Catholic Nuns and the Need for Responsible Dissent

by Jeannine Gramick

Jeannine Gramick, a School Sister of Notre Dame, co-founded New Ways Ministry, which promotes reconciliation between lesbian and gay Catholics and the Roman Catholic Church.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 7, 1988, p. 1122. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


While there has been substantial dissent among Roman Catholics from the bishops’ pastoral letters, “The Challenge of Peace” and ‘‘Economic Justice for All,” dissent on sexual matters such as abortion, homosexuality, priestly ordination of women and even birth control has become increasingly less tolerable to church authorities.

In a letter dated July 13, 1988, Sisters Barbara Ferraro and Patricia Hussey resigned from their religious congregation, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur (SND) , after a protracted struggle with the Roman Catholic Church involving their public pro-choice stand on abortion.

Since 1984, the two had been frequent speakers at pro-choice demonstrations. In the absence of any uniform policy regarding dissent, their congregation’s representatives had asked that they enter a discernment process with their provincial leaders before making public statements on abortion. The sisters refused.

Two official warnings of possible dismissal were issued by the SND administration in the first two months of 1988. But on June 1 the leaders informed the sisters that they would not be dismissed, saying dismissal would not be in the best interests of the Roman Catholic Church or the congregation. Six weeks later the sisters resigned.

The conflict had been in the news for several years, with pro-choice groups, antiabortion organizations, religious communities, feminist groups and the Vatican all closely following each new development. The decision not to dismiss the sisters was commended by the National Assembly of Religious Women and criticized by the acting director of the Office of Pro-Life Activities for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. A national conservative Catholic newspaper hailed the sisters’ resignation with thanks that a "bad soap opera" was over, while the General Government Group of the Sisters of Notre Dame stated that Sisters Pat and Barbara have done what the situation and their own integrity demanded. They know that the prayers of the Sisters of Notre Dame will follow them into the future."

Can the Christian community gain any insights from this ordeal which brought heartache, frustration and turmoil to countless numbers of people?

One popular interpretation of this event centers on the right of public dissent from noninfallible teaching in the Roman Catholic Church. Although Roman Catholic Church law acknowledges that the faithful have the right to make their views known (Canon 212, #3) , it appears that this right dramatically decreases as the views increase in dissent from official teaching and as they become more public. While there has been substantial dissent among Roman Catholics from the bishops’ pastoral letters, "The Challenge of Peace" and ‘‘Economic Justice for All," dissent on sexual matters such as abortion, homosexuality, priestly ordination of women and even birth control has become increasingly less tolerable to church authorities.

An equally important interpretation of the SND struggle is that the congregational leaders had a right to dismiss a member who failed to comply with legitimate demands. Many SND members objected to the public statements by the two sisters. Antiabortion groups complained to the Vatican about the scandal of nuns publicly assuming positions contrary to official Catholic teaching. They urged the Vatican to exercise its right to dismiss the two sisters. The Vatican, in turn, hoped this dismissal would be carried out by the SND leadership.

The exceedingly complex Notre Dame conflict cannot adequately be analyzed in terms of either the right to public dissent or the right of a religious congregation to dismiss an unsuitable member. A more fundamental analysis is needed to examine the extent to which dissent is responsible dissent. Carol Gilligan, a Harvard University developmental psychologist, illustrates responsible dissent in her examination of male and female moral problem-solving. Females most often analyze moral problems in terms of responsibility in relationships. How are people connected to one another? Males are more likely to be interested in justice, individual rights and fair outcomes. Gilligan claims that men generally adopt a morality of justice and rights, while women approach morality as responsibility and caring in relationships. For example, in her immensely popular book In a Different Voice, Gilligan describes a moral dilemma posed to Jake and Amy, two equally intelligent sixth graders. The moral problem involves Heintz, whose sick wife needs a drug in order to live. If Heintz has no money to buy the drug, should he steal it from the druggist?

Jake sees the problem as a conflict of rights. He acknowledges that the druggist has the right of ownership of the drug, but also that Heintz’s wife has a right to live. Reasoning that the right to live is of higher value than the right to property, Jake states that Heintz should steal the drug.

In contrast, Amy says that there may be alternative ways to obtain the money and suggests that Heintz borrow it. Amy elaborates on the effects of Heintz’s stealing the drug: "He might have to go to jail, and then his wife might get sicker again and he couldn’t get more of the drug." Amy then suggests that Heintz should explain the consequences to the druggist, who might then give him the drug and allow him to pay later.

