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Conscience Magazine

Sister Fact

By Barbara Ferraro January 26, 2015

In 1984, we were sisters of Notre Dame, two among the many women religious who began to look with a social justice eye at the institutional church itself. Then, as now, women religious and the forces of the Vatican were on a collision course. And collide we did. Our confrontation, and our protracted fight to stay true to our conscience, was splashed across the pages of the New York Times beginning in 1984. Today, it is not difficult for us to understand why Rome is coming down so hard on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the largest association of nuns in the US. The combination of “women” and “religious” has long seemed a perilous mix to the institutional Catholic church.


Before we were nuns, as young girls we were immersed in our Irish, Italian and Catholic heritages. We were both fortunate to have loving and protective families who helped shape our lives. Following Catholic teachings was par for the course

in our early lives, though our experiences and observations of family, friends and neighbors opened our worlds, and we began to question.

While we did not ask many things of parish priests and nuns, with our peers we did question why, according to church teachings, a good and kind neighbor would be condemned to hell for not going to church. We also wondered why divorced and remarried couples could not receive Communion. When a neighbor’s wife died in childbirth, we grasped the loss of our classmate’s mother but we were unable to reconcile the church teaching that the child should be chosen over the mother if only one could survive.

Parochial education and youthful excitement about making a difference in the world would lead us to the Sisters of Notre Dame in the 1960s. It was a remarkable and exhilarating time in the history of our church and congregation with Vatican II. That era produced church documents affirming tolerance, democracy and human rights, as well as the 1965 Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, which established a mutual respect for different Christian traditions that opened the door to ecumenism. The Declaration said little about non-Christians, but it did state that it is contrary to the teaching of the church to discriminate, hate or harass any person or people on the basis of color, race, religion or condition of life. Vatican II had repercussions beyond church documents, and many of these shifts can be traced to steadfast pressure from below.


Vatican II also brought freedoms to nuns. Women religious were challenged to look at the signs of the times, and life changed dramatically. Putting away our habits reflected an outward change, but we also returned to the roots of the congregation, and exploring and working in different ministries signaled the substance of renewal.

The Sisters of Notre Dame’s mission was to “respond to the poor in the most neglected places.” It was similar to other communities of nuns who immersed themselves in healthcare, education, social services and work with the poor. The creativity and changes were energizing. Within nuns’ communities, the shared prayer and liturgies presided over by women were meaningful. Often, nuns became better educated theologically and biblically than many priests.

“When Vatican II requested nuns to search their history, Rome believed in a mythology of plaster statue women…. They found instead nuns who took the job literally, and became controversial for doing so.”

 Catholic women, including nuns, thought ordination was close at hand, especially after Episcopal women were ordained in Philadelphia in 1974. At the same time, dramatic changes were occurring outside the institutional church. The national scene erupted with protests of the Vietnam War. There were the Black Power and the women’s movements, among others. Women religious were involved in demonstrations and marches, the civil rights movement, consciousness-raising groups and other political activities.

“When Vatican II requested nuns to search their history, Rome believed in a mythology of plaster statue women,” said Syracuse University Professor Margaret Susan Thompson, a historian of women religious, in an interview published in the Global Post in 2012. “They found instead nuns who took the job literally, and became controversial for doing so.” Nuns had already broken out of their designated niche to engage with a rapidly changing world, but the Vatican had other ideas.


In 1978 and the decades that followed under John Paul II, it became increasingly clear that the Vatican was set on rolling back the changes of Vatican II. One of the first open conflicts between the nuns and Pope John Paul II erupted in 1979 during his first visit to the United States. Sister Theresa Kane, a leader among the nuns, stood up to speak to the pope after his address: “The church in its struggle to be faithful to its call for reverence and dignity to all people must respond by providing the possibility of women as persons being included in all ministries of our church.” Forty nuns were standing (Pat was one of them), wearing blue armbands as a symbol of their support for the ordination of women.

