Remembering Jeanne Cordova: A Lesbian Nun Who Broke Her Silence

At the LGBT spirituality blog, Jesus in Love, Kittredge Cherry offered a poignant remembrance this week of Jeanne Cordova, a lesbian advocate who had been a Catholic nun and who contributed to former woman religious and lesbian woman who was a contributor to the groundbreaking 1985 book, Lesbian Nuns: Breaking the Silence. Cordova passed away a year ago this past week.

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Jeanne Cordova

Cherry remembered that Cordova was instrumental in the greater history of LGBT equality, beyond her “radical revelations about lesbian nuns.” Cherry stated:

 

“‘Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence’ remains the definitive work on this hidden and forbidden subject more than 30 years after it was first published. It is also one of the best-selling lesbian books of all time. . .Both the church and the secular LGBTQ community may prefer to forget the uncomfortable truth: Same-sex love exists in the church, and the church trained some leaders of the LGBTQ rights movement.”

In her post, Cherry offered a more expansive remembrance of Cordova’s life, drawing from her writings and from interviews. Cordova grew up in a conservative Catholic family, attending Catholic schools before entering religious life. In her own words, she “fell in love with God at the age of seven,” and this love was the main reason she became a woman religious. But there was a secondary reason why Cordova joined the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1966:

“I chose the convent because I knew I wasn’t interested in the world of men and women, marriage, children—’that’ lifestyle. Being in the service of God within a community of women felt natural and right.”

Cordova left after a year in the novitiate, a year after Vatican II ended, when religious life was changing dramatically. The IHM community in Los Angeles would eventually separate from the church just a few years after Cordova left, but during her year there, she experienced religious life in a time of postconciliar tension between hopeful reforms and lingering ills in the church. Cherry wrote:

“[Cordova] was enrolled in Immaculate Heart College, where sensitivity training, encounter groups and open classrooms exposed her to new ideas and emotions. She found out for the first time about drugs, the peace movement and covert homosexuality.

“As 1967 began, her Mother Superior informed her that she and her fellow novices were being sent to live in the ‘real world’ — Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles and the black ghetto of Watts. She was appalled and radicalized by seeing poverty and racial injustice for the first time.”

Cordova said Vatican II had ‘destroyed my dreams’; she sought a quiet life as a nun amid the trappings of the preconciliar church with its Tridentine liturgy and stiff habits. Her decision to leave was not just about coming out as a lesbian woman. Cordova underwent a more fundamental conversion. She explained:

“‘I left the convent because of my political radicalization and inability to justify the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings and actions regarding social justice, and its ongoing battle with my IHM order to keep women in line under patriarchy. My newly realized lesbianism was actually secondary to falling out of love with the Catholic Church, which I had questioned all my life.'”

No longer a nun, Cordova began working as a social worker and community organizer who “helped decriminalize homosexuality and protect the jobs of openly lesbian and gay teachers.” But in the church, she is known for her contribution to Lesbian Nuns: Breaking the Silence. Cherry explained that this work had influence outside the church, too:

“As the foreword to the 2013 reprint edition notes, the book ‘played a significant role in the mainstreaming of lesbian print culture.’ The editors ‘wanted to shatter the silence that denied the existence of lesbians in religious life and to make it clear that ‘lesbians are everywhere.'”

The book included stories from fifty nuns, cultivated from some 400 submissions. Cordova later wrote a more detailed account of her own life in Kicking the Habit: A Lesbian Nun’s Story and When We Were Outlaws. Before dying of cancer last year, Cordova said in an open letter, “It is wonderful to have had a life’s cause: freedom and dignity for lesbians.”

Finally, Cherry highlighted a key insight from Cordova that social justice movements, including for LGBT rights, have been filled with and led by former women religious. In Cordova’s words, religious life was “a boot camp for us all.”

The experiences of lesbian women religious are still quite hidden, and their contributions to the church and the world are still under-appreciated. For over 20 years, New Ways Ministry has had a project called Womanjourney Weavings which is an educational program for not only lesbian nuns, but for the leaders of women’s religious communities, and nuns who work in vocation and formation ministries.  For more information, contact:  info@NewWaysMinistry.org.

At New Ways Ministry’s upcoming Eighth National Symposium, “Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss:  LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis,” we will have a focus session entitled “Lesbian Nuns:  Gift to the Church.”  For more infomration about the symposium, scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, click here.

