Last November, the Vatican, through the Sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes (SCRIS), directed the major superiors of 24 American nuns who co-signed the now-infamous October New York Times  “pro-choice” advertisement, to seek retractions from the sisters concerned.  [Major superiors either head an entire ‘congregation’ of Sisters (Superiors General) or, in the case of large international groups, head a particular geographical province (Provincial Superiors).] 


Contrary to Catholic teaching, the advertisement claimed that there can be more than one “legitimate Catholic position” on abortion.  In addition to the nuns, it was also signed by three male religious, one diocesan priest and 69 lay men and women.  (See “Pro-choice Catholics” Interim, February, 1985, and “Open letter to the Bishops”, Interim, December, 1984 for the related actions of Canadian Catholics such as Laura Sabia.)


On November 15 last year, the doctrinal committee of the American Bishops Conference rejected attempts to downplay the significance of the advertisement; or attempts to interpret it, not as advocating a pro-abortion position but as merely reflecting a factual difference of opinion.  As the conference’s spokesman, Fr. Hoye, put it a few weeks later, quoting from the directive:


[Our] statement rejects the position of the so-called Committee on Pluralism and Abortion [those who signed the ad] as erroneous, reaffirms the clear and constant teaching of the Church that deliberately chosen abortion is objectively immoral and points out that legitimate freedom of conscience requires the formation of conscience in accord with the truth of the Gospel message as handed on in the constant teaching of the Church.


The Vatican Congregation summarized its evaluation of the nature, the seriousness, and the urgency of the situation, by pointing out that:


The…upholding or spreading of doctrine condemned by the Magisterium of the Church especially on an issue of such gravity is a flagrant scandal and is sufficient cause for the dismissal of a Religious guilty of such conduct.







What is the situation today, more than four months later?  This is best summed up first by a series of points:


  • The three men religious have issued retractions; none of the others, (nuns or laity), have done so.
  • The early reaction of a few of the 24 nuns was extremely hostile.  For example, Sr. Kathryn Bissel stated in a television interview that “The Vatican is trying to abort the nuns, and we are full term.”
  • The text of the advertisement, it was revealed, had been drafted, according to


Marjorie Maguire, by herself and her husband, more than a year before, in early 1983.  Also, it had been circulated already earlier in 1984 under the auspices of “Catholics for Free Choice,” (of which the Maguires are founding members) a group funded by pro-abortion agencies such as Playboy and Gloria Steinem’s Ms.  The text was finally published in order to counter the publicity given to New York Archbishop O’Connor’s denunciation of Vice-Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro’s justification of abortion and New York Governor Cuomo’s justification for doing nothing to stop it, during the 1984 American election campaign.


By mid-December 1984, the nuns and other signers began meetings to plan strategy to answer the directive.


  • They decided to ignore the American Bishop’s expressed hope for a “happy solution.”  As the Bishops’ spokesman, Monsignor Daniel Hoye, pointed out, this hope stipulated “public retractions,” because he said “this is really a question of church doctrine and the role of the publicly vowed religious to protect and defend and promote that doctrine.”
  • They discussed, but rejected, the idea to say nothing in public.  Instead, lay theologian Rosemary Ruether was authorized to read their collective response at a press conference.  This response condemned Rome’s demand as “a cause for scandal to Catholics everywhere.”
  • Finally, contrary to the opinion of the American Bishops that the SRCIS directive was not part of a larger “Vatican crackdown on dissent” in the Church and the dispute with the signers likewise “not a question of due process, or human rights, or the feminist question, or women’s rights.” They decided to treat it exactly that way.


As a consequence of this strategy of defiance, none of the women religious have retracted anything; the Vatican directive has come to be interpreted as an attempt by a male-dominated bureaucracy to crush women’s rights; finally, the Vatican directive, not the New York Times advertisement is being put forward as the cause of grave scandal.


One aspect of the controversy which has been quite revealing is how profoundly this group has been influenced by the “Pro-choice” rhetoric of radical secular feminists.  This has been made crystal clear by the frequent charges that the real motive of the Vatican directive is an assault by celibate, clerical bureaucrats on the reproductive rights and freedoms of women.




