Document 34: Excerpts from Mary Hunt and Frances Kissling, "The New York Times Ad: A Case Study in Religious Feminism," Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 3 (Spring 1987): 124-26.

Document 34: Excerpts from Mary Hunt and Frances Kissling, "The New York Times Ad: A Case Study in Religious Feminism," Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 3 (Spring 1987): 124-26.


   Mary Hunt, a laywoman and founder of the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual (WATER), and Frances Kissling, another laywoman and head of Catholics For a Free Choice, were both signers of the New York Times advertisement (see Document 32). In 1987, they wrote this analysis of the ongoing case against several of the signers. Hunt and Kissling's analysis revealed the intense feelings of distrust and betrayal among Catholic feminists that resulted from the case. The authors believed that when the vast majority of women religious in the Vatican 24, or "canonical signers" chose to negotiate a compromise rather than refuse to recant their positions, they betrayed the movement and the two women religious who stood their ground. In fact, each woman's decision was extraordinarily complex. Was it every feminist's duty to stand for her principles to the end, even if the consequences meant sacrificing vows, community, and a way of life? The fact that most of the signers chose to compromise was in fact consistent with the history of Catholic feminism in America. Catholic feminists had long resisted any pressure to choose between their loyalties to feminism and Catholicism. By 1987, however, Hunt and Kissling were prepared to reject women who refused to repudiate their institutional loyalties.

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Significance for Roman Catholic Feminists

   These events have had a number of serious and negative consequences for the individuals involved, and for Roman Catholic feminism in general. But they have also had a positive impact on the roles played by Roman Catholic feminists in the broader feminist movement and in the public debate on reproductive rights. First, the ad and the resulting dispute effectively and finally put to rest the myth that Catholics, especially professional Catholics (i.e., those whose identity is tied to church position, or whose lives and/or social support is founded on the institutional church) share the belief of the Vatican and the U.S. bishops that abortion is to be absolutely prohibited both legally and morally. Second, the New York Times ad ended the hegemony of both bishops and male clerics as the public interpreters of Catholic teaching, belief, values and practice. This is true not only in the abortion arena, but in all areas of public interest. In the two years since the ad appeared, it has become common practice for electronic and print media to seek the views of Catholic feminists on all major news events concerning Roman Catholicism.

   Many of the signers have been quoted widely in major print media. They have appeared frequently on television, and have given hundreds of radio interviews and speeches. They have been featured and honored in such publications as Esquire, Vogue, New Woman, Ms., The Nation, and The Washington Post Sunday Magazine. In each instance they have been able to put forth strong, intelligent, theologically sophisticated feminist perspectives as Catholics on issues of reproductive rights, authority and dissent in the church, and related concerns. Likewise, Catholics are doing new feminist liberation theological work on these issues in journals, books, university courses and professional meetings.

   Third, the signers of the New York Times ad have been a source of hope and inspiration for women whose religious feminism is just beginning to take root. They have said to women who have had abortions that they too are moral agents with a right and responsibility to make choices about their own bodies. Fourth, the signers have created new links between religious and secular feminists. They have aroused new interest and respect for religious feminism among leading secular feminists. One wrote recently that it is religious feminists who have transformed the abortion question, making it more than a proabortion vs. antiabortion deadlock, finally bringing the nuances of ethics and theology to such discussions.

   Fifth, the Vatican threat to canonical communities, and the long period during which signers belonging to these communities refused to clarify their

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positions, forced many communities and members to study the question of abortion, some for the first time. They were invited to consider the concept of women's reproductive freedom alongside their own concept of freedom as members of canonical communities. It is safe to say that the result of this inquiry is a significant increase in the number of prochoice women in canonical communities.

   These examples of public good are in stark contrast to the private difficulties and severe strains the Vatican threat and the responses of the canonical signers and their superiors have created within the community of committed Catholic feminists. All parties have had to confront, or are avoiding confronting, hard truths about themselves, their commitments to each other and to all women. In the absence of a willingness to expose and analyze these problems the wounds will not heal.

   The canonical signers whose cases have been settled are deeply demoralized. As one wrote, "I know of no signer who feels good about the settlement of her case." The signers are severely disappointed in themselves. They see that they are significantly less able to resist, to maintain full integrity, to stand firm for their beliefs, and to stand with each other than they believed themselves to be. This demoralization has severely limited their ability effectively to support the three remaining canonical signers. Indeed, there is substantial guilt among these signers, many of whom understand that the private settlement of their cases has created greater difficulties for Ferraro and Hussey (and now Rose Dominic Trapasso), who have refused to comply with the demand for clarification.

   Without exception, the leadership of all of the communities involved violated the principles of open exchange and dialogue that were thought to exist within the communities. For example, to greater and lesser degrees, they met concerning the canonical signers, but without their assent and without informing them. They kept secret from the signers verbal and written communications with the Vatican. These acts have created distance and distrust between many of the canonical signers and their leadership. The canonical signers were also stung by the open and formal support that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious offered to Charles Curran, in contrast to the total absence of public formal or informal support for them. In short, the canonical signers felt betrayed.

   The rest of the signers also felt betrayed. The actions of the superiors have shown them that canonical communities do not see themselves in the service of the whole church, particularly women. Rather, they are self-serving institutions in which survival, the maintenance of property, canonical status and power, however marginal, are more important than the integrity of individual members or a broader sense of church.

   While the other signers are somewhat more sympathetic to the canonical signers, there is still the feeling that when faced with the tough choices between solidarity with all women and loyalty to their congregations (hence

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to a part of the institutional church) they will choose their congregations. Many women have told us that the ability of the canonical signers or their communities to serve as leaders in the religious feminist movement within Roman Catholicism has been severely compromised by these events.

   As a result of this, and as a consequence of the deepening bonds among signers, there is a noticeable shift in leadership. What was once a movement of women in the church led by canonically connected women is increasingly becoming a movement called Women-Church. While Women-Church is properly the subject of another essay, it is important to say that all women and men who are committed to a "discipleship of equals" are part of this movement. Women-Church, rejecting the divisiveness of patriarchal Catholicism's hierarchies, makes no distinctions between secular and religious, lay and clergy. Insofar as the New York Times ad has helped to bring about a deepening and broadening of this base, the pain and problems have been useful.


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