Whether one is a woman religious, a former woman religious, or another part of the faithful, Cordova’s story is instructive. Her witness reminds us of the immense power of being in love with God and living authentically from that love can draw forth from us.  With it, we can change the world. As we remember, we ask her intercession: Jeanne Cordova, pray for us.

Note: If you are not aware of Kittredge Cherry’s blog, Jesus in Love, and her wider work on queer spirituality through the site Q Spirit, they are a good resource and well worth checking out. Like her post on Jeanne Cordova, Cherry offers many reflections on LGBTQ saints — some who are commonly known, others who are a bit more obscure.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 14, 2017

 

A Question of Language: ‘Same-Sex Attraction’ vs. ‘Gay or Lesbian’

The National Catholic Reporter (NCR) recently featured an interview with Fr. Philip Bochanski, the new director of Courage, a ministry which promotes celibacy as the only path for gay and lesbian Catholics.  The article states that the priest reported that “the organization feels supported by Pope Francis’ encouragement to accompany those ‘with same-sex attraction’ on their spiritual journeys.”  Bochanski is quoted as saying that Francis’ language of accompaniment, “is very useful for us. It recognizes the approach we take.”

Fr. Philip Bochanski

It is noteworthy that Courage is taking direction in their pastoral work from Pope Francis, who is seen by many as having initiated on new openness on LGBT issues in the Church.  But, as the NCR article points out, the leadership of Courage does not follow Pope Francis when it comes to language about LGBT issues. The reporter stated:

“[The Courage] approach includes using a language that some might consider arcane. Unlike Francis, Courage does not use the term ‘gay, preferring the phrase ‘same-sex attraction.’ Still, the pope’s Amoris Laetitia apostolic exhortation on the family also uses the more formal same-sex attraction language.”

The language difference is not insignificant.  First of all,  for many gay and lesbian people, the term “same-sex attraction” is offensive because it does not adequately describe themselves or their personal experiences.   To call someone “a person with same-sex attraction” sounds very much like referring to someone who has a disease or condition which is different than the natural way that things should be.   Gay and lesbian people, however, do not experience their sexual identities as something irregular, but as something natural to themselves.

When Jesuit Father James Martin received New Ways Ministry’s Bridge Building Award last autumn, he noted in his acceptance speech that the Catechism calls people to treat lesbian and gay people with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.  He noted that it is a sign of respect to address people in the way in which they identify themselves.  Fr. Martin elaborated:

“. . . [R]espect means calling a group what it asks to be called. On a personal level, if someone says, ‘I prefer to be called Jim instead of James,’ you naturally listen. It’s common courtesy. And it’s the same on a group level. We don’t say ‘Negroes’ any longer. Why? Because that group feels more comfortable with other names: ‘African-Americans’ or ‘blacks.’ . . . Everyone has the right to tell you their name.

“Names are important. Thus, church leaders are invited to be attentive to how they name the L.G.B.T. community and lay to rest phrases like “afflicted with same-sex attraction,” which no L.G.B.T. person I know uses, and even “homosexual person,” which seems overly clinical to many. . . .And if Pope Francis can use the word gay, so can the rest of the church.”

In the NCR article, Bochanski is quoted as saying “A person is not defined by a sexual orientation.”  But referring to oneself as gay or lesbian does not mean that one defines oneself by that designation.  It is merely descriptive of one feature of person’s constitution.  If a man describes himself as “a tall guy,”  it doesn’t mean that he defines himself by his height.

Another problem with the use of the “same-sex attraction” language is that for many people it actually seems to emphasize sexual activity more than “gay” or “lesbian” do.  Many gay and lesbian people view their identities as being about so much more than their attractions, which is only one part of their sexuality.  Their sexual identities are also about their relationships, emotions, and personal interactions.  Their sexual identities also have a social dimension, by which I mean that lesbian and gay people have often been made to feel different or stigmatized in mainstream culture which is predominantly heterosexual.

For the NCR article, I was asked about the difference between New Ways Ministry and Courage:

” ‘The difference in approach has less to do with celibacy and more to do with the understanding of sexual orientation,’ he said.  New Ways Ministry sees gay orientation as a gift from God, not a problem that needs to be overcome, said DeBernardo.

” ‘Courage has often taken a 12-step approach to sexual orientation, seeing it as a defect in a person. We don’t believe that is an authentically helpful response.’ “

In one respect that difference is encapsulated in the difference between the terms “a person with same-sex attraction” and “a gay or lesbian person.”