Sadly enough, the most vocal reactions to the Vatican directive have come from some of the nuns who signed the ad.  Take, for example, Chicago Sister Margaret Traxler (School Sisters of Notre Dame), founder of a group of sisters called the National Coalition of American Nuns.  (Other signers known to be associated with this coalition were Dominican Sister Donna Quinn and Loretto Sister Ann Ware.)  Sister Traxler let it be known that she was angry.  Seeking support from as broad a cross section of American nuns as possible, she interpreted this Vatican action as an attempt to “force American women religious into line” with Rome.


Loretto Sister Maureen Fiedler took the feminist and the freedom-of-speech approach.  Stated Fiedler: “The male clerics are not only trying to control our bodies, but also our minds.”  Also, “we believe in freedom of speech, something which the Vatican fails to understand.”


Sister Jeannine Gramick (School Sisters of Notre Dame), long involved in a running battle with both Rome and the Archbishop of Washington about her activities on behalf of homosexuals, simply expressed relief that this time she “had plenty of company.”  Sister Judith Vaughn (Carondelet Sisters) called the Rome directive “absurd and highly disrespectful.”  She added that “the sexual ethics of the Church are developed by male, celibate clergy…this ultimatum is a way of putting us (women) in place, keeping us submissive, treating us as children.”




In Denver, Sr. Mary Agnes Cunningham defended herself in the local Catholic paper, “The Church.” She said, “has not always had a clear and constant statement” on abortion.  “There are good, practicing, committed Catholics who could find themselves that they would choose abortion as the lesser of the two evils.  Every Christian has the right to form his or her own conscience – even if it is in error.  We can’t turn our consciences over to the Pope. The Church or anybody….”  The Vatican “did not approach us as teacher, but as judge, jury and hangman.”  Thus she repeated common-enough charges, but ones which have been shown repeatedly to be false.  (The Church has always held that human life must be protected from the beginning.  No Christian may choose evil; moreover, abortion is never the lesser of two evils because there is always the choice of not doing it.  It is the Church’s duty to enlighten consciences by moral teaching.  The SCRIS acted precisely in its function as teacher.)


Various individual defiances were followed by a bolder step, namely the publication of a fresh “pro-choice” position in the January 1985 newsletter of the National Coalition of American Nuns (NCAN).  Drawn up by the NCAN Board in October, its publication was delayed until January because of lack of space, when it was placed next to the text of the SCRIS directive.  The statement argues that “pro-choice/pro-life” can be an acceptable stance for Catholics.  It criticizes the bishops for thinking that “they alone have the right and wisdom to make decisions about the morality of a woman’s existential choice about pregnancy when that choice differs from their theoretical one.”  It rejects discussions on abortion that include no women or only a “token” woman.  It says flatly, “We reject the attitude which denies personhood to the woman and bestows it on the fetus.”


When Sister Margaret Traxler visited Toronto on March 26, 1985, she was interviewed on CFRB radio as an example of a truly liberated religious sister who had abandoned the supposedly traditional narrow view promoted by Rome.  She spoke for nearly half an hour about the “self-determination” of woman, about the fact that “every woman should have her own God-given freedom to make decisions about her own body.” And how incomprehensible it is that men, “whether politicians or distinguished clergymen,” think they can “pontificate” about women.


National Catholic Reporter


Attempts to avoid reconciliation by keeping the pot boiling have been aided most effectively by the widely-read and traditionally anti-Vatican weekly, the National Catholic Reporter.  During the three months from mid-December to mid-March, the NCR, editorially and by means of half a dozen regular contributors, supported the signers fully, while mocking the Vatican Congregation for Religious at the same time.


During this period only one regular contributor, Sister Joan Chittister (in her article of January 11, 1985), can be credited with raising some valid questions, though even these were and are not insoluble.  For example, the question of why the nuns and not the laity were asked to retract, is well taken.  This question is not answered with complete satisfaction by Chicago’s Cardinal Bernardin’s appropriate-enough observation that “priests and religious have a special obligation to present correctly the teaching of the church…because of their role they should not use their privileged position to undermine the integrity of official church teaching.”  This answer explains the “why the religious?” question, but it is silent about the laity.  However, this silence does not mean necessarily that the laity will not be taken to task.  They certainly should be and presumably will be, especially when they have important teaching roles.  However, this falls under the jurisdiction of individual bishops.  Their action may depend on whether of not scandal involves institutions over which they have some control.


