“Ex-Sister Agnes Mary Explains It All For You”

“Personally, I am morally opposed to pornographic magazines and films. But those of us who are anti-porn have the obligation to be convincing and not condemning in conveying our beliefs. In a pluralistic society, I also recognize that my morality may not be someone else’s morality. As long as pornography is already legal, it would only be compounding one injustice with another to deny state funding for it to the poor.”

No. Ex-Sister of Mercy Agnes Mary Mansour did not say this; I have changed “abortion” to “pornography” in this collection of some of her statements. But as the change makes clear, this is poor ethical reasoning. Mansour herself would not agree with these statements about pornography or, to be sure, similar ones that might justify sexism, etc. The true reason for her conflict with Archbishop Szoka of Detroit over her appointment to the Michigan department of Health and Human Services and her views on Medicaid funding of abortion lies elsewhere.

Agnes Mansour is a religious enthusiast. The problem is that her enthusiasm is for a civic religion, not the religion of the Catholic Church. In resigning from her order, she worried: “If I agreed to Vatican demands, I would have allowed, in no uncertain terms, church intrusion into state affairs and Catholics would once again be suspect and possibly denied the privilege of public service.” In other words, it is more important that American Catholics behave in such a way that they may keep their jobs in government than that they follow the moral guidance of the Church.

Interesting. Mansour had been portrayed by an uncomprehending press as a virtual martyr of conscience. Her witness though is not that of the great Christian figures of the past against the laws of the secular state which are, after all, only human, but against “church intrusion.” We read so much about this threat to the State that we almost accept Mansour’s stance until we ask ourselves two simple questions: Would any of the great saints, says Francis of Assisi, or Christ himself have been more worried about lese Majeste or more worried about the modern slaughter of the innocents? Under the circumstances, would they have wasted much breath on the Catholic “privilege” to give public service?

Mansour also seems unaware that “public service” is a term that carries some ambivalence. The poor and unemployed may be happy to get monthly checks, but they quite rightly do not feel normal human gratitude toward the state bureaucracy. When Mansour chose, as she put it, to continue serving the poor in spite of the judgments of Rome, she may have chosen to help provide bread to the hungry, but unlike Mother Teresa, Agnes Mansour is no longer much of a witness to the truth that we do not live by bread alone. The ancient Roman providers of bread and circuses performed the same material service as any welfare office.

Furthermore, the conflict is hardly Mansour vs. Rome. As Archbishop Szoka pointed out on several occasions, with little notice in the press, both the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Michigan Catholic Conference have long been on record in opposition to Medicaid payments for abortion. Insisting that he had a duty to uphold this common Catholic consensus, Szoka brushed aside other explanations for the conflict: “My main concern is Medicaid abortion. All I asked for was a simple statement, ‘I am opposed to Medicaid funding for abortions.’ I spent eight weeks trying to get that simple statement.”

Mansour and her colleagues have chosen to look at this in a different light. We have heard all sorts of charges about lack of dialogue as if eight weeks were not long enough for such delicate questions. Nasty remarks about celibate men making decisions about women have appeared which to some of us seemed more “condemning” than “convincing”. (Curiously, the indignation is much more pronounced about the old men who wield ecclesiastical authority than the nine old men who legalized abortion in the Supreme Court.)

The real core of Mansour’s position seems to be this: “To be faithful to the Sisters of Mercy, my vows, my church and even God, I must first of all be faithful to myself and further I must be free to be faithful.” This pop psychology may make us smile but it is worthwhile to go beyond the woozy reasoning to the heart of the argument.

Saints Peter and Paul never said that to serve Christ, “I gotta be me.” They put Christ first: “Now not I but Christ in me.” Mansour’s position is a scarcely veiled egocentrism. She has misused the documents of Vatican II to define religious obedience as simply following what you already think anyway: I can only be faithful when I am true to myself. Normally I too have a weak, imperfect, fallible human nature — unless I happen to be disagreeing with a bishop.

Mansour’s Church would have neither the right to define its own doctrines, nor the right to ask its members to believe them. Both doctrine and discipline must pass review at the bar of Agnes Mary Mansour.

But for believing Catholics perhaps it is good that Mansour has shown where her and her supporters’ sympathies lie. She has explained it all for you. Her religion focuses passionately on the separation of church and state, the privilege of public service, and her own freedom — good things as far as they go. The Vatican, however, rightly wanted to shift the emphasis to saving unborn lives, clear religious witness in a secular age, and obedience to the Vicar of Christ.

  • Robert Royal

    Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of TheCatholicThing.org, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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