16 March 2008

The unlikely rebel (Times of Malta, Sunday 16th March 2008)

The unlikely rebel

We think that what is natural for most has to be natural for everybody and that's not true.

Sr Jeannine Gramick, the diminutive Roman Catholic nun from the US, is urging the Vatican to show its compassionate side to gay and lesbian Catholics and shun the evil of prejudice that hounds this community. The subject of an acclaimed documentary, Sr Jeannine tells Ariadne Massa the argument that gay sexuality is unnatural, is based solely on 'plumbing'.

Taking a sip of English Breakfast tea, Sr Jeannine Gramick, 65, emits a peaceful aura that veils her steely resolve to pursue her mission to support gay and lesbian Catholics.

Dressed in a mint-coloured shirt, buttoned right up to her neck, and a blue cardigan, it's hard to imagine this nun, with her gentle demeanour, standing up to the Vatican and sticking to her guns - "in a non-violent way".

In Malta last night to address a public talk titled 'On Becoming Whole: Sexual and Spiritual Integration', organised by Drachma, Malta's gay Catholic group, Sr Jeannine explains her crusade, which inspired the documentary In Good Conscience.

In 1999, the Vatican's Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, then led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who is now the Pope), issued an edict ordering Sr Jeannine to shut down her New Ways Ministry, a Catholic centre working for the justice and reconciliation of gays within the Church.

When the president of the Bishops Conference in the US asked Cardinal Ratzinger to explain, they were told this meant no retreats, workshops or liturgical celebrations for the gay and lesbian community.

Under Canon Law, this order cannot be interpreted further than these words, which meant it did not stop Sr Jeannine from speaking publicly.

She spent that year travelling across the US talking about the investigation. As a result, thousands upon thousands of letters poured into the Vatican calling for the case to be re-examined, but the Congregation decided against.

Instead it went a step further to gag the nun, by ordering her religious superior in Rome to completely silence her on homosexuality and sexual matters.

"I felt I could not abide by this order; it was a matter of conscience," she says, holding the silver cross, which she wears prominently around her neck.

So instead of disobeying her superior, she transferred from the School Sisters of Notre Dame to the Sisters of Loretto, who support Sr Jeannine in her ministry. So far, the Vatican has stopped short of issuing a new edict.

"The edict made me very sad, because of what it represented. It was interpreted, rightly so, by the gay and lesbian Catholic community as another slap in the face; another rejection," she says.

"It had meaning far beyond me. It didn't show the compassionate side of the Church, which is what we should be about. I think it was mean-spirited. Of course, Church officials look at it differently... one's understanding depends on where you stand."

To understand Sr Jeannine's crusade, it's essential to trace her journey into this ministry in 1971, when, following the Second Vatican Council, a lot of ecumenical work with other religions was underway.

Having entered the convent at 18, because she felt she was "God's No.1 best friend", she was pursuing her Ph.D. in mathematics education from the University in Pennsylvania, when she got roped into reaching out to the gay community by an Episcopal priest.

In those days, she believed "there was something psychologically wrong" with gays, but suddenly her ideas were being challenged when she met successful gay professionals who seemed far from imbalanced.

Her involvement began when she befriended a gay man who had left the Catholic Church, and joined the Episcopal Church, because he felt he didn't fit in.

"Me, the good little nun that I am, said, 'Once you're Roman Catholic, you're always Roman Catholic'. He said he would love to go to a Catholic Mass, but he didn't feel welcome, so instead we celebrated a Roman Catholic Mass at his apartment for him and his gay friends and that's what we did every week," she recalls.

"Gays, who had not been to Church for decades because they felt rejected, came and left with tears of happiness that a Catholic nun and a priest had welcomed them.

"I spoke to my superiors and they were really women of vision who believed the Church had neglected the gay community and they encouraged me to do whatever I could," she says, adding that initially her fellow nuns in the convent weren't as enlightened as her superiors.

And so her ministry to educate and raise awareness on struggle of the gay community to seek acceptance and equality began and, in 1977, she co-founded the New Ways Ministry.

She has untiringly worked to promote this cause for 35 years and she is the author of numerous articles and books on the subject.

A woman who prefers to look on the bright side, she is content to see that change is happening, even though it tends to be excruciatingly slow on the subject of sexuality and homosexuality.

She refers to a document that emerged from a bishops' conference, which says, "Prejudice against homosexuals is a greater infringement on the moral norm than any kind of sexual activity.

"Well, let's put this into practice. Instead of the Vatican making all these pronouncements about homosexual activity, let's make the pronouncement about the evils of prejudice and violence against the gay community. That's what we should be teaching," she stresses.

Described by Time Out magazine in New York as, "a freedom fighter on the frontline of the cultural wars", Sr Jeannine doesn't know whether she will live to witness the reconciliation between the Church and the gay community.

"I never thought I would see same-sex marriage on the Church's agenda. We may be coming out the wrong way on this, but at least we're talking about it," she says.

How does she view same-sex unions?

"I'm part of the National Coalition of American Nuns. In the 1990s, we made a statement, and continue to make such statements, that marriage is a civil right. Basically, I also believe that all the sacraments should be open to gay people, and that includes marriage," she stresses.

Though her opinion may not go down well with the hierarchical Church, polls in the US show that around 50 per cent of Catholics support same-sex civil unions. Though this support dwindles to 20 per cent when asked if gays should be granted the sacrament of marriage, Sr Jeannine is encouraged that the level of acceptance had increased over time.

How does she reconcile the arguments that same-sex unions are unnatural?

"Our problem as human beings is that we think only one thing is natural and anything beyond that is unnatural. We think that what is natural for most has to be natural for everybody and that's not true. These arguments are based on plumbing... one sexual organ fits in another... that's ridiculous! This is a very male-based theology."

Sr Jeannine believes there is radical need for reform, and though new ideas are being pushed forward by theologians, these were being quashed by the Vatican.

She points out that the aim of the Congregation was to create a platform for theological ideas to flourish, but instead it took a watchdog approach.

Doesn't she fear excommunication, if she persists in her crusade?

"No. But when I was going through the investigation process my provincial put the idea in my head. She insisted we take a pilgrimage to the birthplace of our foundress to pray for a miracle," she recalls with an affectionate smile.

Through sheer coincidence, travelling on the plane between Rome and Munich was Cardinal Ratzinger himself.

"My superior went up to him and said, 'Sr Jeannine is a very good sister. We're very afraid she's going to get excommunicated'. And he replied, 'Oh, no no... it's not that level of doctrine'," she laughs, admitting that her miracle had happened on the plane.

As a nun who is very much devoted to her Church, Sr Jeannine feels the need to apologise to lesbians and gays "for all the pain and suffering we have caused", and hopes she can make reparations through her work.

"I believe God loves each person as they are."

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