In “Sister Fact” (VOL. XXXV, No. 4), Barbara Ferraro and Patricia Hussey recount their struggles with the Vatican in the years following the 1984 Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion. Their conversation with Archbishop Fagiolo, who tells them, “Hold your private position, but together we must present a united front,” offers a crucial insight into the Catholic hierarchy’s approach to sexual and reproductive ethics.
Church leaders have long accepted private beliefs and behaviors that are at odds with “pelvic orthodoxy” while enforcing strict public adherence to official teaching, especially when it concerns antichoice legislation. This duplicity bolsters institutional authority at the expense of Catholic women, and its burdens are unevenly distributed. Women who cannot afford to pay for contraception, travel long distances to reach safe abortion providers or access decent maternal healthcare suffer the most.
Rightly, then, Ferraro and Hussey argue for structural change—emphasizing that private, pastoral approaches to sexual and reproductive ethics, while valuable, are not enough.
This point is especially important for progressive Catholics to remember now. Pope Francis’ pastoral warmth has won over many progressives, and his deeply conservative statements about women, sexuality, family and authority have too often been ignored, downplayed or explained away by his more optimistic admirers.
There is a strong temptation to settle for pastoral responses to structural sins, to believe that personal kindness alone can overcome injustice. Thankfully, we have decades of feminist Catholic activism and theological reflection that continue to push us toward a more rigorous, justice-seeking approach.
Yale Divinity School