The nuns' story

Anna Quindlen

September 18, 1990|By Anna Quindlen

BARBARA FERRARO and Patricia Hussey are no longer nuns.

They did not leave the convent as so many others did, finding fulfillment within the smaller circle of marriage and motherhood.

These two spent years finding reasons to stay: to serve the poor, to fight for social justice.

They resigned from the Sisters of Notre Dame in 1988, four years after AnnaQuindlena full-page advertisement appeared in The New York Times under this headline:


Ninety-seven people signed it.

Barbara Ferraro and Patricia Hussey were two of them.

They have written a book about what happened after that day, and what their lives were like before it. It is called "No Turning Back," and it is sure to be seen as an attack on the church.

That oversimplifies its most important message, contained in an anecdote about Barbara's encounter at a poor parish in Massachusetts.

A woman blurted out, "Sister, I had an abortion five years ago." Barbara Ferraro was stunned. Finally she said, "Tell me about it."

Tell me about it. Tell me about the thing I have never experienced and cannot begin to understand.

Tell me, as one of the girls did at the juvenile home where Pat Hussey worked, about the bikers' initiation rite, the gang rape that left you pregnant.

Tell me, as that woman told Barbara, of the abortion when your marriage was falling apart and the children you already had were as many as you could support.

Tell me about the lives I haven't led, the demons I've never faced.

Barbara Ferraro and Pat Hussey stayed in the convent because they saw it changing.

When Barbara entered in 1962, she was given a habit that left only her face and hands uncovered. Her hair was shorn, her name was changed, and she was given a whip to discipline herself.

By the time she resigned, she was wearing slacks and running a homeless shelter.

In between she learned that "Tell me about it" would never be the motto of the church to which she had given her life. Those nuns who signed the ad were given a choice: retract or face dismissal.

Barbara and Pat were eventually confronted by a Vatican representative and the apostolic pro-nuncio in Washington.

The former pinched Barbara's cheek and told her she reminded him of his grandmother. The latter said they would have a dialogue.

"But I must insist," he said, "that after our time together you must put in writing that you support and adhere to the Roman Catholic teaching on abortion."

They couldn't do it. They had had too many women tell them about it.

The church is not a democracy. The editorial page editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, David Boldt, referred to it several months ago as "un-American," and was vilified by Catholics from parishioners to cardinals.

What he meant was that it is a hierarchy. The people cannot vote on church positions. The decisions are made by the men at the top.

They are uniquely unqualified to face the most pressing issues of their time. Birth control, the ordination of women, permission for priests to marry, abortion -- all arise from sexuality and femininity.

The primacy of the priesthood rests upon celibacy and $l masculinity.

The Catholic bishops in this country decided last week to postpone indefinitely a final vote on a pastoral letter on women's concerns. It is born to fail, a precis on women written by men who haven't lived with one since they left their mother's house.

Last week, too, Judge David H. Souter was questioned by the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Souter archeology," they had been calling it the last time I was in Washington, and they had come up with barely a pottery shard on abortion.

During the hearings Souter said two things that captured my attention. He said as a young man he once spent two hours in a college dorm room talking to a young woman who was desperate to end a pregnancy. And he said, "What you may properly ask is whether I am open to listen."

Tell me about it.

Barbara Ferraro and Pat Hussey judged the hierarchy of the Catholic Church on that basis.

"The Vatican's version of Catholicism is a culture of oppression," they write, "a church that is only about itself." Those are harsh words. These are harsh times. And faced with harsh laws of church and of state, women like these will continue to speak, no matter what the consequences.

Barbara Ferraro and Pat Hussey shouldn't have been nuns in the first place.

They should have been priests.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.


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