It was only the beginning. As time passed, it was very clear that John Paul II favored a more traditional church, where authority resided with him and the hierarchy. Women religious were meant to be blindly obedient and submissive to the directives of the Vatican. In reality, we valued thinking, reflecting and acting as a daily part of our lives. Openness to the different experiences of people’s lives educated us informally and formally. To leave no doubt that obedience was our proper role, during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI the Vatican was responsible for numerous instances of intimidation and intervention in the lives of women religious and many others in the Catholic community.

A Sister of Mercy for 30 years, Mary Agnes Mansour was forced to choose between her job as the director of Michigan’s Department of Social Services and her congregation. She believed that as long as abortion was legal and available to the wealthy, the procedure should be equally available to women who were poor. She left her congregation.

Sisters Elizabeth Morancy and Arlene Violet were both Sisters of Mercy in Rhode Island for nearly 25 years each. Morancy, a Rhode Island legislator, and Violet, a candidate for attorney general, were forced by the Vatican to choose between keeping their jobs or remaining nuns. They left religious life.

Barbara Ferraro speaks at March for Women’s Lives in Washington, DC, in March 1986.
Barbara Ferraro speaks at March for Women’s Lives in Washington, DC, in March 1986.

Originally a School Sister of Notre Dame, Sister Jeannine Gramick is an advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights. She co-founded New Ways Ministry with Fr. Bob Nugent in 1977. From 1988 through the 2000s, the two were under Vatican scrutiny, and a 1999 Notification from the CDF stated that “the errors of the approach of Father Nugent and Sister Gramick have caused confusion among the Catholic people and have harmed the community of the Church.” In 2000, her congregation told her to cease speaking publicly on homosexuality. She transferred to the Sisters of Loretto and continues her ministry to the LGBT community.

In 2008 adjunct professor at St. Louis University Sister of Charity Louise Lears was banned from church ministries and from receiving the sacraments. Then-St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke admonished her for rejecting the “truth” that it is impossible for a woman to receive ordination.

In November 2009, Sister of Mercy Margaret Mary McBride was an administrator and member of the ethics committee at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona. After the hospital medical staff judged that a young mother would likely die if her pregnancy continued, McBride sanctioned the abortion. Citing communication with the bishop, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, the diocese released a statement declaring that McBride “automatically excommunicated herself from the church.” Canonically, this punishment was on dubious ground, and while McBride was reassigned from her job, she was not asked to leave her order.

Sister of Charity Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Association, sparred with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on the question of healthcare reform, which the bishops inaccurately criticized for funding abortion. Keehan also defended the decision of Sr. Margaret Mary McBride to authorize the abortion, stating that it was within the bounds of the bishops’ standards for Catholic hospitals. “They correctly applied the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services to the patient’s situation, saving the only life that was possible to save.”

In 2011, Sister of St. Joseph Elizabeth Johnson had her popular book Quest for the Living God publicly denounced by the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine for “the gravity of doctrinal errors” and “theologically unacceptable” conclusions it contained.

In June 2012, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) published a Notification to Sister of Mercy Margaret Farley stating that her book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics does not reflect the official teaching of the Magisterium and therefore, “cannot be used as a valid expression of Catholic teaching….” Farley’s response to the Notification: “The goal of this book was to engage discussion about issues in sexual ethics, knowing that fruitful discussion becomes possible only if critical questions are pressed.”


Tension between the Vatican and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious has been palpable for decades, culminating in a strict 2012 “doctrinal assessment” report presented to the group representing the majority of the nuns in the United States. We think the roots of this phenomenon can be traced back to 1985, when the LCWR recommended that the US bishops “not issue a pastoral on women in society and in the church….”

The combination of “women” and “religious” has long seemed a perilous mix to the institutional Catholic church.

As Sister Mary Luke Tobin wrote in America in 1986, “The LCWR report also described the conditions contributing to the alienation of women from church and society….” In part the report said: “Patriarchy has been a prime concept for the perception and organization of reality. Patriarchy as a worldview of its very nature assumes the alienation of women. It places the male in the center of reality and makes the masculine normative.” We are certain that at the time the LCWR’s words did not sit well with John Paul II or Cardinal Ratzinger, his successor. The collision course continued.