Amy perceives the dilemma not as a conflict between the druggist’s and the wife’s rights but as a tension in a web of relationships that entail responsibilities on the part of all the actors. In Amy’s world of responsibility and interdependence, personal communication and dialogue are the means for mediating problems. Jake’s world of impersonal law and logic appeals to a hierarchical ordering of rights to resolve problems.

This discussion of rights and responsibilities does not mean that all males or all females conceive of moral problems in the manner described, but that a male’s approach to problematic situations generally focuses on rights, while a woman’s construction of reality usually identifies responsibilities.

Gilligan’s distinction might be useful in examining the ways in which Ferraro and Hussey may have taken a typically male, "rights" approach to dissent. More important, however, is the perspective Gilligan’s research lends to the Notre Dame case as a whole. Most interpretations of the case have simply contrasted the right to dissent and the right to dismiss -- a generally male perspective. Gilligan offers us the alternative of a female analysis which would not so much question the right to express a diverse view, or the right to determine membership in a group, but would examine the issue of responsibility. The real benefit of the Notre Dame case to the Christian community lies in its prompting a serious reflection on the nature of responsibility in regard to dissent.

In 1968, in the storm of public rejection of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on birth control, the U.S. Catholic bishops proposed three norms for theological dissent in their pastoral letter "Human Life in Our Day." The bishops stated, "The expression of theological dissent from the magisterium is in order only if the reasons are serious and well-founded, if the manner of dissent does not question or impugn the teaching authority of the church, and is such as not to give scandal."

These norms re-entered the debate on public dissent in the case of Father Charles Curran, the Catholic University theologian who in August 1987 was deemed by the Vatican neither suitable nor eligible to teach as a Catholic theologian because of his dissenting views on various moral issues. The archbishop of Washington, D.C., James Hickey, pronounced the bishops’ norms "unworkable" because of the extreme latitude for dissent they afforded Curran.

While it is worth re-examining these guidelines as a starting point in the quest for public dissent, we also need a further interpretation of dissent which incorporates Gilligan’s theories of responsible problem-solving. I am assuming here that public discussion of moral topics is the responsibility not only of theologians but of all church members if a healthy development of doctrine is to occur in an ecclesial body. In her article "Moral Discourse in the Public Arena" in Vatican Authority and American Catholic Dissent, Margaret Farley makes an excellent case for public discourse in which each member of the church participates and shares insights, experiences and reflections. Without the investment of the entire Christian community, the search for truth and meaning would be inadequate and incomplete. Furthermore, Farley argues, public discussion of morality is necessary in order to preclude the unjust damage which is inflicted on church members when their lived experience is ignored in the development of moral doctrine. In the Roman Catholic community, the letters-to-the-editor section of diocesan newspapers is one elementary forum for such public exchange of opinion.

Consider the first of the three norms proposed by the U.S. bishops: "The reasons [must be] serious and well-founded." If public dissent is to be taken seriously, there must be compelling reasons for the dissent. What are sufficiently serious reasons? In a church tradition which has long failed to take sufficient account of empirical knowledge, a dissent based on experience, I believe, constitutes sufficient reason. For example, widespread unrest among committed Roman Catholics about present teachings on sexual issues is reasonably based on appeals to experience.

Second, the bishops stated that the manner of dissent must not question or impugn the teaching authority of the church. A teaching authority is needed for moral guidance and support in a faith community. The community can arrive at truth only by reflecting on the collective wisdom articulated by ecclesial representatives. An individual’s moral decisions are aided by theological reflection within the faith community context. But acknowledgment, recognition and respect for a teaching authority do not preclude a questioning of the manner in which the teaching authority is exercised, nor of the content of the teaching itself. Such questioning is not a threat to the moral power of church authorities.

Third, the bishops stated that dissent must not give scandal. Although such a norm is necessary, I doubt that it would often be violated. Furthermore, it must be asked what constitutes scandal and who decides how scandal is given or received. In a 1987 address Curran rightly noted that, because of greater educational levels among all Roman Catholics and because of the discussion of controversial issues in popular public forums today, scandal no longer consists in causing "confusion" in the minds of the faithful. The majority of Catholic laity are no longer the "ignorant multitude," as Pope Leo XIII called them.

In this day and age it is scandalous to curtail public conversations on controversial topics. Confusion is unavoidable on confusing issues, and it may be a necessary step in the inquiry into truth. A paternalism which seeks to shelter the minds of individuals and to protect them from making possible mistakes fails to respect these persons as adult moral agents. Attempts to silence dissent can cause scandal by eroding credibility in church authority.

Beyond the three norms cited by the bishops’ letter, three further criteria reflected in Gilligan’s research into women’s responsible moral problem-solving can address the issues of communication in the SND case and all public dissent.