The tone and content of the NCR’s attitude to the conflict can be measured by its editorial of December 28, 1984, entitled “Vatican slams door on dialogue.”  It portrays Rome in terms usually associated with the most ignorant, secular hostility.  The Vatican is autocratic and utterly insensitive to dialogue, according to this editorial.  It is a church which “for too many years has failed miserably to grapple with complex human sexuality issues,” and which, by its recent threats, “has created havoc among U.S. Catholics.”  It has forced into a corner “two dozen committed religious women.”  It has no sympathy with “participatory democracy and due process;” it may well soon threaten “academic freedom.”  It certainly has not understood “that this country” (i.e., the USA) “is at the frontiers of Western social, political and economic exploration and testing” and that “theology has to try to keep pace and make sense of these realities….”


The falsity of all this artificial anger is illustrated best by the editorial’s title which has the Vatican supposedly slamming the door on dialogue.  However, the cause of all the fuss, the New York Times advertisement, cannot possibly be interpreted as an invitation to dialogue.  In its immediate context, it was a straightforward throwing-down of the gauntlet to those American Catholics who, within the 1984 American electoral process, were objecting to political candidates defending the “right-to-abortion” position.  From the wider point of view, it was a deliberate defiance of the Catholic Church’s universal teaching that abortion is inadmissible under all circumstances and that this teaching is of utmost importance, not to be treated in the same way as general issues of social concern.  (This is so, of course, because abortion attacks the natural as well as the super-natural prohibition against killing the innocent.)


Rosemary Ruether


The low point of the NCR’s campaign on behalf of the religious who support the Pluralism and Abortion Committee stand, was reached by Rosemary Ruether in her article of January 11, 1985.  Undoubtedly, this is as vicious an attack on the Church as has ever appeared in an American Catholic weekly and, indeed, one rarely found even in the secular press.  Ruether, a lay woman, was one of the principal 15 signers, and teaches theology at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary, Evanston, Ill.  As noted in the February Interim, she is a “Catholic” who has rejected major principles of both Catholic faith and morals since the mid-sixties.  Her article is such a tissue of malicious lies that it cannot be satisfactorily summarized without reproducing the entire text.  It defames the Vatican, the Pope, nuns, pro-life, Catholic women, priests and, above all, the teaching of the Church, while at the same time defending abortion.


According to Reuther the whole history of the Church is one long quest by a male hierarchy to dominate a submissive laity.  For this purpose the maintaining, or supposedly restoring to pre-Vatican status, of mindlessly-docile nunnery is essential.  Consequently, she says:


That denial of dissent on abortion should be the issue also is not surprising.  Central to patriarchal power from its foundations is the control over women’s reproductive capacities.  Women have wombs.  Men do not.  If women are autonomous decision makers about reproduction, then they, not men, hold the key to life,


Taken in isolation, this quote may appear sufficiently foolish (and to readers of radical feminist literature sufficiently familiar) to downgrade the article.  In reality, this piece of feminist “literature” is a clever concoction of interpretative opportunism, sloganeering and labeling.  Ostensibly based on “historical facts,” and held together by a sustained note of rage and sarcasm in which the quote above is slipped in almost unnoticed, an unwary reader feeling already aggrieved for whatever reason, may well come to share the rage as well as the belief that the history of the Church does, indeed, consist of denying female sexuality.  That the Pope, for example, has just finished four years of careful teaching on human sexuality during his Wednesday audiences, will, of course, not make the slightest difference.  It will be relegated to a “more-of-the-same ideology” classification.  Rosemary Radford Ruether certainly knows how to poison the well.  As noted above, it was Ruether who was selected to represent the group at the December 19 meeting with the press.




