'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: