'We didn't commit a crime. All we did was say, "Hey, there's a diversity of opinion among people (of our faith) and we need to talk about freedom of conscience." I don't see myself as defiant.' Sister Judith Vaughan, who runs a shelter for homeless women in East Los Angeles, is one of 24 nuns on a collision course with the Vatican for signing a public statement asserting--contrary to official Roman Catholic teaching--that abortion can sometimes be a moral choice.
The nuns, as well as several priests and religious brothers who signed the statement, stand to lose their jobs and to be expelled from their religious communities unless they retract their position that there is a diversity of opinion on abortion within their church.
"All we did was ask to talk," Vaughan, 39, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, said during a recent interview in the box-like, two-story House of Ruth shelter where she has been a co-director helping destitute women for the last six years.
"We didn't commit a crime. All we did was say, 'Hey, there's a diversity of opinion among people (of our faith) and we need to talk about freedom of conscience.' I don't see myself as defiant."
The Vatican sees it differently.
In a Nov. 30 letter to the leaders of the sisters and three religious brothers who signed the statement, the Vatican Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes said the signers are "seriously lacking in religious submission of will and mind" to the teaching authority of the church.
The Vatican letter, a copy of which was made public last week, called the nuns' action "the pernicious upholding or spreading" of condemned doctrines, "a flagrant scandal." Unless the nuns issue a public retraction, the letter said, the statement would be "sufficient cause for dismissal."
The 24 sisters, who represent 13 religious communities throughout the United States, are planning a strategy meeting later this month with their superiors and the 73 other Catholic leaders who signed the abortion-related advertisement that was published in the Oct. 7 edition of The New York Times. None of the lay Catholic signers has been ordered to disavow the statement.
Vaughan is the only member of her order and the only nun in California who signed the ad, sponsored by Catholics for a Free Choice, an unofficial and independent group that supports legal abortions. The ad appeared during the height of the presidential campaign debate over abortion and views of it held by vice presidential candidate Geraldine A. Ferraro and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.
"Statements of recent Popes and of the Catholic hierarchy have condemned the direct termination of prenatal life as morally wrong in all instances," the statement said. "There is the mistaken belief in American society that this is the only legitimate Catholic position."
The nuns say the Vatican reacted too harshly, in a way that threatens the rights of all Catholics to speak freely within the church. And they see the dispute as one of the most serious since the widespread dissent over Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical banning artificial birth control.
Nevertheless, the leaders of the women's religious communities issued a statement last week that seemed to call for moderation on both sides. In their three-paragraph text, the major superiors said: "Participants recognize that a satisfactory resolution of the situation necessitates measures that are inherently just and that honor the conscience of all involved and the complexity of the doctrinal and pastoral issues."
Vaughan called the Vatican's threatened penalty "absurd . . . highly disrespectful," and she added: "The sexual ethics of the church are developed by male, celibate clerics. We women need to be part of that decision-making process too. . . . This (ultimatum) is a way of putting us in place, keeping us submissive, treating us as children."
Her views were echoed during a wide-ranging interview with Rhonda Meister, 35, a coordinator of the House of Ruth shelter and a part-time worker at St. Joseph's Center, a counseling and advocacy organization in Venice, and Anita Caspary, a staff member of the Peace and Justice Center, an education and rights agency in East Los Angeles. She is also a former president of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters in Los Angeles.
Caspary, 60, battled the late Cardinal James Francis McIntyre of Los Angeles during the 1960s over her order's innovative reform program in dress, ritual and life style. The modernization led to a split in the order, with the larger branch forming a secular community. Drawing parallels between struggles then and those of the 24 nuns now, Caspary said:
"We tried to follow the precepts of Vatican II (the reform council of the Catholic Church during the mid-1960s). Freedom of conscience and diversity of opinion were (made) so clear. . . . But now there seems to be a return to 'old authority.' You cannot dialogue with those above you in a humane way. . . . Decisions are simply handed down in a flat, authoritative dictum."
Meister, a Catholic who holds a master of divinity degree from McCormick Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian school in Chicago, said her views of abortion were shaped by her work with poor women and by a "theology of liberation" that calls for power for the oppressed.
"In the shelters for poor women, we see many who are pregnant, raped, deserted, abused. They don't have skills to provide for themselves or the children they may already have," she said. "We force incredible deprivation and suffering on these women. If the men who make these decisions struggled with some of the women's hardships, there might be more latitude in (the church's) moral teaching."
Last November, at their annual meeting in Washington, the American bishops approved a statement that blasted the signers of the advertisement for saying there are diverse views regarding abortion among committed Catholics.
"Such an opinion," the bishops said, "however sincerely motivated, contradicts the clear and constant teaching of the church that deliberately chosen abortion is objectively immoral."
Two weeks later, the letter from the Vatican threatened the nuns and brothers with expulsion. Expressing "surprise and anguish," about 40 of the signatories responded in a Dec. 19 statement saying that the Vatican sought "to stifle freedom of speech and public discussion in the . . . church and create the appearance of a consensus where none exists."
"This exact kind of diversity does exist," Meister said, referring to a recent poll of Catholics indicating that only 11% of those surveyed disapproved of abortion in all circumstances.
Vaughan, who earned a degree in social ethics at the University of Chicago, works part time at the Peace and Justice Center, which is a project of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. She combined her interests and the purposes of her religious order--"to teach and respond to human needs"--by working "in solidarity with women most impacted by an unjust system," Vaughan said.
She said she felt "very supported" by both the provincial superior and the superior general of her order after she signed the controversial ad, Vaughan added, saying she participated for three reasons: the need to "fight for the empowerment of women who are denied it by hierarchical and patriarchal structures that dominate," her experiences with and "great respect for" women who have "struggled with abortion" and the "attack on Ferraro" by Archbishop John J. O'Connor of New York.
'I Was Mad at O'Connor' O'Connor publicly reprimanded Ferraro last summer because, though she personally opposed abortion, she was not willing to advocate legislative changes that would outlaw it.
"The statement to sign came in the mail in August and I was mad at O'Connor," Vaughan said, "and I thought his attack was confusing people and influencing them on how to vote because of a single issue. So I said, 'Sure, I'll sign it.' "
Vaughan, Meister and Caspary said they think the hardening confrontation between the "Vatican 24," as the sisters are coming to be called, and the papal authorities may well escalate into a watershed for American Catholics.
The process of resolving the issue is likely to take months, even years. Church law prescribes that the nuns be formally warned twice, be given time to reconsider their position and have the right to self-defense. The bottom line, in case of "obstinate insubordination," is dismissal from the order, without excommunication from the church.
There is no hint that any of the nuns intends to back down.
"A call to talk to one another is not something you can retract; there's no way to deny that," Vaughan said firmly, adding that she and the other nuns had banded "in a commitment to work together . . . so maybe we'll be heard. . . . Though the focus in on abortion, the real issue is talking about, and having the right to dialogue with, people in the church about developing moral authority. My hope is for a just and nonviolent solution."
To her, Vaughan said, "nonviolent" means not being silenced or expelled from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.