The good news from this article is that Courage has officially separated itself from reparative therapy.  The reporter stated:

“Courage has evolved, taking a different position on what some call reparative therapy, through which gays are encouraged to become heterosexual. In the 1990s, Courage literature was encouraging, stating, ‘for those who really want it, reparative growth is a possibility and happens regularly.’ “

“Courage is now officially neutral on reparative therapy which, while popular in some evangelical Christian circles, is controversial in the wider counseling community.”

Even better than remaining neutral on the topic would be for Courage to condemn it outright since it has proven to be pastorally and psychologically harmful for so many people.

The article also noted another development in Courage’s policy:

“Bochanski said he is open to discussion with other ministries to Catholic gays, including New Ways Ministry, an organization which holds that gays can be sexually active and still maintain their Catholic faith. But the difference in approach makes such dialogue difficult, he said.”

It is good to know that Courage is open to dialogue.  We here at New Ways Ministry would welcome such an opportunity.  We do not see that our differences would make dialogue difficult.  Dialogue is, after all, precisely about differences.  We believe dialogue would help us understand one another better, and help our organizations minister more effectively to LGBT people.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, January 11, 2017

 

 

Vatican Nuncio and Mexican Cardinal Strike a Different Note on LGBT Issues

Throughout the past autumn, Bondings 2.0 has been reporting on the same-sex marriage debate in the heavily Catholic nation of Mexico.  As we reported,  Mexican bishops, supported by Pope Francis,  led the opposition to the campaign for making marriage equality, which already exists in several Mexican states, a reality throughout the entire nation.

Earlier this month, the proposal for marriage equality was defeated with a vote of 18-9 by the Commission on Constitutional Matters in the lower house of the Mexican legislature. Yet, despite the loss, the experience may be a positive turning point for the Mexican Catholic hierarchy in terms of taking steps, however small, towards respect for LGBT people.

Archbishop Franco Coppola

Key to this change is the Vatican’s nuncio to Mexico, Archbishop Franco Coppola, appointed in July 2016 by Pope Francis .  In response to the marriage equality proposal,  Coppola called for a more civil discussion of this, and other controversial topics.  The Catholic Herald  reported:

“Amid the activism, comments on same-sex marriage from the new apostolic nuncio to Mexico appear to suggest the Vatican would prefer a less confrontational approach.

” ‘Mexicans, rather than confronting each other, making proclamations or marching, have to sit down at the table and talk to each other,’ Archbishop Franco Coppola told reporters.

” ‘When we are speaking of the constitution, it has to become something that all Mexicans, or at least a great majority of Mexicans, can share.’ “

The Pilot reported that some observers see the archbishop’s comments as a Vatican decision to soften anti-gay rhetoric:

“Some media, such as the Spanish newspaper El Pais, interpreted the remarks as the Vatican ‘de-authorizing the anti-gay marches.’ “

Earlier in the marriage equality debate, Coppola also spoke words of reconciliation and outreach to gay and lesbian people.  The Yucatan Times reported:

“. . . [T]he apostolic nuncio, Franco Coppola, said it is necessary to recognize gay rights as any other citizens’ rights.

” ‘The doctrine of the Church is the doctrine of the Church, but we have to adapt it so we can offer answers to men and women of different times,’ the new representative of the Vatican in Mexico told reporters.”

Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera

Coppola is not the only Catholic leader in Mexico who has softened his rhetoric.  Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, Archbishop of Mexico City and Primate of Mexico, recently apologized for negative comments he made about the sexual acts of some gay men, and he invited “people attracted to the same sex” to meet with priests, acknowledging that church ministers need education.

The PanAm Post reported:

“In the past, Cardinal Carrera maintained that he would not apologize for his rhetoric toward the LGBT community even if it was considered offensive by some people, but something seems to have changed in him, as he recently came out on behalf of the Archdiocese of Mexico and asked for forgiveness if at any moment they had used ‘inadequate expressions’ to refer to the gay community, saying ‘you should know that it was never my intention to offend anyone.’  “

The cardinal also stated:

” ‘You have asked me about people attracted to the same sex coming to the vicarage to discuss the subject, and I not only see it as an agreeable idea, but as a necessary one,’ he said. ‘Priests shouldn’t be expected to know all that there is to know; many times, they must also be taught about a topic.’ “

The statements made by Coppola and Rivera Carrera are good first steps.  Perhaps the extremism of the Mexican debate on marriage equality made them realize that the hierarchy’s rhetoric was too heated and pastorally harmful.  Perhaps the example of Pope Francis has awakened them.  At a minimum, let’s hope that Rivera Carrera learned his lesson not to be so focused on particular sexual acts, as if they defined the totality of a person or a relationship.

