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1,000 Catholics Sign Ad Backing Right to Dissent on Abortion

February 22, 1986|RUSSELL CHANDLER | Times Religion Writer

More than 1,000 American Roman Catholics have signed an advertisement supporting the right of Catholics to speak in favor of abortion and take stands on other controversial issues that differ from the church's official views.

The ad, scheduled to appear in the March 2 issue of the New York Times, is being placed by the Committee of Concerned Catholics, an independent and unofficial group based in Washington. Publication of the ad is designed to support a group of nuns and other Catholics who are under fire from the Vatican for signing a 1984 abortion-related ad in the same newspaper.

Solidarity Affirmed

"We affirm our solidarity with all Catholics whose right to free speech is under attack," the new ad will say, according to an advance copy.

"We believe that Catholics who, in good conscience, take positions on the difficult questions of legal abortion and other controversial issues that differ from official hierarchical positions act within their rights and responsibilities as Catholics and citizens."

Frances Kissling, a member of the steering committee placing the ad, said: "We are concerned by the growing repression of dissent in the church. . . . We see the ad as a tool for letting the U.S. bishops and Rome know where American Catholics stand."

The original ad, titled "Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion," appeared on Oct. 7, 1984, at the height of the presidential campaign debate on abortion. Vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro was criticized by Cardinal John J. O'Connor of New York for taking the view that while she personally opposed abortion, she did not favor legislation outlawing it.

The 1984 ad, signed by 24 nuns, one priest, three religious brothers and 69 lay Catholics, said "a diversity of opinions regarding abortion exists among committed Catholics. A large number of Catholic theologians hold that even direct abortion, though tragic, can sometimes be a moral choice."

In December of 1984, the Vatican called publication of the ad a "flagrant scandal" and demanded that the nuns and brothers retract their support of it or face dismissal from their orders. The U.S. Catholic bishops said in another statement that the ad "contradicts the clear and consistent teaching of the church that deliberately chosen abortion is objectively immoral."

Seven of the nuns subsequently reported that they had "clarified" their positions. But they deny asking to have their signatures removed from the statement on pluralism and abortion.

"There have been no retractions; there have been no withdrawals," Kissling said.

One of the signers of the 1984 ad, Sister Margaret Farley, a professor of ethics at Yale University and a member of the Sisters of Mercy, said her case became public recently when John Carroll University, a Catholic school in Cleveland, planned to present her with an award. The Cleveland Diocese then asked the Vatican for a clarification of her standing and was told Farley had retracted her support for the ad.

Farley, in an interview with United Press International, said she has not retracted her signature.

"I think the situation with Sister Farley shows there is a lot of wishful thinking within the broader Catholic community about a quiet settlement of this situation," Kissling said.

She added that the decision to publish the new ad was made last month when the Diocese of Providence announced that Mary Ann Sorrentino, executive director of Planned Parenthood in Rhode Island, had been excommunicated because of her employment with the agency, which offers abortion referrals as part of its birth control services. Sorrentino did not sign the first ad.

Early last year, Catholic social workers in Los Angeles County were ordered by the archdiocesan welfare bureau to stop referring homeless women to an East Los Angeles shelter operated by Sister Judith Vaughn, the only nun in California to sign the 1984 abortion-related ad.

Vaughn, who said she has not signed the second ad, still faces possible dismissal from her order, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

Has Not Retracted

The 24 nuns who signed the first ad "believe there is no grounds for dismissal," Vaughn said in a telephone interview. "I want it to be very clear that I haven't retracted. . . . I believe there is still a need--perhaps an even more critical need--to dialogue with one another on this very significant issue."

Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony said any disciplinary action against Vaughn would be taken by the Vatican's Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes--the body which has called for the retractions--in consultation with superiors of Vaughn's order.

In addition to threatened expulsions of the nuns and brothers, lay signers of the first ad have reported being denied teaching or speaking at Catholic institutions and being "disinvited" from participation in programs on peace and justice issues.

"Reprisals continue unabated and there is no indication of a forthcoming just settlement," the Committee of Concerned Catholics said. "Such reprisals consciously or unconsciously have a chilling effect on the rights to responsible dissent within the church, on academic freedom in Catholic colleges and universities, and the right to free speech and participation in the U.S. political process."

Kissling said the forthcoming full-page ad, which will cost $36,137, has been signed by "a broad representation" of more than 1,000 Catholic priests, nuns, scholars and teachers. She declined to give names.

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