The dispute over her invitation, unreported until now, arrives at a time of division and tension for Australia’s Catholic Church.
Cardinal George Pell, a former archbishop of Melbourne who also served as the Vatican’s treasurer, will soon learn whether the appeal of his conviction in December for molesting two choir boys in 1996 has been successful. Cardinal Pell, the highest-ranking Catholic official found guilty of criminal charges in the church’s child sexual-abuse crisis, was sentenced to six years in prison.
But close observers suggest the cardinal has a good chance of winning his appeal, which would ignite another round of anger among Catholics who believe the church is not doing enough to loosen priests’ grip on authority, contributing to a culture of secrecy that allowed the sexual abuse problem to fester.
The rejection of Sister Joan is fuel for the fire.
“The archbishop has made a serious mistake,” said Gail Grossman Freyne, a family therapist, author and friend of Sister Joan’s in Melbourne.“This ban will in no way hinder Sister Joan in pursuing her apostolate. In fact, it will only increase the number of people in Melbourne, in all of Australia, who will come to hear her speak and buy her books. What kind of threat is this 83-year-old Benedictine who has spent her life preaching the gospel?”
The Archdiocese of Melbourne did not respond to requests for comment.
Jim Miles, acting executive director of Catholic Education Melbourne — one of the groups organizing the National Catholic Education Commission’s annual conference, where Sister Joan had expected to speak in September 2020 — characterized the dispute as a communications failure. He said no one, including Sister Joan, had yet been formally invited to address the gathering.
“It is regrettable that Sister Joan Chittister may have been given the impression that she was invited to speak at the conference,” he said. “The conference organizing committee is working to ensure that this type of miscommunication does not occur again.”
Sister Joan, however, said that she had clearly been invited, and that she later received an apologetic email rescinding the invitation.
“I am very saddened to say that while our organizing committee strongly supported the inclusion of Sr Joan as a speaker at the conference, the Archbishop of Melbourne has failed to endorse her inclusion,” the email said.
Catholic scholars said they were not surprised by the dispute; Archbishop Comensoli is a conservative moral theologian who previously served as an auxiliary bishop in Sydney under Cardinal Pell when he was the archbishop there.
His views generally reflect the widening divide between the church’s leadership and many everyday Catholics. On issues like the role of women and acceptance of homosexuality, priests and bishops steeped in the doctrinal and social conservatism of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI continue to be opposed by Catholics who have moved to the left, and want to see the church change with the times.
The current pontiff, Pope Francis, has tried to bridge this divide, calling for the church to be more inclusive, while upholding church teachings that prohibit gay marriage and ordaining women as priests or deacons. He has taken only modest steps on both the sexual abuse crisis and broader reforms. On Monday, he cracked open the door to ordaining married, elderly men as priests in remote areas of the Amazon, where the shortage of priests is dire.
In Australia, as in many countries, the divisions have contributed to the faith’s steep decline: Just over 10 percent of Catholics in Australia attend church weekly, down from 74 percent in the 1950s. And while the country’s Catholic schools are still well attended, thanks in part to government funding, they are also the forum where the Church’s generational and cultural rifts are most apparent.
Young Australians who identify as Catholic, for example, are far more liberal than the leaders of their faith. According to an independent study from the Australian National University, eight in 10 Catholic teenagers in Australia support same-sex marriage, and roughly the same percentage support the right of L.G.B.T. students to express their sexuality in schools.
“There is often a misalignment between the laity and the hierarchy, particularly with anything considered socially progressive,” said Andrew Singleton, an associate professor of sociology at Deakin University near Melbourne who worked on the study. “The hierarchy takes its lead from Rome, whereas the laity takes its lead from a wide array of sources, not just the Church.”
Sister Joan is familiar with the fault line. In 2001, Vatican officials directed her order, the Benedictines, to keep her from speaking at a Women’s Ordination Worldwide conference in Dublin. Her religious community refused, and she spoke anyway.
She has gone on to say that the ordination of women — which is not allowed in the Catholic Church — is not her main concern. But for educators in particular, Sister Joan’s acts of resistance make her a rich source of discussion about both the Church and activist faith in general.
For more than 50 years, she has combined Scripture with stories of modern inspirational figures and demands for equality. Friendly and relentless, she rose to prominence in the 1980s with her opposition to nuclear proliferation. Through countless lectures and more than 50 books, she has developed a worldwide following for highlighting the role of women in religious orders, for calling on the church to change and reconnect with the faithful, and for providing a model of spiritual leadership focused on social justice.
Her most recent book, “The Time Is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage,” is in many ways a cri de coeur against the status quo and for a bold spirituality to fight injustice.
Oprah Winfrey, who recently interviewed Sister Joan on her cable channel, said it was a wake-up call. “I read this and I thought, gee, I am not doing enough,” she said.
Sister Joan, who still hopes to come to Melbourne, said her critics in the church did not seem to grasp the book’s message, or the danger of denying information to the public.
“That’s exactly the way the church got into trouble over the sex scandals,” she said. “They did everything alone.”
She paused and sighed. “It’s the last act of a dying mentality,” she said. “All we can do is go on, go on.”
Damien Cave is the bureau chief in Sydney, Australia of The New York Times. He previously reported from Mexico City, Havana, Beirut and Baghdad. Since joining The New York Times in 2004, he has also been a deputy National editor, Miami bureau chief and a Metro reporter. @damiencave