By Mary Ann Sorrentino, North Providence, R.I. As told to Maureen Orth
Original Publication: Redbook, June 1986.
I have never had an abortion myself, nor have I ever performed one. But my Church has told me that because I believe that women should be able to have abortions if they so desire, I have automatically excommunicated myself. I still believe that I am a Catholic; I will always be a Catholic – whether or not I can take communion or be buried with the Church’s rites. I intend to keep my faith and to fight to change my Church.
I had no idea that I was excommunicated until last May, two days before my daughter’s confirmation. Her religion teacher called me that Friday morning and asked me to bring Luisa, who was then 15, to an afternoon meeting with Father Egan, our pastor. Although the teacher was not allowed to tell me why, she said that Luisa’s confirmation hung in the balance. I was stunned. Luisa had passed all her tests, and another parish priest had already interviewed her once. I was expecting 20 guests on Sunday to celebrate. I called Father Egan immediately. He told me that Luisa could not be confirmed until he had interrogated her about her views on abortion.
His message was clear: I was the problem. For the last nine years I have been the executive director of Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island. As far as the Catholic Church was concerned, my only child could not be confirmed until she had repudiated what her mother stood for.
No one had told Luisa why she was being dismissed from school early, so when I picked her up, she was in tears. She said, “I thought Daddy or Grandma died and that’s why you came to get me,” when I told her the reason, she began to sob.
I was so outraged at the idea of this ordeal Luisa had to go through that I decided to tape the meeting, in case we needed a record later. My husband, Al, who is a lawyer, accompanied Luisa and me, even though Father Egan had not invited him. When the priest arrived, Al told him he didn’t understand why his daughter had to be singled out for questioning from a class of 75. “Because she lives in a particular atmosphere,” Father Egan said. “Her mother is an advocate of abortion. I have to ascertain whether Luisa believes in abortion. That’s all.” Then Father Egan said to me, “You’re the one who ties my hands. I want your daughter to be confirmed. But if she believes in a doctrine that conflicts with that confirmation, then one thing contradicts another.”
I said, “Father, I want to go on record that I don’t advocate abortion. What I advocate is that every woman who is pregnant should be allowed to exercise her own conscience and her own choice.”
“Well,” Luisia spoke up, “I don’t have any opinion of abortion. What my mother does for a living is her business.”
“If you feel abortion is right, then we can’t administer the sacrament,” Father Egan replied.
Finally Luisa stated that she herself wouldn’t have an abortion.
“But do you believe in abortion?” Father Egan persisted.
“I don’t know,” Luisa replied.
I felt I had to intervene. I asked Luisa, “But you wouldn’t have one, right?”
“No,” Luisa answered.
“Then you don’t believe in it,” Father Egan told her. He added to Al and me, “All I want her to say is that she doesn’t advocate abortion.” Luisa, by now very upset, left the room, tears running down her cheeks.
Then Father Egan said that he could not give me communion at the confirmation “because you’re excommunicated. You should know that already.”
I was stunned. Every now and again a “Right-to-Lifer” would accuse me of being excommunicated, but to hear this from a member of the Catholic clergy shocked me.
“I haven’t been formally notified,” I answered. “And I’ve taken communion as recently as Christmas.” If I, a lifelong Catholic, were indeed excommunicated, I could no longer receive the sacraments of my faith, including communion and last rites. Excommunication is a formal, official procedure: canon law requires that the local bishop, not a parish priest, inform a church member of excommunication. I knew that no American has been publicly excommunicated for more than 20 years. And I now know that church policy states that those who perform abortions and those who undergo them can be excommunicated. But I didn’t know this last spring, and I don’t fit either category.
“Your excommunication is automatic because abortion is a sin,” said Father Egan. “When you publicly advocate abortion, you become what is known as a public sinner, and you cannot receive the sacraments.”
“I don’t believe this,” I said. I was deeply hurt. But I was also very angry. The Church was trying to blackmail me through my child. The only reason we had allowed Luisa to be interrogated was that she had worked so hard to prepare for confirmation. The Church had us over a barrel.
For six months I did not discuss publicly what had happened to me because Al and I wanted to protect Luisa. One January 21, the eve of the anniversary of Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, a “Right-to-Life” priest in my hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, placed a newspaper ad for a cable TV program he had produced. The ad asked whether Rhode Island’s leading abortion advocate was really a Catholic.
The next day I watched with horrified fascination as he went on the air and called me the state’s “public enemy number one of babies in the womb.” Then he gave his own answer to the question he had posed in his ad. He said that I wasn’t really a Catholic because I had been excommunicated.
Many times during the past nine years, I’ve been quoted in newspapers and have appeared on radio and television shows in my state – the most Catholic in the union – where Catholics comprise 65 percent of the state’s population. I can’t count the number of times I’ve called, not for abortion, but for a pregnant woman’s right to exercise her own conscience. Until Luisa’s interrogation, no Church authority had ever contacted me or challenged my views. And to this day, the bishop of Providence has never addressed a word to me directly.
