Agnes Mary Mansour
|Agnes Mary Mansour|
Sister Agnes Mary Mansour
|Born||Josephine A. Mansour
April 10, 1931
Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
|Died||December 17, 2004
Farmington Hills, Michigan, U.S.
Cause of death
|Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, Southfield, Michigan, U.S.|
|Alma mater||Mercy College
|Employer||Mercy College of Detroit
Michigan Department of Social Services
|Organization||Sisters of Mercy|
Roman Catholic Church
|Awards||Michigan Women's Hall of Fame (1988)|
Agnes Mary Mansour (April 10, 1931 – December 17, 2004) was an American Roman Catholic nun who was forced in 1983 to resign her vows in order to retain her position as the director of the Michigan Department of Social Services. The controversy involved her refusal to make a public statement against abortion; she felt that as long as abortion was legal and available to the wealthy, the procedure should be equally available to women who needed government assistance.
After graduating from college in Detroit, Mansour entered religious orders then earned a doctorate degree in biochemistry. She served as the president of Mercy College of Detroit from 1971 to 1983. She ran unsuccessfully for public office in 1982, in the process provoking comment from the Archbishop of Detroit. The governor of Michigan appointed her to lead the state's social services department, and she was confirmed in early 1983. During this time, the Catholic leadership in Detroit and in Rome sought to have Mansour declare herself against abortion—her department was responsible for abortion services funded through Medicaid. Mansour refused to make such a statement, and two months after her confirmation as director she was required by the Vatican to decide whether she was to continue as director or as a nun. She chose to give up her vows as a nun; an act which was widely reported and discussed. After serving out her appointment she was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame in 1988.
Education and religion
Josephine A. Mansour was born in Detroit, Michigan to Lebanese immigrants on April 10, 1931, the fourth of four children in her family, all girls. She was baptized in the Antiochene Maronite branch of Eastern Catholicism.
After finishing St. Charles High School in Detroit's East Side, she graduated from Mercy College in 1953 with a bachelor of science degree in medical technology and chemistry. She entered the Sisters of Mercy, assuming the name Sister Agnes Mary on September 7, 1953, transferring to the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church. She continued her education at Catholic University in Washington D.C., earning a master of science degree in chemistry in 1958.
On August 16, 1959, she took perpetual vows to become a nun. Her motto was "Free to be Faithful". She entered Georgetown University and earned a doctorate in Biochemistry in 1964. Regarding a harmful side effect of the use of chloroquine in the treatment of malaria, dangerous to the eyes, she co-authored The Ocular Deposition of Chloroquine, with Howard Bernstein, Nathan Zvaifler and Martin Rubin. The Vatican did not allow nuns to practice medicine at this time or Mansour would have become a medical doctor. After receiving her doctorate, Mansour returned to Chicago and accepted the chairmanship of the Mercy College Department of Physical Science and Mathematics. She also coached the basketball team.
Mansour studied academic administration in the American Council on Education (ACE) Fellows program at the University of Kentucky. In 1971, she began serving as president of Mercy College of Detroit, staying in the position until 1983. As president, she greatly expanded enrollment and facilities at Mercy College, doubling the number of degree programs while balancing the budget with increased endowments. After 1987, she served as visiting professor to Michigan State University and Wayne State University.
In 1982, Mansour ran in a primary election for United States House of Representatives representing Michigan's 17th congressional district, held on August 3. She said of her campaign, "I look at politics as a legitimate extension of my work as a Sister of Mercy." In a field of four Democratic Party candidates, Sander M. Levin won with more than seven times the votes received by Mansour, who picked up only 6.4% of the electorate.
Mansour's run for office came as a surprise to Edmund Szoka, the Archbishop of Detroit. At the time, the Vatican allowed members of religious orders to hold political office, but the candidate was required to gain the approval of the local bishop. Mansour did not do so. She told reporters that canon law was an "old set of rules that are invoked when somebody wants to invoke them, and ignored when someone wants to ignore them." Szoka accepted her excuse that she did not know to ask permission.
Michigan Social Services
After the general election in November 1982, the incoming Michigan governor, James Blanchard, appointed Mansour in December to the directorship of the Michigan Department of Social Services (DSS); Michigan's biggest agency. The administrative position involved oversight of public health programs including disbursement of some $5 million in federal monies from Medicaid for abortions. To accept the appointment, she asked for and received permission from her order and from Szoka. Szoka asked Mansour to publicly state her opposition to abortion; he said he originally gave his approval on this condition. Mansour did not follow his request. Though she personally disapproved of abortion, she knew that many others felt differently, and she determined that the poor should have equal access to abortion as long as it was legal.