These small steps of openness need to be built upon, and the next time Mexico looks at a marriage equality proposal, perhaps the nation’s bishops will conduct themselves more civilly. If they don’t these recent statements will sound like a noisy gong and clanging bell.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, November 29, 2016

Related article:

PinkNews.co.uk: “Catholic Church in Mexico apologises after saying ‘man’s anus is not designed to receive’ “

Catholic LGBT History: 30th Anniversary of the “Ratzinger Letter”

History-Option 1“This Month in Catholic LGBT History” is Bondings 2.0’s  feature to educate readers of the rich history—positive and negative—that has taken place over the last four decades regarding Catholic LGBT equality issues.  We hope it will show people how far our Church has come, ways that it has regressed, and how far we still have to go.

Once a  month, Bondings 2.0 staff will produce a post on Catholic LGBT news events from the past 38 years.  We will comb through editions ofBondings 2.0’s predecessor:  Bondings,  New Ways Ministry’s newsletter in paper format.   We began publishing Bondings in 1978. Unfortunately, because these newsletters are only archived in hard copies, we cannot link back to the primary sources in most cases. 

Thirty years ago today,  the Vatican released a document entitle “Letter to the Bishops on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.” This document is probably the most influential piece of church teaching on the topic of homosexuality, and debates about it still continue among theologians, lay people, pastoral ministers, and bishops.  It set the tone for most of the very harsh messages about gay and lesbian people that emerged from Catholic leaders over the past three decades.

Because the news of this letter made headlines on the following day, October 31st, (and probably also because of the harsh content of the document) it is sometimes referred to as the “Halloween letter.”  (In fact, the Letter was actually promulgated on October 1st, but not made public until the 30th.)

Because the document was authored by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (which was the Vatican office which released it), it is also sometimes referred to as the “Ratzinger letter” or “CDF letter.”

It’s official Latin title is perhaps the most telling about the document’s contents.  Latin titles of church documents are always the first two or three words of the document itself.  In this case, the Latin title is “Homosexualitatis probelma” or “the problem of homosexuality.” From the very first words of the document, the author understood the issue in negative terms, as a problem.  The introductory paragraphs explain that the letter was written in response to a growing acceptance of homosexuality, not only in society, but in the church too:

“The issue of homosexuality and the moral evaluation of homosexual acts have increasingly become a matter of public debate, even in Catholic circles.”  (section 1)

Reading between the lines, and remembering the historical context of this document, it’s important to point out that this Letter was, in fact, a reaction to many positive developments concerning lesbian and gay persons that were occurring in Catholicism.  The 1970s and early 1980s were a rich time for discussion and initiatives in the Church around lesbian and gay issues. This Letter was designed to shut down those projects, as we shall see later in this post.

A more proximate cause of the Letter’s origin was the fact that in 1975, in the Vatican’s “Declaration on Sexual Ethics,” homosexual orientation was recognized as not a sinful state, though homosexual activity or relationships were still considered immoral.  So, in this new document, the CDF set out to clear things up:

“In the discussion which followed the publication of the Declaration, however, an overly benign interpretation was given to the homosexual condition itself, some going so far as to call it neutral, or even good. Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.” (section 3)

Those last two words, “objective disorder,” were the ones which launched the major battles of the next thirty years.  Although theologians explained that it was not intended to refer to a medical or psychological disorder, but instead was a philosophical term to describe heterosexuality as part of the natural moral order,  the term has caused great pain and harm to people.  Only a few understand the philosophical nuances of it, and many who proclaim it are likely intending people to accept its very negative connotations.

