CHICAGO — When Delle Chatman, artist and writer turned graduate theology student, wrote “The Answer,” to be performed at St. Gertrude’s Catholic Church Oct. 1-3, she was hoping to start a dialogue between disparate groups about one of the most polarizing subjects of our time: abortion.

“I wanted to tell a story in which a political leader and his family were made to straddle an issue with their personal lives sizzling on a public griddle. Abortion is tearing the country and more than one denomination apart right now, and seems to be the moral arena in which common ground most desperately needs to be found, but, boy, is that proving hard to pull off,” said Chatman.

But when pastor William Kenneally got a call from Bishop Francis J. Kane forbidding the production a month into rehearsals, parishioners were left wondering if it was the play’s content or politics that promulgated the ban.

“It was decided that this was just not something that should be held in a church at a Catholic parish,” said archdiocese spokesperson Jim Dwyer. However, when Kenneally met with the bishop and his deans the next day to discuss the matter, he was told that it couldn’t be performed in the church’s social hall either.

When contacted by the World, Dwyer clarified, “It could give the wrong impression that there is an ambiguity about being pro-life. The Church is not ambiguous about being pro-life.”

The flap began when the conservative Catholic Citizens of Illinois posted the press release for the play on their web site, asking members to bombard the archdiocese with complaints.

The effort quickly grew when other fringe conservative political groups on the web, such as the ultra-right Free Republic, jumped on the bandwagon. Kenneally was told that the complaints had reached a critical level.

At issue was the play’s complex storyline inspired by today’s headlines: A Catholic Democrat is denied communion after supporting pro-choice legislation and watches his re-election campaign lead evaporate after it is revealed by a reporter that his own daughter had an abortion when in college. The revelation costs him core voters and unearths a painful division in his family.

Democratic contender John Kerry and other Catholic Democrats have taken hits from a handful of bishops that have threatened to deny communion to politicians who support pro-choice legislation.

Some bishops, coming dangerously close to subjugating separation of church and state laws, have even claimed that a vote for such a politician would be sinful. Chatman’s play asks the most provocative question of any political campaign: “Can a vote be a sin?”

The Chicago Archdiocese could have taken a cue from the inspiring words of Pope Paul VI when he said, “It would be a disgrace if our dialogue were marked by arrogance, the use of bared words or offensive bitterness. What gives it its authority is the fact that it affirms the truth, shares with others the gifts of charity, is itself an example of virtue, avoids peremptory language, makes no demands. It is peaceful, has no use for extreme methods, is patient under contradiction and inclines towards generosity.”

Instead, caving to political pressures and ducking the current communion controversy, the hierarchy chose to stifle the play and the discussion about abortion that was to take place afterward.

But when the local media picked up the story, Kenneally’s phone started ringing. Ministers from other Christian denominations were calling from all over the city offering to host the play and discussion.

Pastor Bob Goldstein of Immanuel Lutheran Church nearby in Edgewater said, “Father Bill and the St. Gertrude’s community have meant a great deal to us for many years. We’ll do anything we can to help.”

Undaunted by the controversy stirred up by the Catholic bishop’s ban, Goldstein said, “I’ve spoken with our council president, and our bishop. We’re all happy to have this play done here.”

As they say in show business, “Any press is good press,” and ticket sales have been up.

“When any source meets with resistance, it intensifies. The attention it’s received has made more people aware of it,” Chatman told the World. Chatman’s prayer for her play is that the people “who really need to see it, see it.”

“The Answer,” a spiritual musical in one act, will be performed Oct. 1-3, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 5 p.m. at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1500 West Elmdale Avenue, Chicago — just two blocks from St. Gertrude’s.

“The Answer” is set to a score of gospel, jazz and sacred music preformed by the nationally renowned multicultural, multi-denominational choir, “Choral Thunder.” Tickets can be purchased at www.theanswerin2004.com.

The author can be reached at vhastings@pww.org.

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