It is not surprising that, with the aid of people like Ruether and the sustained efforts of the NCR, the second part of the group’s strategy has also been successful.  This strategy (decided upon in Chicago the weekend of January 19-20, according to the NCR), consists of diverting attention from the New York Times ad by attacking the Vatican directive and making it the target of criticism.


While this process was under way publicly in the NCR, Chicago women’s organizations were privately assembling signatures in support of the 24 nuns, together with a statement calling for dialogue.  Statement and signatures were published in a full-page advertisement in the March 1, 1985, edition of the NCR.  This ad carried some 775 names.  Under the heading “A Call to Dialogue,” the undersigned state that they are “shocked by the harshness of the response on the part of the Sacred Congregation.”


Then, after first explaining that some Catholics agree, others disagree, with the opinions of the New York Times ad, they say that this statement is not at issue here.  “Our concern is the conscientious pursuit of truth in dialogue,” they say.  The text goes on to state that “unanimity on any issue in the Church cannot be imposed,” and that, over the centuries, the Church has changed its teaching “in matters once affirmed as authentic.”  The ad continues: the “Vatican action is a basic violation of human rights and dignity and is a cause for scandal to Catholics everywhere,” and that “it appears to be an attempt …to stifle freedom of speech.”  Claiming that all of this is contrary to Vatican II (which, of course, it would be if it were true), the undersigned explain that they must take a stand on this violation of human dignity” or otherwise compromise their own commitment to individual dignity.  “We call on the Vatican to move from its threat of dismissal to a process of dialogue with the individuals involved in this situation,” they say. 


It is quite possible that a number of the signers of the NCR ad may have felt the Vatican action excessively harsh and may have believed that their support could help alleviate the situation.  Close reading of the text makes it clear, however, that this second declaration simply adds to the difficulties.  For one thing, there are no examples of authentic Church teaching in matters of faith and morals whereby the Church, say, of the fifth century, taught one thing and the Church in the twentieth, its opposite.  But supposing this were true, for sake of argument, what does asserting this claim in this context represent, except another attempt to convince some that there is, or should be, a legitimate Church teaching on abortion other than its prohibition.  Again, is it possible in this case where the Church’s prohibition of abortion has been given overwhelming publicity, to call for dialogue with any other purpose in mind than to change church teaching?  One would think not, especially in view of the by-then well-publicized statements such as that of Sr. Margaret Traxler in the Chicago  press: “If I have to leave the Sisterhood, that’s their decision.  I will absolutely not recant.”  Must one assume, then, that another 800 or so people, many of whom are religious sisters, have added their defiance to that of the original 97?  As explained above, there is some reason to hope not.  But, at the same time, there is also fear that it may be so.


Major superiors


What about the position of the major superiors to whom the letter from the Vatican SCRIS was directed?  It is known that some of the people directly involved met during December and January.  These were closed-door sessions.  According to the NCR (January 18), it was made clear by Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco at one January meeting, that abortion is not considered a matter of speculative theology and that the letter of the Vatican Congregation was “not negotiable.”  According to the same source, publicly, the signers and their superiors convey a united front.  Privately, however, it was admitted that not all superiors support the signers.


The NCR of February 1, reporting on a Chicago meeting of 20 nuns with some 25 lay-signers and major superiors of each of the 14 religious orders involved, reported “no breaks in the ranks.”  That is the last anyone seems to have heard.


There is, then, a four months’ long silence.  If it betokens strenuous, time-consuming efforts to educate and convince all the Members of these Congregations that a retraction by the persons involved is an absolute necessity, the time will have been well spent.  We do not have the right to begrudge this effort, even though one might have thought that this would have been unnecessary in the case of the teaching on abortion which is so straightforward and simple.  Still, there may be many members who have not given this question any or much thought.


However, if the silence signifies inability or unwillingness to obtain either a retraction or an expulsion, as designated by the Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes, then the end of an era has come in the Catholic Church in North America.  Eventually, there will follow the judgment found in Psalm 37: Estranged from God by disobedience, “they will wither quickly like grass and fade like the green of the fields.”  Prayers for a happy outcome of this conflict, i.e. a retraction on the part of the people involved, are certainly in order.