In addition to the theological content of the letter, a significant feature of it was how it tried to close down any positive discussion of  lesbian and gay issues in the church.  The letter contains many references to Catholics who question or challenge the church’s teaching on homosexuality.  Some examples from the Letter:

“Nevertheless, increasing numbers of people today, even within the Church, are bringing enormous pressure to bear on the Church to accept the homosexual condition as though it were not disordered and to condone homosexual activity. Those within the Church who argue in this fashion often have close ties with those with similar views outside it. . . . The Church’s ministers must ensure that homosexual persons in their care will not be misled by this point of view, so profoundly opposed to the teaching of the Church. But the risk is great and there are many who seek to create confusion regarding the Church’s position, and then to use that confusion to their own advantage.”(section 8)

“The movement within the Church, which takes the form of pressure groups of various names and sizes, attempts to give the impression that it represents all homosexual persons who are Catholics. As a matter of fact, its membership is by and large restricted to those who either ignore the teaching of the Church or seek somehow to undermine it.” (section 9)

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

“. . . [T]his Congregation wishes to ask the Bishops to be especially cautious of any programmes which may seek to pressure the Church to change her teaching, even while claiming not to do so. A careful examination of their public statements and the activities they promote reveals a studied ambiguity by which they attempt to mislead the pastors and the faithful. For example, they may present the teaching of the Magisterium, but only as if it were an optional source for the formation of one’s conscience.” (section 14)

“The Bishops are asked to exercise special care in the selection of pastoral ministers so that by their own high degree of spiritual and personal maturity and by their fidelity to the Magisterium, they may be of real service to homosexual persons, promoting their health and well-being in the fullest sense. Such ministers will reject theological opinions which dissent from the teaching of the Church and which, therefore, cannot be used as guidelines for pastoral care.” (section 17)

“All support should be withdrawn from any organizations which seek to undermine the teaching of the Church, which are ambiguous about it, or which neglect it entirely. Such support, or even the semblance of such support, can be gravely misinterpreted. Special attention should be given to the practice of scheduling religious services and to the use of Church buildings by these groups, including the facilities of Catholic schools and colleges. To some, such permission to use Church property may seem only just and charitable; but in reality it is contradictory to the purpose for which these institutions were founded, it is misleading and often scandalous.” (section 17)

So, far from being a document which was theological in nature, the Letter had a strong emphasis on trying to repress discussion of homosexuality and in the church and to silence any and all forms of openness towards lesbian and gay people and their concerns.

The Letter had some seemingly positive statements, but these statements were always undercut by other messages in the text.  Section 10 of the Letter is a classic case of this phenomenon:

“It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law.”

Yet the next paragraph undercuts any positive message from the one above:

“But the proper reaction to crimes committed against homosexual persons should not be to claim that the homosexual condition is not disordered. When such a claim is made and when homosexual activity is consequently condoned, or when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.”

In terms of pastoral care, the Letter offered similarly mixed messages. For example, in section 17 the Letter stated:

“. . . [W]e would ask the Bishops to support, with the means at their disposal, the development of appropriate forms of pastoral care for homosexual persons. These would include the assistance of the psychological, sociological and medical sciences, in full accord with the teaching of the Church.”

Yet, earlier in the Letter, they warned against scientific understandings:

“The Church is thus in a position to learn from scientific discovery but also to transcend the horizons of science and to be confident that her more global vision does greater justice to the rich reality of the human person in his spiritual and physical dimensions, created by God and heir, by grace, to eternal life.” (section 2)

And earlier on , the Letter described what an appropriate pastoral program would look like, and it was one which assumed that gay and lesbian people were always tempted towards sexual activity:

“No authentic pastoral programme will include organizations in which homosexual persons associate with each other without clearly stating that homosexual activity is immoral. A truly pastoral approach will appreciate the need for homosexual persons to avoid the near occasions of sin.” (section 15)

We are still living with the effects of the 1986 Letter, but there may be signs that some leaders in the church are moving away from it’s negative message.  During the 2015 synod, we heard many bishops state that the language of “objective disorder” and “intrinsic moral evil” needed to be scrapped.  We also see that some bishops are willing to open discussions about homosexuality, and to listen to voices which disagree with the Church’s teaching.  We see  gay-friendly parishes and diocesan programs which do not see avoidance of sexual activity as their prime focuses.

The 1986 Letter did an enormous among of pastoral harm and damage to lesbian and gay people.  Many people,  straight and gay, left the Church because of its message, and many more continue to do so when they hear its message proclaimed.

But perhaps, 30 years later, we are starting to see that the criticisms that theologians and lay people have leveled against this document are starting to reach the highest levels of the Church.