On April 30, 2014, leaders from the LCWR were called on the carpet. Prefect Cardinal Gerhard Müller reiterated the problems the CDF perceived in the nuns: the choice of speakers at LCWR assemblies; alleged “policies of corporate dissent”; and the prevalence of radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith sponsored by the LCWR.

The LCWR issued a statement on May 8, 2014:

“In our meetings at CDF, LCWR was saddened to learn that impressions of the organization in the past decades have become institutionalized in the Vatican, and these institutionalized perceptions have led to judgments and ultimately to the doctrinal assessment. Communication has broken down and as a result, mistrust has developed. This is a very complex matter…. This dialogue is fraught with tension and misunderstanding. Yet, this is the work of leaders in all walks of life in these times of massive change in the world…. We have come to believe that the continuation of such conversation[s] may be one of the most critical endeavors we, as leaders, can pursue for the sake of the world, the Church, and religious life.”

It saddens us to see the LCWR attempting dialogue, over and over again, when it is clear the Vatican simply wants obedience. But we agree that these conversations are important precisely because the institutional church would prefer silence.


About the Authors

Barbara Ferraro and Patricia Hussey were among  the original signers of “A Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion: A Diversity of Opinions Regarding Abortion Exists Among Committed Catholics,” an open letter sponsored by Catholics for Choice that appeared in the New York Times in 1984. A total of 97 prominent Catholics including nuns, priests, theologians and laypersons signed on to the statement that the prohibition on abortion was “not the only legitimate Catholic position.” The advertisement also maintained that Catholics should not be punished for publicly dissenting from hierarchical positions. The Vatican responded by pressuring signatories to recant, including 24 nuns who were dubbed the “Vatican 24.”

Over the next four years, Ferraro and Hussey became the two left standing by their commitment to reproductive choice and women’s rights despite the Vatican’s demands for retraction. The Sisters of Notre Dame elected not to dismiss the two women, who left the order in 1988 to work as co-directors of Covenant House, an ecumenically based social justice center in Charleston, West Virginia, for 25 years. They developed numerous programs for the homeless population, housing for people with AIDS, initiated an education reform program and continued efforts to maintain reproductive rights for women in their state.

They continue to speak truth to power, and to provide an example to all who work for justice in the church and the world.



Our struggle with the Vatican from 1984–1988 was revelatory and taught us many things. As the two remaining signers of the New York Times ad in 1984, we believe our observations are as valid today as they were 30 years ago. Sustained involvement in people’s lives while being present to personal and public struggles may inevitably lead to conflict with the powers that be, as was the case with us. We realized we could not ask people to stand against oppressive structures if we were not willing to do the same.

There is the importance of claiming your own voice and telling the truth of what you see. Change begins here. Any institution that behaves autocratically like the Vatican and CDF counts on silence to keep its power.

When we met with the Vatican’s representative Archbishop Fagiolo in 1986 to “resolve” our case, we were not going to play word games. Attempting to explain our prochoice position, he said, “Hold your private position, but together we must present a united front.” Barbara asked forthrightly, “Archbishop, are you telling me it is all right to lie?” He did not answer.

After our book No Turning Back was published, we had a private meeting with Bishop Bernard Schmitt of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, in the early 1990s. We discussed freedom of conscience, moral decision-making, birth control and abortion. This most compassionate man affirmed freedom of conscience and moral decision-making. We asked him if he could write an article on these matters in the diocesan paper because it would be liberating for many Catholics. With sorrow, he said he would face consequences and could not do it. His story is not an isolated one. As we said, institutions count on silence.

We need to be conscious of the difference between the pastoral and the political; the private and public. On the one hand, it is extremely important to be there for those who are considered invisible. Having a private and affirming conversation is very important, and we do not want to minimize that. However, in the long run, it is not enough to simply be present to those in pain if institutional injustice is its cause. Real life and injustices demand structural change both within and outside of the church.

Women religious have been at the forefront of dealing with societal injustices. You name the cause, nuns were marching: for civil rights, nuclear disarmament and saving the environment; protesting apartheid and US intervention in Central America; and demanding food, shelter, jobs and fair wages for the poor and disenfranchised.