In the Notre Dame affair, the sisters did not enter into a clarification process proposed by their leadership; they rejected a suggested egalitarian method of discernment and refused to engage in dialogue privately with their general leadership unless that leadership made a public apology for some remarks of the previous year. The two sisters firmly believed that the leaders were attempting to silence their public actions and were unable to accept the leaders’ word that they were not under pressure from the Vatican. In internal correspondence, the SND General Government Group stated that they had never asked the two sisters to remain silent on the issue of abortion. Satisfied that their basic stance was not a pro-abortion position, the General Government Group requested that the sisters "refrain from making further public statements which did not fully convey their position." The leadership stated to the congregation that the sisters’ methods of public action became offensive to the great majority of the congregation’s membership because their statements contained language which was abusive and disrespectful of persons and because their statements were interpreted as being pro-abortion.

This event further illustrates a fifth norm: the dissent must be articulated as clearly as possible, with close attention to proper nuancing in order to minimize the possibility of misinterpretation. Since confusion is possible in complex issues, the dissenting view should invite dialogue and questioning. Criticism should be sought and welcomed. To promote the search for truth in love, public dissent must not become intractable. Responsible dissent always invites the Christian community to deeper reflection and continued dialogue.

Finally, the Notre Dame case, together with Gilligan’s relational model of moral problem-solving, indicates a sixth norm for responsible dissent: as far as possible, the dissenter should communicate and dialogue with those who will be most seriously and immediately affected by the dissent. Like 11-year-old Amy who saw that Heintz was involved in a web of relationships which summoned him to responsibility, Christians are entwined in multiple relationships as parts of many different communities and voluntary organizations. In public dissent, individual actions impinge upon the larger group. While formal association with others imposes restrictions on one’s degree of autonomy, an individual benefits from the moral persuasion exerted by organizational identification. In other words, there are trade-offs to group membership. Most often, those directly affected by the dissent are the institution’s representatives who have the responsibility of maintaining some sense of unity and cohesiveness, although never at the expense of legitimate diversity and plurality. A member’s refusal to discuss areas of tension prevents the individual from understanding and empathizing with leaders’ accountability to the entire group.

A member of an organization with a distinct body of religious beliefs can, I believe, publicly dissent from a major tenet of that group if the dissent is responsible. Without responsible dissent, how can any institution grow; change, or renew itself? In the process of public dissent the individual may discover that the bonds of affiliation and feelings of identification with the organization have become irreparably ruptured. In order to preserve his or her own fidelity to basic principles and beliefs, the individual may responsibly decide to withdraw from the group.

If the dissent is not responsible, should the member be expelled from the religious institution? If the member can responsibly resign, can the group responsibly exclude? If one goal of religious communities is to model a church which sustains harmonious, albeit not tension-free, relationships and which seeks to reconcile members holding conflicting views, dismissal or rejection serves only to compound the degree of alienation. If church members have distanced themselves by their public or private actions, the members will probably withdraw voluntarily. Threatening members with dismissal because of an unwillingness to negotiate differences does not foster communication. If all known means to propitiate parties have been exhausted, the community members and representatives would do well to pray and wait for God’s grace of reconciliation. Even Vatican authorities did not initiate excommunication proceedings against the ultraconservative Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre for his adamant refusal to adhere to the reforms of Vatican II; instead they made magnanimous concessions to keep the archbishop within the church.

Susan Maloney identified a key issue in the Notre Dame case by questioning the degree of individual autonomy that is possible in a religious order ("Religious Orders and Sisters in Dissent," The Christian Century, March 9, 1988) While it is dubious whether any person can or should be a totally autonomous actor, women religious must achieve some sense of independence in their own affairs. The responsibilities of Roman Catholic women bonded to one another spiritually and bound canonically to the Roman Catholic Church are still in the process of being worked out. In a reflection paper prepared by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for the Fifth Inter-American Conference on Religious Life in 1985, the religious leaders stated, "We work for patterns of mutual accountability with structures for responsible dissent."

As the church continues to grapple with resolving conflicts, the role of nuns is pivotal, especially given their increasing dissatisfaction with arbitrary Vatican control and given the fact that they are becoming more vocal in their disagreement with many church policies. In a post-Vatican II church, women religious like Ferraro and Hussey are living in the tension of trying to maintain an individual and corporate integrity while remaining connected to traditional ecclesial structures. How nuns identify their responsibilities can provide a model for how each individual can cope with the demands of conflicting relationships in her or his own life. The way U.S. nuns handle responsible public dissent may provide a better understanding of how we all should treat each other in the Christian community.