Whenever I read the Letter, I always end up having an idea that the author imagined the Church being besieged from inside and outside by people who had a positive view of lesbian and gay people.  I always imagine that the authors imagined that this Letter was building a fortress wall around the Church.  Perhaps, thirty years later, we are seeing that wall begin to crumble at least a bit.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 30, 2016

Lessons from Sr. Jeannine Gramick, Woman of Mercy

Sr. Jeannine Gramick, Co-Founder of New Ways Ministry, was featured by the Catholic reform organization FutureChurch as their Woman Witness of Mercy for October. The following reflection by Bondings 2.0’s Associate Editor Bob Shine was included in a resource packet on Jeannine. For more information, and to purchase the packet, click here.

home-page-slide-jeannine-gramickAfter fifty -plus years in religious life, Sr. Jeannine Gramick, SL has encountered numerous people and touched many lives in her ministry of justice and reconciliation for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in the Catholic Church. I first met Jeannine a few months after college and in this reflection, I share a little of how she has impacted my own life and what I know younger Catholics can learn from this holy and humble person.

I began at New Ways Ministry during a service year with the Loretto Volunteers. The first evening at the Volunteers’ opening retreat, held at the Sisters of Loretto’s motherhouse in Kentucky, we watched a documentary about Jeannine’s life and ministry. I lay in bed that evening and, quite overwhelmed, questioned myself on how I had jumped into such deep waters. Sisters had shared their stories with us over meals and in side conversations. Theirs were stories of integrating schools and accompanying communities, of artistry and feminist witnesses, of poetry and anti-war protests. Theirs was a mission, to paraphrase their famed former superior Sr. Mary Luke Tobin, of going out to the ends of the branches of our world because that is where the fruit resides. And I had committed to wandering out an ecclesial branch with a sister who was taking on the Catholic Church.

Events that fall would not, at first, quiet the questions from that opening retreat. Within a few weeks, I had spent a Saturday witnessing at various sites in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the Loretto Community’s 200th anniversary and helped organize Catholic events for the marriage equality campaign in Maryland. I had discovered that even the enthusiasm and energy I had at 22 could not keep pace with Jeannine and the other sisters.

With time, working alongside Jeannine and Francis DeBernardo, the executive director of New Ways Ministry, I have learned much. Four years on, Jeannine and I now teach one another. It is not quite equal – I help her navigate Facebook and she helps me navigate the complexities of being a disciple of Christ – but it is a friendship I cherish. The following are four lessons Jeannine has taught me, lessons which can aid younger Catholics like myself as we find our way in the troubled church we love.

Jeannine Gramick Photo
Sister Jeannine Gramick

“What is the Catholic Church doing for gays and lesbians?” A young gay man named Dominic posed this question to Jeannine in 1971, and it would be this question that radically transformed her life. Jeannine began organizing home liturgies for gay people in the Philadelphia area, educating herself on homosexuality, offering some workshops, and, in just a few years, launched New Ways Ministry with Fr. Robert Nugent. Being open to Dominic’s question and tender to the pain of gay people excluded from the church led Jeannine down a path she never expected, but which came to define her life. I was not there, but I believe it was the Spirit speaking through Dominic when he asked that question. This story is a reminder that we, as Christians, must be ever present to the people around us, ever listening to voices at the margins, and ever willing to let the Other make claims on our life that may have profound consequences.

Don’t say the church when you mean the hierarchy. Jeannine lives committed to Vatican II’s teaching that the church is fundamentally the People of God, and that community is essential for Christian life. Before I knew Jeannine well, I thought she was a rogue figure who alone had challenged the Vatican, yet this narrative is not accurate. Her decades of ministry would not be possible without the people and communities that support her and work with her – the congregations to which she has belonged, other women religious, LGBT Catholics and their families, supporters of New Ways Ministry, theologians and scholars, and more. And Jeannine is not only supported by, but actively contributes to the communities she is in. For younger Catholics in the United States, we cannot forget how essential community will be for our journeys even if parish pews are thinning out and the hair of fellow believers’ greys. Enacting the church’s evangelical mission is not possible unless we live as the People of God: baptized as priests, called to holiness, and supporting one another whatever may come.

The envelopes need stuffing. On Tuesday evenings, you will find Jeannine with the New Ways Ministry volunteers who prepare the organization’s bulk mailings and then gather for pizza and camaraderie. Jeannine models what it means to be a leader who serves. Even though she is quite busy, she attends to people with kind notes and small loving acts. She willingly does the tedious but necessary tasks with everyone else. She works long hours to ensure every detail is correct, and exhibits a persistence in ministry possessed by few (and the teacher in her never wastes an opportunity to teach me a grammar lesson). Jeannine teaches younger Catholics that seeking ecclesial reform and renewal means hard work that is hardly glamorous. We must resolve each morning to seeking a just church, steadily running the race Christ has set before us that is not even a marathon but an ultramarathon.