However, once the Vatican began to repress open discussion, threaten their livelihood and sisterhood, and minimize women’s lives—fear became operative. We believe the Vatican’s threats and interventions also caused nuns’ groups to steer clear of reproductive justice issues.

It seemed evident that strong women and their congregations became immobilized. In the face of institutional violence and bullying, women religious retreated from naming the oppression within the church. And then there was the attempt to appease the hierarchy.

Too often, women religious have been protective of the hierarchy in hopes that there would be change. Perhaps overly hopeful, the LCWR tried to “dialogue” with the CDF when that department of the Vatican simply wants control. After decades of trying to talk and explain, how much more can one talk? Enough is enough! It may be time to walk away from that institutional relationship that does not respect nor honor women religious.


What does all this say in light of Pope Francis’ coming to the United States in September 2015? Without question, he is photogenic, affable and charismatic. His personal actions and commitment to service and simplicity are admirable and welcomed changes from the pomp and pageantry (“fluff and puff”) and the “bling” of his predecessors. The hierarchy would do well to follow his example, particularly as there is a lack of trust in their leadership. We applaud his attempts to deal with the corruption, cover-ups of sex crimes and other scandals that have riddled recent Vatican history.

Patricia Hussey speaks at the 1986 March for Women’s Lives in Washington, DC, March 1986.
Patricia Hussey speaks at the 1986 March for Women’s Lives in Washington, DC, March 1986.

His words can be insightful, as seen in his June 2014 address on the 48th World Communication Day: “What is it, then, that helps us, in the digital environment, to grow in humanity and mutual understanding? People only express themselves fully when they are not merely tolerated, but know that they are truly accepted. If we are genuinely attentive in listening to others, we will learn to look at the world with different eyes and come to appreciate the richness of human experience….”

We have some recommendations for Pope Francis to consider as he looks at the world with different eyes, particularly as they pertain to women religious.

Before you tell women religious and others what to doput your own house in order. Stop deflecting from your problems and making nuns the issue. Summon the hierarchy to condemn the real sinners and criminals in their midst who failed miserably to protect children. According to author Jason Berry, nearly every bishop or cardinal involved with the LCWR investigation had shown unbending tolerance toward priests who were sexual predators.

Express—on the international stage—sorrow for Vatican indifference and institutional complicity on abuse, disclosing where children were sacrificed and secrets were kept. In 2001, Pope John Paul II gave the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith juridical responsibility for crimes such as sexual abuse of a minor, which was followed by a letter to all bishops in which Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the CDF, urged “confidentiality” and referred to penalties for anyone who revealed accusations of clergy abuse.

Do not hide offenders like Cardinal Bernard Law and Cardinal Jozef Wesolowski in the Vatican and Rome. Turn them over to civil authorities so that accused abusers like Wesolowski must answer for his actions before the communities he harmed, and Law can stand trial for his negligence in failing to protect the children of his former archdiocese.

Publicly thank all women religious who have given their lives for the betterment of the world.

Suspend all “assessments” of women religious and confess to the abuse of power by the hierarchy in conducting these investigations.

Publicly concede that women religious are in charge of their own lives and unless the nuns initiate conversation, the hierarchy must not interfere—period.

Publicly apologize to those women religious, theologians, faithful dissenters and members of the church whom you have harassed, humiliated, threatened, coerced and silenced because they have not adhered to the static and stagnant positions of the church. Their search for the truth within a vibrant church is critical to those who still choose to be members.

Acknowledge out loud that the official church has treated women as second-class citizens and not trusted their ability to make moral choices in all areas of life—including reproductive choices. Stop romanticizing women’s lives and roles in church and society. Rectify these wrongs immediately.

If we trust Pope Francis’ words, then many of these challenges are obtainable. However, questions remain: Are his words trustworthy? Will he have the courage to speak and make substantial changes which are long overdue?

The world is watching!

Barbara Ferraro
Barbara Ferraro

is a former Sister of Notre Dame. Barbara has a Doctorate in Ministry (DMin.) With Patricia Hussey and Jane O’Reilly, Barbara authored No Turning Back, Two Nuns Battle with the Vatican over a Woman’s Right to Choose.

Tagged Abortion