Tuesday, May 29th, will be marked by prayer vigils across the nation in support of religious communities of Sisters, as their Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) face sanctions from the Vatican, announced last month. Since support of LGBT issues, particularly support of New Ways Ministry’s programs, were a main factor in the Vatican’s sanctions, Bondings 2.0 is strongly encouraging people to attend.
NunJustice.org, a website dedicated to actions in support of the Sisters, has a complete list of vigils, along with times, locations, and contact information. Please check the dates as many of the vigils have been taking place throughout May, and although most of the locations will be culminating in a final vigil on May 29th, not all will. The website’s description of the vigils:
“Stand in solidarity with those who acknowledge women religious as pioneers of social justice, advocates for peace, and women of dignity. “
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 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.”
“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.
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.
The initial news cycle centered on the Vatican’s attempted suppression of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the leading organization of U.S. nuns, seems to be dying down. However, make no mistake: the story is not over! The most important piece of it is yet to come: How will the nuns respond to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) decision to place an archbishop in charge of their conference, in effect, displacing the women’s leadership of themselves?
At New Ways Ministry, which has had its own encounters with the CDF, it is clear that the recent statement from this hierarchical office is designed to silence dissent by instilling fear, not only from the LCWR, but from other sectors of the church, too. The Vatican no longer has a Grand Inquisitor to physically torture or jail people it calls “dissenters,” so the only tool left to silence them is fear.
We have seen this time and again at New Ways Ministry. Whenever the Vatican makes a strong statement against LGBT people, one of the most widespread reactions and responses from church people is to be afraid. Yes, there are many who express anger and outrage, but many, many more respond quietly by silencing themselves, afraid that if they speak out that they, too, will experience the wrath of Church authorities.
Fear, however, is not the full story. I believe that though church authorities might be instilling fear through their actions, there is another reality present in these situations. I believe that when fear is present, God is calling us to courage. Though it may seem that the LCWR has few options at this juncture (see the posting about canon law guiding this case), they do, in fact, have the option to respond courageously, relying on God’s power instead of the power of human beings–themselves or their oppressors.
When the CDF tried to suppress Sister Jeannine Gramick, New Ways Ministry’s co-founder, by telling her that she could not do pastoral work with lesbian/gay people and that she could not speak about the Vatican’s investigation of her ministry, she responded with a simple statement filled with eloquent courage, “I choose not to participate in my own oppression.”
Those who see the injustice of the CDF’s attempt to suppress LCWR need to respond with similar courage. Now is not the time to be afraid, worried, or despairing. We must rely on our God who promised to be with us and guide us in our times of need. The only thing we can ever change is ourselves and our responses, not other people or situations. We have the choice at this juncture to respond with courage.
The LCWR leadership has announced that they will be consulting their members, the heads of women’s religious communities around the country, as to how to respond to the CDF announcement. One thing that ordinary Catholics can do is to exercise a ministry of en-courage-ment by writing to the leaders of nuns’ communities that we know and love, and letting them know that they have the support of Catholics in their time of need. We need to let our Sisters know that they are not alone, and that the Catholic people stand courageously in solidarity with them. If we want LCWR to respond with courage to this situation, we must en-courage the Sisters that we know and love.
(If you do not know the names and addresses of the leaders of the community of nuns who have ministered to you, ask a local nun for their contact information or call/email New Ways Ministry, and we will help you get that information. New Ways Ministry phone: 301-277-5674; email: info@NewWaysMinistry.org .)
You don’t have to write a long letter. Just let the Sisters know that you are praying for them, that you are grateful for their ministry, that you want them to continue to be prophetic, and that you will support them.
In doing so, you will be spreading one of Jesus’ most consistent Gospel messages: “Be not afraid.”
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry
Previous Bondings 2.0 posts on the CDF-LCWR story (with some of the links each post contains):
Commentary on the Vatican’s attempt to control the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) continues to make headlines, as more Catholic religious leaders offer their thoughts on the April 18th announcement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).
“We women come from a different conception of ‘church’ from the Vatican. We are following. . . the Second Vatican Council which was in the 1960’s talked about the ‘church’ as a community. And in a community, people disagree. But in a totalitarian institution, there is no disagreement. This is the clash that we are seeing.”
Jeff Stone commented:
“The highest law of the Catholic Church is the law of conscience. Pope Benedict himself has spoken eloquently about it. Even if you find your conscience is in disagreement even with the words of the pope, you are obligated in your conscience to follow your conscience.”
You can watch the entire interview of these two leaders by clicking here.
“McDermott said the connection between priests and nuns has been weakening. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, she said, ‘the mutuality and respect was extraordinary, feeling we were all in this together.’
Today, she said, different approaches to a changing society and the role of the church means ‘that sense of hospitality, many of us would say, is growing dimmer.’ ”
In the same article, Sister Julie Viera, IHM, (who is not associated with either New Ways Ministry or DignityUSA) observed that though nuns take a vow of obedience, that vow is clearly defined:
“[O]ur vow of obedience applies to God . . . it doesn’t reside in a bishop, a body of bishops or even the pope. For us, that sense of obedience has to do with listening deeply to the call of the spirit.”
These commentators join a host of others, including Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, renwoned Catholic author, and Sister Simone Campbell, SSS, executive director of NETWORK, who have already criticized the Vatican’s directive. You can read about Sister Joan’s comments here, and Sister Simone’s comments here and here. For New Ways Ministry’s statement, click here.