“I choose not to collaborate in my own oppression.” These words, with which Jeannine responded to the Vatican’s attempt at silencing her, are a haunting reminder to me of what being Christian entails. Being part of the church means calling the church to live more fully the Gospel that we proclaim, but people will resist this threatening call. Jeannine endured two decades of degrading investigations and punitive sanctions by church leaders because she refused to believe LGBT people are anything less than wonderfully made by God. She challenges even today the church she loves and the communities to which she belongs, exercising the prophetic office which we all share through baptism as she invites all people to be reconciled. To be Christian is to prioritize Christ against all else, and there will be times when following the decisions we make in conscience leaves us isolated, rejected, and deeply pained. But we should never collaborate in our own oppression or the oppression of others, especially when it is the church for which we are responsible that is inflicting wounds.

CTA_GramickShine
Jeannine Gramick, SL & Bob Shine

The widespread acceptance of LGBT people among Catholics in the United States and growing acceptance internationally can largely be attributed to Jeannine’s tireless labors. She is an incarnation of these words from Blessed Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger, foundress of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, words which Jeannine introduced me to (they hang in a frame over her desk) and which are so powerful for Catholics who seek a reformed and renewed church:

“All the works of God proceed slowly and in pain; but then their roots are the sturdier and their flowering the lovelier.”

Holy people are holy not because of their greatest flowering acts, but because of their quietest habits which create sturdy and deep roots. Jeannine Gramick has acted greatly in listening to Dominic’s voice and being faithful to her response even when the Vatican bore down. Yet, the person I know Jeannine to be is a person whose quietest habits in daily life are what have most catalyzed the reception of Vatican II and renewal of the Catholic Church on matters of gender and sexuality. Honored to know Jeannine as a colleague and as a friend, I conclude with this prayer:

Radiant colors stretched across the sky,
the rainbow is your sign of loving covenant,
after flood waters bathed the earth, O Divine Creator.

From You, creation is breathed into being,
from chaotic waters, infinite diversity rises,
every person reflecting You, wonderfully made,
every creature beloved by You, wonderfully made.

Arms stretched to the ends of the Cross’ beam,
Jesus is your sign of lasting covenant,
after we forget how to love, O Divine Redeemer.

Slowly, creation seeks Your embrace by
our daily labors and our bread broken,
yet imperfect lives keep restrained the love
You poured into our beings, love to pour out.

With lives stretched outward from within,
we are your sign of liberating covenant,
after we encounter the Other, O Divine Healer.

Pierced by the Other’s inquiry of “Will you love?”
our reconciling hopes foundations for new bridges,
creating a church where God’s queer people
from margins to center come, radiant people,
lives echoing Jesus’ prayer to be One.

We are the People of God, invoking your creative breath,
as a sacrament in the world, as an outstretched rainbow
proclaiming anew in our renewing witness,
Your loving, lasting, liberating covenant.
May this be so; may we be one. Amen.

–Bob Shine,  New Ways Ministry, October 29, 2016

Court Says Case of Fired Lesbian Teacher Can Go Forward–for Now

For the second time, a New Jersey judge has ruled that the employment discrimination suit of a lesbian teacher fired from a Catholic school can go forward, despite motions by the school and archdiocese attorneys to get it dismissed.  But because the judge’s decision was based on a very specific legal technicality, the possibility that the teacher will be victorious in the case still remains highly uncertain.

Kate Drumgoole

Kate Drumgoole, a former guidance counselor and basketball coach at Paramus Catholic H.S., in the Archdiocese of Newark, is suing because she was fired from her job when administrators learned that she was married to a woman.

Judge Lisa Perez Friscia denied the request by the school and archdiocese, the defendants, to reconsider her August 22nd decision to dismiss the case, saying that no new facts were presented by the institutions’ lawyers.

According to NorthJersey.com:

“Friscia ruled in August that the case should go to the discovery phase, which would end Sept. 3, 2017.

“ ‘Only after discovery is complete, can the court review each claim to determine whether the religious organization exception, grounded in the First Amendment applies,’ Friscia wrote.”

So, the defendants’ request for a religious exemption from New Jersey Laws Against Discrimination (NJLAD) may yet be allowed to proceed.  The judge’s ruling stated only that the religious exemption could not apply at this stage of the case.

