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Catholic Nun Continues Gay Ministry

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Sr. Gramick continues pastoral work rooted in Vatican II’s social justice ethos

Since his assumption of the pontificate in 1978, John Paul II has overseen an affirmation of conservative orthodoxy in Roman Catholic doctrine that includes denouncing the rights of gay and lesbian Roman Catholics to marry or gain other forms of legal recognition for their relationships. That opposition has put the church at odds with politicians in traditionally Roman Catholic nations, such as in Europe, where Belgium has legalized same-sex marriages and France accords such couples civil unions, and in the United States, where this past May, in Massachusetts, a heavily Roman Catholic state, gay and lesbian couples began marrying.

In a visit to the Vatican earlier this month, Pres. George W. Bush is reported to have spoken to Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Soldano and sought the assistance of the Vatican in urging Roman Catholic members of Congress to pass the Federal Marriage Amendment, a measure that would alter the Constitution to define marriage as an institution reserved for heterosexual couples. Last June, another influential Vatican official, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo of the Council of the Family, authored a document that condemned government officials who equated same-sex relationships with traditional heterosexual marriages and said, among other things, that gay people had no business adopting children. Some gay activists claimed that the Trujillo decree was issued to coincide with the Supreme Court Lawrence v. Texas decision overturning sodomy laws in the U.S., as well as the growing support Pres. Bush had begun to voice for the Federal Marriage Amendment.

Vatican officials’ outspokenness on social issues pertinent to the gay and lesbian community, which include statements which some mainstream Catholics regard as purely outlandish, offer valuable insights on how this particular papacy approaches matters of human sexuality. Last year, for example, Trujillo reiterated the church’s official condemnation of the use of condoms during sexual intercourse, positing that condoms do not ensure against the risk of HIV infection. “The AIDS virus is roughly 450 times smaller than the spermatozoon. The spermatozoon can easily pass through the ‘net’ that is formed by the condom,” Trujillo told a BBC correspondent.

Of course, in terms of determining American political decisions or policy debates, Vatican pronouncements may have moral suasion, but lack the authorization of an edict, as demonstrated by many polls that indicate significant support, including among Catholics, for legalizing same-marriages and not tampering with the Constitution. Traditionally, the American Conference on Catholic Bishops has taken more progressive stances on matters like birth control, women’s rights and divorce than those adopted by the Vatican.

“The time was an inclusive period of outreach—to reach out and bring the church to the faithful,” said Sr. Jeannine Gramick, in a recent interview, referring to the early 1970s, not long after the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York marking the emergence of the modern gay and lesbian rights movement. Gramick is the subject of a feature-length film, “In Good Conscience,” released at this year’s New York Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. The film chronicles Gramick’s life and her 1977 founding, along with Fr. Robert Nugent, a Roman Catholic priest, of New Ways Ministries in Baltimore and the ensuing struggles she faced with the church hierarchy in ministering to gay and lesbian Catholics.

Committing herself to that pastoral mission was not the path that Gramick, a professor of college mathematics, ever sought to undertake. Born in 1942, Gramick joined the School Sisters of Notre Dame in 1960. It was at the University of Pennsylvania in 1971, however, while pursuing her doctorate, that she met a young gay Catholic and several of his gay friends, none of whom had been to mass in years.

“I was not a social activist,” Gramick acknowledged. “The Vietnam War was going on. I never protested it.” Gramick recalled however, that while she loved teaching and its intellectual rigors, “just to be more in touch with people’s lives was more satisfying. There seemed to be a need for that more than teachers.”

Gramick recalled what she said to those young gay Catholics back in 1971. “Your roots are Roman Catholic. We can get a priest and have a Mass with your gay friends who haven’t been to church in twenty years.” The statement is indicative of the activist spirit of many American nuns and priests who earned their stripes in the 1970s. Simply put, once a Catholic, always a Catholic, gay or straight.

It is perhaps what most strongly motivates this woman to defy Vatican officials in openly encouraging out gay and lesbian Catholics, including those in committed relationships, to identify proudly as Catholics. “If a person has roots in the Roman Catholic Church and has been raised a Catholic in it, they have a right to be members of their church,” said Gramick.

In the early 1970s, Gramick lived, in accordance with Vatican II reforms, in a private residence with five other nuns, all of whom worked in the surrounding communities. Pope John XXIII, a hero for Gramick, had advocated for ecclesiastical and liturgical reforms and “bringing the church” to the believer, in what many church leaders considered a more holistic ministry to the faithful. “Without Vatican II, this ministry would not be possible,” said Gramick of her outreach to gays and lesbians.

Gramick summed up the prevailing spirit that existed in the rank and file clergy inspired by Vatican II’s liberalizing reforms. “If the church is to preach justice, it must be just,” she said, adding that there is “a spirit within me that gets angry with injustice.”

To mistake Gramick for a rabble-rouser, however, is to grievously misunderstand her personality. She is a person of staunch faith and enormous self-discipline, and certainly no apostate. Yet, in 2000, the Vatican ordered her superior, the leader of her religious order, to have her desist from advocating for equal treatment for gay and lesbian Catholics.

“The whole preoccupation of the church throughout the centuries has been on sexual behavior, to the detriment of other equally important subjects,” said Gramick. “Any church doctrine on sexuality is not part of the essential teachings of the church,” Gramick later added. “It’s okay for people to disagree with controversial teachings of the church.”

Gramick sees no distinction between heterosexual or homosexual sexual expression. The crucial factor for her is how people approach the sexual act. “Celibacy is wonderful until you meet the person you don’t want to be celibate with,” she said. “There are different kinds of love. Any kind of erotic act needs to be fulfilled with the right person.”

Gramick, who is a feminist, said that she fully supports same-sex marriage and would like gays and lesbians to be able to marry in Catholic churches, but acknowledged, “we’re not there yet.”

‘The mission of the church is to guide the flock on sexual ethics,” said Gramick. “The hierarchy has presented obstacles to that mission, but the theological community recently has been helpful to the church in gaining a greater understanding of human sexuality and about other issues like abortion.”

Gramick has not remained silent on the topic of homosexuality, as attested to by a movie that may wind up showing on many homes’ TV screens. In 2001, she switched orders and is now a Sister of Loretto. “They can start the process all over again,” said Gramick, indicating a canny expertise on canon law, referring to Vatican officials who might be seeking to silence her further.

While self-effacing, even demure at times, Gramick demonstrates a quality recognizable to any Catholic educated by a nun in the last quarter century. The steely resolve flashed by her eyes demonstrates that sentiment best when asked what obligation the church owes to gay and lesbian Catholics alienated by the homophobia espoused by its hierarchy. “I think we have an obligation—,” she says before crossing her arms and leveling her gaze. “If I have faith in X, I have an obligation to do X,” said Gramick, the mathematician, to indicate that an active life in the church, including partaking of the sacraments, enhances one’s spiritual relationship with God.

It is a point Gramick does not leave open for debate.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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