Sister Jeannine, Cardinal Ratzinger, New Ways Ministry, and Solidarity with LCWR

May 11, 2012

The Vatican’s attempt  to control the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) has been felt poignantly by folks here at New Ways Ministry, not only because we were mentioned as one of the contributing factors in the investigation of the Sisters, but because it is so reminiscent of the 1999 attempt by Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to silence New Ways Ministry’s co-founders, Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent.

Sister Jeannine Gramick

Sister Jeannine resisted the Vatican’s control, and she continues to be involved in promoting equality and justice for LGBT Catholics in the church and the larger civil community, as well as speaking out on a variety of church reform issues, including, most recently, the LCWR case. 

The similarity between her case and the current attempt to suppress LCWR has been noticed by John Gravois, a writer, who lives just across the street from New Ways Ministry.  He sat down with Sister Jeannine for an interview, and published an essay in The New Republic which begins by noting the fact that support for New Ways Ministry was mentioned in the CDF’s critique of LCWR:

“. . . I was put in mind of my neighbors [New Ways Ministry] last month, when the Vatican announced that it was effectively instituting a hostile takeover of the Leadership Council of Women Religious, a body that represents some 80 percent of American nuns. On April 18, Rome’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared that it was placing the nuns’ group under the caretaker authority of Archbishop James Peter Sartain of Seattle, so that he could ensure a number of reforms were carried out. Specifically, the Vatican faulted the nuns for focusing too much on social injustice, and not enough on abortion and euthanasia; for evincing a ‘radical feminist’ streak; and for their history of collective dissent against Rome and the American bishops, ‘the Church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.’

“On this last point—the bit about dissent—the Vatican would seem to have a wealth of examples it could cite. Anyone who paid close attention to the debate over health care reform in 2010, for instance, knows that American nuns parted ways with the Catholic hierarchy rather starkly. Various sisters’ groups fought to pass the Affordable Care Act; the American bishops sought to strike it down.

“But the Vatican’s document did not mention the fight over Obamacare. One act of dissent Rome did highlight, however, was the American nuns’ collective support of something far smaller—a tiny organization called New Ways Ministry. Rome, apparently, has it in for my neighbor.”

The article gives a nice summary of Sister Jeannine’s biography, particularly with how she became involved in ministering to, for, and with the LGBT community.  If you are unfamiliar with these details, I suggest you take a look at the entire text by clicking here. (Sister Jeannine’s story of involvement in LGBT ministry was also the subject of an award-winning documentary, In Good Conscience: Sister Jeannine Gramick’s Journey of Faith.   You can order a DVD of the film by clicking here.)

One story deserves reprinting here, because of the sheer serendipity of the plot:

“One day in the late ’90s, Gramick was boarding a flight from Rome to Munich when she noticed a familiar-looking man sitting on the plane. It was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which had by that point been conducting an investigation of Gramick for more than a decade—and had been building a file on her for longer than that. Not wanting to miss a chance to meet her inquisitor, Gramick struck up a conversation. When the cardinal learned who she was, he chuckled amicably. ‘I have known you for twenty years,’ he said.

“Notwithstanding the friendliness of that in-flight exchange, Ratzinger’s office issued the conclusion of its long assessment of Gramick a year and a half later, in 1999. It was essentially a spiritual cease-and-desist order: no more speaking or writing about homosexuality, period. Gramick took some time to reflect on the command and then wrote a response: ‘I choose not to collaborate in my own oppression.’  In effect, she treated the Vatican’s order as a suggestion—and politely declined to follow it. Since then, she has proceeded with her work, operating in a kind of Catholic doctrinal twilight.”

The essay concludes with Sister Jeannine’s concurrence with Sister Joan Chittister’s recommendation for LCWR:

“Today, in response to Rome’s recent doctrinal assessment, some prominent nuns—including Joan Chittister, a former president of the Leadership Council of Women Religious—are suggesting that the umbrella group should simply disband and then reconstitute itself as a non-canonical institution, outside the Vatican’s purview. Effectively, they are recommending that the vast majority of American nuns do the same thing Gramick did 13 years ago: remain Catholic yet try to separate themselves from Rome. Gramick, for her part, is eager for the rest of her sisters to join her. ‘If we comply, if we submit to what is being asked by the Vatican, it would be a repudiation of all the renewal that we’ve done in religious life,’ she told me. ‘I don’t believe that nuns will say we can do that.’ ”

Back in 1999, when the Vatican came down on New Ways Ministry’s co-founders, I realized how true it is that when church ministers stand in solidarity with an oppressed group, it is very likely that they, too, will suffer the same violations and indignities of the people they serve.  The most dramatic example of this phenomenon is when foreign missionaries are killed for standing in solidarity with the indigenous poor who are murdered by a tyrannical government.

The same thing happened to our co-founders.   For standing in solidarity with LGBT people, Sister Jeannine and Father Nugent received the same punishment that the church imposed on LGBT people:  an attempt to silence their voices.   Today, the same seems to be the case with LCWR:  the Vatican is attempting to control them because they have stood in solidarity with LGBT people.

Renowned Catholic observer David Gibson has uncovered the American prelates who are behind the investigation of LCWR.  His excellent analysis can be read in a Religion News Service article on HuffingtonPost.com entitled “Vatican Crackdown On Nuns: Are Americans In Rome Behind It?”

A new website entitled NunJustice.org has been established with  six ways people can support women religious during this crisis:

Petition (with a link to the original petition on change.org)

Write (with sample letters and addresses to download)

Vigil (with lists of already ongoing vigils, a sign up and sample prayer services to use)

Share (with a link to the tumblr site for posting photos, etc.)

Pledge (with a mechanism for tabulating by diocese amounts that people pledge to Religious Sisters on Pentecost)

Pray (with additional prayer resources)

There are also talking points, media advisories and a sample flyer (and pictures).

We continue to pray with and for the members of LCWR, and, indeed with and for all religious Sisters in the U.S.  Having lived through a similar case, we know the grace of God will be with them to give them courage.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


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