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Despite silencing, Holy Spirit prevails


Two decades ago when I came to Washington as a young feminist theologian, “Catholic lesbian” was a contradiction in terms. Today it, like “gay Catholic,” is simply a description of one more member of a faith community whose name means “universal.” What unites us is not so much a man in Rome or a set of beliefs as it is an unwavering confidence that there is more going on than we can control. We call this the Holy Spirit. She always has her way, this time on homosexuality.

We’ve come a long way in a short time. This is thanks in part to the pioneering work of Sr. Jeannine Gramick and Fr. Robert Nugent, who were prohibited recently by the Vatican from exercising their effective ministry with lesbian/gay Catholics, their families and friends (NCR, July 30). So far the decree’s major impact has been to catalyze Catholics in defense of what they know to be right.

Changes in Catholic peoples’ attitudes toward their lesbian/gay children, parents, friends and relatives are readily apparent to those who have eyes to see. When Jeannine and Bob founded New Ways Ministry in 1977, they were virtually alone. I recall early board meetings and social gatherings of a handful of people, all finding our way against the odds.

In 1984, at the urging of Cardinal James Hickey, Rome prohibited them from working in the Washington archdiocese. They continued their workshops, lectures, writing and pastoral care under the aegis of their respective religious communities. Others took over at New Ways Ministry. Jeannine and Bob carved out an important niche in their work with parents of lesbian/gay people, helping them square their faith with their children’s lives.

This summer’s picnic at New Ways was a melange of folks -- priests and nuns, same-sex and heterosexual couples with and without their children, beloved parents and even a bishop. The cofounders were in charge of the buffet table and the grill respectively, gracious helpers back at a family gathering. This is cause for silencing?

The institutional church’s position is that homosexual orientation is “disordered,” and homosexual acts are “intrinsically evil.” But good people, in this case good Catholics, who come face to face with a lesbian daughter or a gay son, who live next door to a lesbian couple or who work with a gay man on the assembly line have come to realize that this is simply not correct.

Biological and social sciences show that sexuality is a complex matter about which there are few final answers. Philosophy has changed so that we make ethical judgments on the basis of actual people, not abstract categories. Theology contributes insights including, “in all things, charity.” Common sense plays a major role. The Vatican’s position, in all of its nuance, is simply wrong.

When my partner and I make love, we do not do something “intrinsically evil,” but something lovely that is a human right when enjoyed safely, responsibly and with care. In fact, our love, like all love, builds human community. Moreover, good people rightly perceive that all of us are more than our sexuality. Undue emphasis on the sexuality of lesbian/gay people is called homohatred.

Happily, perhaps thanks to the Holy Spirit, thousands of Catholics belong to Dignity, the denominational support and advocacy group, or to the Conference for Catholic Lesbians. Many Catholic parishes today extend a warm welcome to their lesbian/gay members. A number of religious orders -- both nuns and priests/brothers -- have lesbian/gay groups. Many Catholic theologians, myself included, are writing about sexual ethics within our tradition, assuming that lesbian/gay sex is as healthy, good and natural as heterosexual sex.

Ironically, Rome’s argument for silencing the pair was based on the notion that Catholics were confused about the church’s teaching. To the contrary, we understand it fully but an increasing number of us respectfully disagree. But I detect that what Rome wanted from Gramick and Nugent was finally not so much about sex as about power.

This back and forth with Rome has gone on for nearly 20 years, Rome insisting that the priest and nun agree with every jot and tittle of an outmoded world-view, the two insisting that more nuance was necessary lest they say something that would jeopardize their credibility in the community they serve. In fact, that community holds them in the highest esteem, but has moved on to clearer, stronger affirmations of same sex love. Their work has sparked the work of others. The pressing needs of ministry trump ideology, whether progressive or conservative.

The Vatican erred this time, just as it erred earlier against Galileo. In the latter case it took centuries, but the church finally admitted its error and continued apace. In theology, time is measured in centuries, not years. I am confident that this error will be corrected, albeit long after Jeannine, Bob and I are dead. History is like that, and Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit prevails.

Mary E. Hunt holds a Ph.D., is a Catholic feminist theologian, the codirector of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual and an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown University.

National Catholic Reporter, August 13, 1999