After almost two years of “discussion,” the case of the nuns who signed a pro-abortion advertisement in the New York Times appears to have moved to the stage of conflict.  Yet only recently, in the early summer of 1986, the issue seemed close to settlement.

On July 22 the Vatican office that deals with religious orders and communities announced that except for two sisters, 25 others (including a few priests and a brother) no longer faced disciplinary measures because they had made “public declarations of adherence to Catholic doctrine on abortion.”  Naturally, this reaction has added fire to the dispute, which had already taken a new turn with the refusal of the Sisters of Notre Dam de Namur to take disciplinary action against two members of their community, Barbara Ferraro and Patricia Hussey, who have re-emphasized their unwillingness to retract their pro-abortion views.

Challenge the Church

The controversy goes back to an October 7, 1984, advertisement published just before the American presidential election in November of that year.  The ad claimed that opposition to abortion is not the only legitimate Catholic position.  (See “Pro-abortion Catholics?”  Interim, February 1985; and “pro-abortion feminists and Nuns,” May 1985).  It was generally interpreted as a statement in favour of the right to abortion.

The advertisement was not published in a fit of absentmindedness.  It was intended as a direct challenge to the Church, one of whose representatives, Cardinal O’Connor of New York, had publicly objected to Democratic Vice=Presidential Candidate Geraldine Ferraro’s public stand in favour of the right to kill unborn babies, a position which was backed by her pro-abortion voting record.  The ad campaign was organized by a Committee of 14 Catholics, among whom were leading ideological feminists Rosemary Ruether, Elizabeth Schusserl-Fiorenza and Daniel and Marjorie Maguire, all four with a record of hostility to Church authority.  Among the 97 signers were 24 nuns.

Of necessity, the challenge was picked up first by the Vatican Congregation for Religious.  It pointed out that the ad was a “Flagrant scandal” and “suffieient cause for the dismissal of a Religious guilty of such conduct.”  Backed by American bishops, the Congregation began a series of private meetings and discussions in order to settle the matter as amicably and speedily as possible.  However, from the very beginning a number of the nuns involved proved recalcitrant and angry, while some of the major superiors seemed anxious to protect them.  But little was heard of the affair until the spring of 1986, at which time a favourable solution seemed near.


In early March 1986 Religious News Service (RNS) reported that two more nuns, Sr. Jeannie Gramick and Sr. Margaret Traxler had been “cleared” by the Congregation for Religious, according to a statement issued by their provincial superior, Sr. Patricia Flynn (School of Notre Dame).  This brought the total up to 11.  Sr. Flynn explained that the two nuns had “clarified their intentions in signing the statement and their positions relative to the teaching of the Church on abortion.”  This they had done “in a series of meetings with the general superior, provincial leaders, as well as their respective provincial councils.”

One may have wondered, of course, why a simple retraction or affirmation of Chuirch teaching would require “a series of meetings,” all high level, over a period of more than a year.  Another harbinger of things to come was the further statement that,

“the two sisters and their leaders [my emphasis] continue to be concerned about the situation of the Sisters whose cases are not yet concluded.”

On the other hand, the RNS note that “Sisters Gramick and Traxler, reached by RNS, confirmed that they had been notified that the matter was settled but would comment no further,” seemed innocent enough.


Also in March, sister Kathryn Bissell announced that her case had been closed as well, following a meeting with the Vatican’s officials, Archbishop Vincenzo Figiolo and Sister Mary Linscott, in Washington.  Said Bissell:

“the teasm from the Vatican was very gracious and it was a fruitful discussion…I am happy an attempt was made to settle it in this way.”

In June of 1986, a NC report indicated that nearly all the nuns had been cleared, including eight of the ten who met with Archbishop Fagiolo and Sister Linscott in Washingtonin March.  The only two exceptions were Sisters Barbara Ferraro and Patricia Hussey, who, during the meeting, had reiterated a “woman’s right to choose.”  Both had signed a new pro-abortion statement, published in the National Catholic Reporter prior to the meeting, and had participated in a pro-abortion rally organized by the National Organization of Women (NOW) in Washington on March 6, 1986.  As a Vatican source indicated, after their written response (dated April 26) had been received: “with the others (eight out of ten) the signing of the ad was for a political, social or pastoral reason.  It was not doctrinal.  With these it was.”

Major Superiors

On June 18, 1986 after a silence of 17 months, the Rome headquarters of the Sisters of Namur finally made a public statement which seemed tentative and hesitant at best.  The position of sisters Ferraro and Hussey they said:…has serious potential for the giving of scandal and reflects an attitude of intransigence rather than dialogue…”  Sister Catherine Hughes, general moderator (apparently they do not wish to be known any longer as “superiors”) explained that even now the order had not issued an ultimatum as requested by the Vatican.  The time “has come to initiate another phase” of the dialogue, she had added.  Her fellow administrators indicated that they would like to ask the two sisters questions about their views on objective moral norms and the Church’s teaching role.  One wonders what they had been discussing during the previous 17 months.

On the same day, Dominican Sister Donna Quinn, of Chicago, announced that she, too, had been cleared by the Vatican.  “I do not promote abortion.  I never have promoted abortion,” she stated in an interview.


From then on progress changed into regress.  An Associated Press story of July 5 revealed that Sisters Ferraro and Hussey were not only unrepentant, but quite prepared to sow the seeds of division wherever they could.  In an interview they commended their religious order for “claiming their autonomy as a religious community,” a reference no doubt to what they considered as ‘standing up’ to the Vatican.  They attacked the Vatican for “intervention and interference.”  They explained that in their April 26 letter to the leaders of “demanding obedience to authoritarian rule without allowing legitimate dissent.”  Roman officials, they had declared, “cannot deal with women as full persons and moral agents in their own rights.”  Finally, they had signed off with a nod to Martin Luther’s “Here I stand, I can do no other”: “We stand with those in the Church who believe in all women’s rights to make moral choices, who value integrity and do not compromise it…who seek the truth and do not fear it.”

On  July 24, eleven of the 22 nuns who had been cleared by the Vatican denied having retracted anything, denounced what they described as attempts to “pressure and isolate Barbara and Patricia” and vowed “to stand with them in solidarity in their ongoing struggle.”  Thus they clarified the qualifying statement of Sr. Patricia Flynn mentioned above.  Naturally, Gramick and Traxler, as well as Sr. Donna Quinn who had been one of the most out-spoken of the nuns (and who also appeared in the Canadian religious feminist propaganda movie Behind the Veil), were among the protesters.

The other eight nuns were Sisters Mary Ann Cunningham of Denver; Mary Louise Denny and Virginia Williams of St. Louis; Judith Vaughan of Los Angeles; Marilyn Thie of Hamilton, N.Y.; Ann Ware of New York; Pat Kenoyer of Kansas City and Loretto Sister Maureen Fielder of Mt. Rainier.  The last named had taken the initiative for the latest statement.  According to her, the six members of her order who signed the ad had simply stated that human life is sacred.  “But we never agreed with the Church’s teaching on abortion,” she said.  In short, they had chosen their words carefully so as to leave the impression that they had agreed to the Vatican’s request for loyalty to the Church’s teaching, when in their own minds they had no intention of doing so.