According to the news article:

“Friscia ruled that the defendants ‘have not established, at this early juncture,’ that the school can apply religious tenets to employees not engaged in ministerial duties and she said that by merely claiming the religious exemption the school is not necessarily entitled to it.”

It looks like the case is going to turn on the court’s understanding of the definition of a minister and ministerial work.    According to a news report, the attorneys for the school and archdiocese point out:

“Drumgoole signed an acknowledgement that she received the Archdiocese’s ‘Policies on Professional and Ministerial Conduct’ and a ‘Code of Ethics.’ The school’s faculty handbook also says that all teachers must comply with the code of ministerial conduct policies. Her collective bargaining agreement allows for tenured teachers to be terminated for ‘violating accepted standards of catholic morality as to cause public scandal,’ according to the written ruling this week.”

However, the other side sees the situation differently:

“Drumgoole’s attorneys, Eric Kleiner and Lawrence Kleiner, have argued that Drumgoole’s job did not include ministerial duties and that the school uses some of the NJLAD in its faculty handbook, making it liable to all of the laws against discrimination.”

Drumgoole also claimed in her suit that she thinks her firing may be related to her raising charges against two school employees in the recent past:

“Drumgoole, in her certification, said she also believes her firing may have been retaliatory. Drumgoole had alerted school officials to an incident involving two Paramus Catholic employees who allegedly had sex with students during a school trip to Germany.

“In late 2011, two male former employees of the high school were indicted on charges of having sex with at least three female students during a school trip to Germany.

“The state Supreme Court in March 2015 threw out all the overseas sex charges involving Artur Sopel, the school’s vice president of operations at the time of the trip, and Michael Sumulikoski, a substitute teacher. The court ruled local prosecutors had no jurisdiction to charge the two, who were chaperones for the February 2011 school trip.”

Drumgoole’s case has already sparked a number of controversies in the local church.  Fr. Warren Hall, an archdiocesan priest, was suspended from priestly duties in part because of his support for the teacher.  The school’s principal was suspended from work for a few days, and the school’s president still remains suspended. their jobs for a while. Over 3000 school community members have signed a petition protesting Drumgoole’s firing.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 25, 2016

 

The Pope’s Reaction–Maybe–to Two Former Nuns Marrying

By Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 19, 2016

Two weeks ago, Bondings 2.0 reported on the story of two former nuns in Italy who joined together in a civil union, noting that the lesbian couple expressed their commitment not only to one another, but to their Catholic faith.   A few more details have emerged from that story which make it even a more poignant tale.

The headline -grabbing follow-up was that the pope has seemingly expressed some sadness about the couple.  London’s Daily Mail reported that a Vatican official disclosed in a tweet that the pope was was downcast when told the news about the women.     Vatican Deputy Secretary of State Archbishop Angelo Becciu tweeted:

“How much sadness on the pope’s face when I read him the news of the two married ‘nuns’!’ ”  (This is a translation of the tweet which was originally written in Italian:  “Quanta tristezza sul volto del Papa quando gli ho letto la notizia delle due ‘suore’ spose!”)

The news story further explained that it was the pope’s famous “Who am I to judge?” remark which inspired the two women (for privacy’s sake, known only by their first names Federica and Isabel) to see their feelings from one another as a graced phenomenon, or, in their words “a gift from God.  The story reported:

“The couple revealed they decided to act on their feelings when Pope Francis encouraged those in the Catholic Church not to judge others. . . .

“The two nuns said: ‘That phrase has opened our hearts.’

“They took advantage of a law passed this year that offers homosexual couples legal recognition in Italy – one of the last countries in the West to do so.”

The tweet from Becciu is irresponsible because of the vagueness of the message.  Did the pope speak any words?  Was he sad because the women had left religious life? Because they were lesbians? Because they entered a civil union? Because their union was public?

Was Becciu counting on the fact that his audience would “know” why the pope’s face showed sadness?  Was he counting on relying on his followers’ negative opinions about civil unions for lesbian and gay people?  Why did he call them “nuns,”  and put that word in scare quotes, when it was obvious that they were former nuns?

If the pope had something to say on the matter, why didn’t he do so in an official statement instead of through ambiguous facial expressions?  If his facial expressions were not an official statement, why did the Vatican Deputy Secretary of State feel empowered to suggest that they might be by tweeting such news?

Our Church really needs better communications.

On a happy note, though, it is so nice to hear that among the many things that the “Who am I to judge?” remark has prompted, it has also prompted a faith-filled, committed love between two women.