A headline yesterday said religious superiors had "bucked" the Vatican in a matter dealing with nuns involved in an abortion controversy. The headline misrepresented the position of the superiors, who agreed that in continuing efforts to resolve the controversy, they would "honor" both church doctrine and "the consciences of all invovled."
The religious superiors of 24 nuns ordered by the Vatican to renounce a controversial abortion ad they signed last fall issued a carefully worded statement yesterday that essentially supported the women.
The superiors charged with enforcing the order pledged to "honor the consciences" of the embattled women. They announced their position after a two-day, closed-door consultation in Silver Spring on their role in one of the gravest confrontations in recent Roman Catholic history.
A satisfactory resolution, they said, "necessitates measures that are inherently just and that honor the consciences of all involved and the complexity of the doctrinal and pastoral issues."
In separate developments, three of the four religious order priests or brothers involved in the controversy have recanted. So far none of the nuns has backed down, church leaders close to the controversy said yesterday.
At issue is a statement signed by 97 Catholics in this country asserting that "committed Catholics" could hold diverse views on the abortion question and calling for "candid and respectful discussion" on the matter. The statement appeared as a full-page ad in the Oct. 7 New York Times, at the height of the controversy stirred by New York Archbishop John J. O'Connor's assertions that public officeholders who are Catholic are obligated to work for antiabortion legislation.
On Nov. 30, the Vatican's Sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes directed the religious superiors of nuns and religious order priests among the 97 signers to order the members of their community to recant or face expulsion from the order.
The superiors of all the nuns who signed the controversial statement met on Sunday and Monday with officials of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which includes the heads of most Roman Catholic women's orders in this country. Representatives of the parallel men's organization, the Major Superiors of Men, also were present.
The gravity with which the present conflict is regarded was reflected by the presence of Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco, who heads a committee of American Catholic bishops charged by the Vatican with conducting a detailed investigation of religious orders in this country. Quinn also heads the doctrinal committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The religious superiors' terse statement said that discussion at the meeting "centered on the responsibility of congregational leadership for the well-being of their communities, respecting the religious women who signed the statement, and upholding the teaching office of the church."
The men who have complied with the Vatican's demand for a "public retraction" are the Rev. Jerry Kaelin, a Franciscan priest in Cincinnati; the Rev. Joseph Connolly of Severn, Md., and Brother Raymond McManaman, a Christian brother who teaches at Lewis University in Lockport, Ill.
The Vatican's threat of expulsion from their order would cost the women involved their pension rights and the jobs of those who work in projects of the order.
But for most, such considerations are secondary to the emotional wrench it would cause. Leaving the order "is like leaving one's family," said Sister Margaret Traxler of Chicago, 44 years a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
"People who have served and lived under vows do not contemplate leaving lightly," she said. "That's where we have our roots."