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Issue Date:  January 7, 2005

She answered to her conscience

Agnes Mary Mansour; who left Mercys at Vatican ultimatum, dies at 73


The Dec. 17 death of Agnes Mary Mansour is, at one level, a miniscule footnote in universal church history. However, the 1983 decision by the then-Mercy Sister to remain as head of Michigan’s Department of Social Services and resign from the order under Vatican pressure opened a new chapter in U.S. Catholic history.

It is a chapter that in broad terms sought to define the new post-Vatican II parameters of theological discussion and due process during this pontificate.

In 1983, Pope John Paul II was still a relatively new pope, five years in office. The speed with which his “either-or” demand came down to Mansour -- either resign the post or leave the order -- after local negotiations were at an impasse signaled his way ahead. And Mansour’s.

The issue was abortion -- more specifically, whether a member of a religious order (and by extension, any Catholic) could preside over a government agency that, as a matter of law, funded abortions for poor women.

At first glance, Mansour, a doctorally prepared biochemist, was an unlikely candidate to emerge as a major Catholic lightning rod. The daughter of Lebanese immigrants, Josephine Mansour was baptized in the Antioch Maronite Rite and transferred to the Latin Rite when she entered the Sisters of Mercy in 1953 and became Sr. Agnes Mary.

She grew up on Detroit’s East Side, graduated from St. Charles High School and earned a bachelor’s degree from Mercy College before entering the order. The registered medical technologist continued on to earn a master’s in chemistry from The Catholic University of America and a doctorate from Georgetown.

She was part of Mercy College for 34 years, as student, resident adviser, instructor, department chair, basketball coach and president (1971-83). She ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1982, and later that year was appointed to direct Michigan’s Department of Social Services. Among its widespread services, the department funded abortions.

The hierarchy was faced with the Sisters of Mercy under their president, Sr. Theresa Kane, arguing a principle. Mansour and the Mercys believed the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) had meant what it said about greater collegiality and dialogue, along with new ways of taking the church into the world.

The Mercys were determinedly attempting to initiate their view of what the council called for, an open lay and local dialogue with the pope and hierarchy on the many contentious issues of the day that prevented the conciliar church from moving with greater influence into everyday life. Further, in essence, the Mercy leadership was also declaring that in its reading of the council’s direction, leadership such as theirs did indeed have rights beyond those of mere submission to authority. And that in the postconciliar period, these matters were also rightly open to dialogue and an analysis of their theological underpinnings.

When Mansour made her Congressional run, her argument was that she had the consent of her superiors to run. “I look at politics as a legitimate extension of my work as a Sister of Mercy,” she said.

Detroit Cardinal Edmund Szoka publicly declared Mansour’s election bid in violation of canon law, but he took no action. And none was necessary when she lost. In December 1982, Gov. James Blanchard appointed Mansour to head Michigan Department of Social Services. When her appointment was confirmed March 9, 1983, by the Michigan Senate, the church’s wheels turned. Szoka ordered her to resign.

Mansour said she opposed abortions, but in her capacity as a state official, could not deny women the right to choose an abortion.

That same month, Bishop Anthony J. Bevilacqua, an obscure Brooklyn auxiliary bishop, was in Rome with other U.S. bishops for their periodic ad limina visit. A canonist, he was given the mandate -- directly by the pope, he reportedly told Mansour -- to order her to make the either-or decision. For Mansour it meant leaving the Mercys; for Bevilacqua it was another step up the ecclesial ladder leading to the title cardinal archbishop of Philadelphia.

Though the mandate triggered public protests by Mansour supporters and much public discussion, it closed the matter. When the Catholic Theological Society of America subsequently passed a resolution -- at a meeting divided on the Mansour issue -- it was to state, “Theological views differ about the proper way to relate Christian moral values to public policy in a pluralistic 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 administrative decision of church officials violate both the theological meaning of authority in the church and the sacredness of conscience of church members.”

No dialogue developed. The Catholic Theological Society, the Mercys and Mansour made no dent in a church that had decided that makers of an “administrative decision” did not have to answer to anyone.

Mansour answered to her conscience, served as social services director until 1987, and -- as a Mercy associate -- remained a close member of the Mercy family for the rest of her life. Said Mercy Sister and Yale theologian Margaret Farley, “It was a painful truth that she 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.”

At the height of the headlines and protests, Mansour received offers for movie rights to her life. She was agreeable, she quipped, provided the fee equaled Michigan’s then-current budget deficit: $900 million. The movie did not materialize.

In 1988, Mansour founded the Poverty and Social Reform Institute, an advocacy group focused on “creative and collaborative action” to combat the poverty that damaged children and families. The institute also created “Leaps and Bounds,” two child-care centers in Detroit, one on the East Side of the city, one on the West.

Mansour survived a battle with breast cancer 11 years ago, but in April this year cancer recurred, metastasized into her bones and lungs. During a conversation with NCR shortly before she died, she said that at 73 she had “lived a long life.” Reflecting on the decisions she made in the early 1980s, she said that at the time she was “hurt rather than bitter.” She advised that the big decisions in life mean “you have to make sure you’re consulting with people you have a lot of confidence in. And that you’re praying. That you are willing to stand by whatever decision you make if, indeed, it appears to you to be the right decision, and then move forward.

“The church is bigger than the hierarchy, and I always had that strong support system of the Sisters of Mercy. Today the church is a mixed bag; there is no question about it. I think the hierarchical church has lost its way.” The communities of religious women were never given the kind of leadership roles “that are vitally needed,” she said, and it was those communities, along with the many “wonderful local priests” who were capable of providing the leadership that would take the church into the everyday world.

The Mercys introduced Mansour to more than religious life. The Baltimore Mercys converted her to playing video poker. “I’m very competitive, I like competitive sports and games, but very practical about what I’m going to spend. I don’t overdo the poker -- but I’m pretty good at it!”

She played her last game the same week as her final radiation treatment.

Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton presided at the Dec. 21 Mass of Resurrection in the Mercy Center Chapel, Farmington Hills, Mich.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, January 7, 2005

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