For second-generation Italian-Americans like me, excommunication seems like something that could just never happen. Catholicism is part of who I am. For me and for many Italians, Church dogma is closely interwoven with our ethnic and cultural fabric. We want our children to be initiated with God, so we make a big deal out of baptism. We’re romantic – we love marriages, so the wedding ceremony has particular meaning for us. We mourn very deeply, so the last rites, the funeral and burial in holy ground are very much a part of our lives. But we tend to be flexible about Church rules. When I was growing up, I remember hearing my uncle say, “It doesn’t matter what the Church says about birth control, no one is going to tell me what to do in my own bedroom.”
I was raised to be a traditional Italian wife and mother, still, I’ve always had a history of fighting back. My father, who died when I was nine, was very proud that he could send me to an exclusive Catholic school, the Convent of the Sacred Heart, in Providence. But I felt the nuns there treated us Italians as second-class citizens, compared with the Irish girls. Once, when one of my Italian girlfriends didn’t know an answer during an oral exam, the nun pressed her so hard that she wet her pants. I got into a lot of trouble because I told them to stop picking on her.
Al and I got married right after my graduation. He still had a year of college to go, so I became a social worker. I soon found that I would have to take on the state government. My clients were welfare mothers who asked me for birth-control information. I gave it to them. My superior called me in and told me that the taxpayers of Rhode Island weren’t paying my salary to have me discuss something they didn’t believe in. So I complained to the head of the state welfare department and got other social workers to back me up. The policy eventually changed.
After his graduation, Al announced his plans to attend law school in Boston. This meant I had to keep on working and that we had to move. I was sad to leave my mother – I was extremely close to her – and all the rest of my family.
I cried a lot in those years – I wasn’t very independent. I was still a typical Italian wife. Every night I made a three- or four-course gourmet meal. All Al did was study and work, not because he was lazy, but because I wouldn’t let him do anything else. Even though I kept getting promoted at work, I continued to take care of everything at home. I discovered my talent for administration and became a unit manager at a local hospital.
I always knew I wanted to have children, but we couldn’t afford a baby then. I was taking the Pill, and that’s how I first got into trouble with the Church.
During confession, when the priest heard I was practicing birth control, he refused to give me absolution. “I want you to go to Catholic Social Services to learn about the rhythm method,” he said. “Father,” I replied, “I’m a social worker. Do you know how many rhythm babies are born each year?” Friends told me I should confess to other priests who didn’t think the Pill was a sin. I said no. It didn’t make any sense to me to have to shop around for absolution. I stopped going to Mass regularly – but I never abandoned the Church.
I was pregnant at Al’s law school graduation, which was exactly what I had wanted. When Luisa was born, she became the joy of our lives, and she still is. Yet I have often wondered what I would do if I found myself pregnant today, at 42. I think the only honest answer is that I don’t know. A fertilized egg that grows into a fetus is the beginning of human life, but I don’t think of a fertilized egg as a person.
I do know that for the last nine years, the proudest work I’ve done has been holding the hands of women who needed someone with them during an abortion. And by helping these woman, I have never considered myself any different from the hundreds of Catholic administrators of hospitals across this country where birth-control techniques are distributed, where sterilizations and abortions are performed. That’s our work. I’ve never thought of myself as being any different from a Catholic lawyer who handles divorces. That’s your work and you help people who come to you.
What I resent is the way I’ve been singled out and punished, considering what else is going on today in the diocese of Providence. Two priests are awaiting trial for the alleged sexual abuse of children. Another priest has been charged with perjury in the Von Bulow case. And the headmaster of a Catholic prep school here was recently arrested for transporting a male minor for immoral purposes. These men are passing out communion on one side of the altar rail while trying to keep me away on the other. I want my Church to explain.
Luisa’s confirmation took place on a beautiful sunny Sunday, but as far as I was concerned, it was a funeral. I felt a terrible sense of helplessness because our child would be hurt no matter what I did. If I talked openly about the interrogation, she would be denied the sacrament. If I said nothing, we seemed to be accepting the Church’s judgement. I felt as if my hands were tied. The guests all came to the party afterward, but Al, Luisa, and I were just going through the motions.
I still cry when I think I might not be buried with my parents. I’ve told my husband that if I go first and the Church will not allow me to be buried alongside them at our Catholic cemetery, he should have my body cremated and scatter my ashes over their graves. That way I can be with them.
Part of my faith is a strong belief that nothing happens without a reason. I’m not a mystic, but I think there is some reason God singled me out for this trial. If the Catholic Church thinks it has embarrassed me or that I will go quietly and give up, the Church is mistaken. As God, Al, and Luisa know, I am and will die a Catholic.
This article is typed from the original material. Please excuse any errors that have escaped final proofreading.