Mansour assumed the directorship on December 29, 1982, pending Michigan legislative confirmation in the position. Pressured by conservative and pro-life Catholics, Szoka hardened his resolve, and with no response from Mansour or her order, on February 23, 1983, he directed the Detroit Province of the Sisters of Mercy to determine whether Mansour was in violation of the teachings of the Church. He told the Detroit Sisters leadership that Mansour no longer had his permission to serve the state, and he ordered them to inform her that she was to resign the state appointment. A few hundred nuns and some priests, including the Detroit Pastoral Council, protested the directive.
The National Coalition of American Nuns (NCAN) organized a protest of some 300 nuns praying at a Detroit church. NCAN co-founder Sister Margaret Traxler said Mansour "got no hearing, [a behavior which was] typical for this exclusive, apartheid church." Detroit archdiocese spokesman Jay Berman said of the NCAN protest: "Their efforts are confusing Catholics and misrepresenting 2,000 years of church teaching on the sanctity of human life." Szoka told the Pastoral Council that he was disappointed they did not support him, and that he was only asking Mansour to make a statement, not to change her actions. He said, "It is a question of my absolute duty to stand for, to protect and to defend the doctrine of the Church which has to do with human life." On March 4, Szoka met again with the leadership of the Detroit Sisters of Mercy, and he restated his directive. The Sisters determined they did not have to obey Szoka if "a greater good was involved", and refused to force Mansour to quit her job.
On March 8, Mansour was confirmed in her appointment by the Michigan Senate with a vote of 28 to 9. She said, "I recognize that we live in a morally pluralistic society that government must be respectful of, and that my morality may not be someone else's morality." She told the Senate that she was personally against abortion but that she could tolerate the part of her job involving the disbursement of Medicaid funds to hospitals that performed abortions on women with little or no money. Kenneth Joseph Povish, the Bishop of Lansing, where Mansour would have an office, stated his approval of her as Director of DSS. He said, "I would rather have a Sister of Mercy exercising whatever influence she can over that department than some feminist floozy who is an abortion advocate."
On March 10, Szoka reported the situation to the Vatican, telling the Holy See that "Catholic people are confused, disturbed and dismayed by the spectacle of a nun being in the position of director of a department which pays for abortions and refusing to state her opposition to such payments." The Vatican delegated Archbishop Pio Laghi to address the matter, and he sent a message to Sister Theresa Kane, the national president of the Sisters of Mercy, telling Kane that she must convince Mansour to resign as director of DSS. Kane refused, as did Detroit Provincial Superior Emily George who was the Vice President of the Sisters of Mercy of the Union, and was previously (as Mary Karl George) the president of Mercy College, before Mansour.
On April 11, the day after Mansour's 52nd birthday, Sister Kane requested a formal hearing on the matter from the Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes, a Vatican body that dealt with nuns and religious orders. On April 16, the Congregation instructed Anthony Bevilacqua, Auxiliary Bishop of Brooklyn who was visiting Rome with other bishops, that he was "to approach Sister Agnes Mary Mansour directly and to require, in the name of the Holy See and by virtue of her vow of obedience, that she immediately resign as director" of DSS. Around this time, Mansour asked for and received permission for a leave of absence from the Sisters of Mercy, so that she could carry out her state appointment free of conflict with the Church.
Bevilacqua sent a letter directly to Mansour without communicating his intention to President Kane or any of the Detroit leaders of the Sisters of Mercy. The action was unusual because a Catholic bishop normally restricted his communications to the authorities of a religious order, not the individual members. In the letter, Bevilacqua told Mansour she was to meet him in person, and that she could bring with her two local sisters for moral support. She selected Sister Helen Marie Burns, Ph.D (Detroit Sisters of Mercy) and the order's Provincial Superior, Emily George. On May 9, 1983, Bevilacqua met with the three women and told Mansour she must immediately decide whether to resign the directorship or her vows. Shocked at the sudden demand, for 80 minutes she contemplated the decision, then finally "with deep regret, sorrow, and limited freedom" signed the papers Bevilacqua had provided for requesting dispensation from her perpetual vows, voiding her leave of absence. After nearly 30 years of being in religious orders, she gave up her life as a nun.
Prominent American nuns protested the unilateral action by Bevilacqua. The NCAN joined with the National Assembly of Religious Women (NARW) to issue a joint statement: "The Roman Congregation for Religious in their fear of losing 'authority' has ignored the principle of freedom of conscience." The NCAN and NARW requested sympathetic religious women to take part in a protest on Pentecost Sunday, May 22, 1983, "as a visible witness to the arrogant use of power in a male dominated church." Small protests were organized at cathedrals in Chicago and Washington, D.C. Ms. magazine reported that Sister Donna Quinn, president of NCAN, said that the Pope's demand for obedience "tramples on who we are as women religious in the United States". Ms. writer Mary Kay Blakely added that she thought Mansour was correct in saying that "the Pope doesn't understand the American people, and he doesn't understand the American nun". Divided over the Mansour affair, the Catholic Theological Society of America passed an unsuccessful resolution asking for dialog rather than simple administrative decisions which "violate both the theological meaning of authority in the church and the sacredness of conscience of church members".
In 1983, Mansour was offered money for the film rights to the story of her life. She said that she would accept on condition that the money was enough to balance Michigan's state deficit, $900,000,000 at that time. No film rights were obtained. Mansour remained director of DSS until 1987. Under her leadership, the department's error rate dropped to its lowest levels in awarding food stamps, Medicaid funds, and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). She increased the investigation and conviction of fraud cases, and she achieved the highest national record of locating deadbeat parents for collecting child support. She streamlined office procedures, and she initiated programs to curtail teenage pregnancy and to assist teenage mothers. She broadened the state program benefiting victims of domestic abuse.
In 1987, Mansour accepted an executive adviser position with Mercy Health Services Special Initiative to the Poor. In 1988, she founded the Poverty and Social Reform Institute (PSRI) with the mission of helping increase the health and education of children living in poverty. PSRI established two child care centers in Detroit, named "Leaps and Bounds".
Mansour served on many executive boards, including PSRI, Sisters of Mercy Health Corporation, Women's Economic Club, Michigan Bell Telephone, the National Bank of Detroit and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
Position on abortion
Mansour personally disapproved of abortion. However, she held the belief that, because abortion was legal, it should be equally available to all women, poor and rich. In July 1982 during her unsuccessful political campaign, Mansour wrote a "Position Paper on Abortion and Legislation". In late summer 1984, she joined 96 other leading theologians, nuns and priests who signed another position paper titled "A Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion", asking for Catholic discussion about abortion and requesting religious pluralism in Catholicism.
Mansour and the Sisters of Mercy made their 1980s decisions based on what they saw as the promise of freedom of conscience described in the Second Vatican Council of 1962–1965 presaged by the Ad Petri cathedram, a papal encyclical of 1959 which said, "Let there be unity in what is necessary, freedom in what is unsettled and charity in any case." Mercy nuns believed that they held greater rights than simple obedience to authority. Pope John Paul II's relatively quick and decisive action against Mansour signaled his retreat from the more liberal mid-1960s Church position which had allowed for differences of opinion on many topics including abortion. On November 27, 1983, the 1983 Code of Canon Law went into effect, eliminating the option of political office for Catholics under vows to religious orders.
The Sisters of Mercy did not honor Mansour's 1983 resignation of her vows. They continued to consider her a member of the order. Around 1993, Mansour discovered breast cancer and survived treatment for it. When the cancer returned a decade later, spreading to her bones and lungs, she was invited to stay at McAuley Center, in Farmington Hills, Michigan; a rest home operated by the Sisters of Mercy. Facing death, Mansour said she was not bitter about the Vatican's action, only hurt. She wanted to be remembered, "as someone who cared deeply about the benefits of education and service, and concern for those less fortunate".
Death and legacy
Mansour died on December 17, 2004, aged 73. She was buried at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, Southfield, Michigan, in the Sisters of Mercy cemetery plot. Sister Linda Werthman, the President of the Detroit Regional Community of the Sisters of Mercy, said, "She never stopped being a Sister of Mercy in her heart and many of us never stopped thinking of her in that way. Throughout the years, her commitment to serving those who suffer from poverty, sickness and lack of education has been unwavering."
Theologian Richard A. McCormick wrote in 2006 that Church officials abused their authority in the Mansour case, and brought "the teaching office into disrepute". Author Kenneth A. Briggs, former religion editor for The New York Times, wrote that the Mansour case "was in many respects the most dramatic, but not the only, instance of a particular nun singled out for punishment". Theologian Margaret Farley, a Sister of Mercy and a professor at Yale University, said, "It was a painful truth that [Mansour] had to leave, that the church declared her officially not a member. There was suffering in the community, and also for her. When she left she was quoted as saying that she would always be a Sister of Mercy in her heart. And that has absolutely been the case. She continued in works of mercy all her life."
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Theological views differ about the proper way to relate Christian moral values to public policies in a pluralist society. They also differ about the proper role of religious in public life. Such disagreements should be dealt with through dialogue and theological discussion. Actions which seek to settle these differences simply by the administrative decision of Church officials violate both the theological meaning of authority in the Church and the sacredness of the consciences of Church members.
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