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At Call to Action, stories show softer side to disputes

NCR Staff

A quiet irony was at work when two women religious, known primarily for their celebrated jousts with Rome, took the stage during the opening session of the recent Call to Action national conference in Milwaukee.

Two stories emerged that shed light on a different, human side of the disputes that School Sister of Notre Dame Jeannine Gramick and Mercy Sr. Theresa Kane have had with the institution. The two continue to work on behalf of reform issues, but the tales that surfaced showed that behind deep disagreements may be room for moments of accord and respect between those on opposite sides of divisive issues in the church.

The stories represented a kind of alternative leaven for a conference that otherwise maintained its historically edgy relationships with the church, through its persistent calls for renewal and reform, and with the world, through its growing commitment to themes of justice and human rights.

The tales surfaced in different ways. In the case of Gramick, it was through a public recounting at the opening night session of the conference, which drew more than 3,000 from around the country to the Midwest Express Convention Center in downtown Milwaukee.

Kane’s account, on the other hand, circulated primarily through her religious community and, gradually, to a wider public.

The evening opened with Kane receiving Call to Action’s 1999 Leadership Award in a presentation that recalled her welcome, on behalf of religious women, to the pope during his first trip to the United States in 1979. Kane at the time was president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and urged the pope to open “all ministries of our church to women.” The award recognized the significance of that moment in spurring wide discussion of the topic of ordination of women and women’s rights generally within the church.

In the 20 years since, in every recounting of that encounter before 5,000 sisters at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, the two are cast as combatants. And there is substantial reason for that perception. Pope John Paul II has attempted to remove the matter of women’s ordination from even the remotest consideration, while Kane and others remain unceasing advocates of women’s rights within the church, including ordination.

So Kane, who now teaches at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., and volunteers at a Bronx shelter for women and children, said she was moved, after all these years, to receive a personal greeting from the pope. “I was surprised, pleasantly surprised. It was a pleasant greeting to receive,” she said.

As Kane, who confirmed the story and elaborated for NCR, tells it, Sr. Sharon Euart, associate general secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and also a Mercy Sister, was with a group of U.S. bishops who met in October of 1998 with the pope in Rome. The pope, when he was told that Euart was a Mercy sister, asked if she knew Sr. Kane. When she said yes, the pope asked about Kane, if she was still active and what she was doing. Euart reportedly told the pope what she knew, and then he said, “Give my regards to Sr. Kane.”

Some time later, when the meeting was ending and goodbyes were being said, Pope John Paul took Euart’s hand and told her to remember his message and “be sure to give Sr. Kane my greetings.”

Euart confirmed that she had conveyed the message, but said that while she had no objection to Kane telling the story, she felt constrained from adding any details for press reports because she “considered it a private exchange at the time.” The story, however, was told in detail earlier this year when the Mercy sisters held their chapter meeting in St. Louis.

Gramick told of a serendipitous or perhaps providential encounter. Earlier this year, Gramick and Salvatoran Fr. Robert Nugent were banned by order of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, from any pastoral work with gay and lesbian Catholics. The ruling was the culmination of nearly two decades of intense scrutiny by church leaders in the United States and in Rome. Gramick said she would attempt to have the ruling reversed.

The story Gramick tells occurred about a year before the ruling on a flight from Rome to Munich. She had visited Rome to meet with her superior to pray and discuss how to respond to the latest exchange in the long legal process.

The two decided to visit the grave of the order’s founder in Munich.

On the plane they saw a man dressed in a black suit, who looked like Cardinal Ratzinger, but who was not wearing a Roman collar or other clearly clerical garb.

The seats next to the man were empty, so Gramick, curious, sat down and began chatting. She asked if he was a priest, and he said yes. She said she was a School Sister of Notre Dame from the United States.

He said he knew the order because his father’s sister was a member.

“And what is her name?” asked Gramick.

“Ratzinger,” was the response.

“I’m Sister Jeannine Gramick,” she said.

“Ah, I’ve known you for 20 years,” he replied.

The Austrian cardinal and the U.S. nun then had a conversation that Gramick describes as “delightful.”

“He was very gracious,” she said. The conversation covered her past as a mathematician and her awareness in the late 1970s of the deep alienation of gay and lesbian Catholics and the need for a ministry to them.

She and her superior were going to Munich in pursuit of a miracle, she said. She mused that perhaps the chance meeting with Ratzinger was a miracle all its own. In the years of answering questions for the Vatican, Gramick and her order had repeatedly asked for a meeting with Ratzinger.

“But that’s not part of the process,” Gramick told the Call to Action gathering. She said that several times during their conversation Ratzinger called their meeting “providence” and “providential.”

“I believe he was doing what he thought was right, just as I am doing what I think is right,” she told the assembly.

Despite the ultimate ruling, she urged her listeners to refrain from “demonizing” those who are on opposing sides of issues. The meeting, she said in a later interview, “put a human face on the institution” and convinced her that she “can’t let ideological differences put a distance between Catholics.” She said she “can’t attribute unworthy motives” to those who oppose her. “They are just as sincere as we are.”

Instead, she said, Catholics “have to raise up how processes within the church don’t reflect human values.” People should work, she said, to change the structures that prohibit dialogue and end up excluding people who challenge authority.

To that end, she said, she will continue to appeal the ruling and to talk about her case and the issue of gay and lesbian Catholics.

If there was an air of rapprochement in the Kane and Gramick stories, it did not blunt the call for reform, a call that would appear to be picking up momentum in membership numbers and financial support for the organization.

According to Call to Action officials, the organization, headquartered in Chicago and highly concentrated in the Midwest, is at its highest membership level ever, approximately 20,500, with a geographic spread that keeps increasing each year. This year alone saw expansion of chapters in Texas, Washington, New Mexico, New York and Indiana, with informal groups in various stages of development in Georgia, North Carolina and Missouri.

A $500,000 fund drive, named in honor of Patty Crowley of Chicago, a leading church reform figure, has already crossed the $400,000 mark as the public phase of the campaign begins.

The fund will help the organization with regional development as well as with outreach to ethnic groups and young people and with establishing an international network.

A strong call for renewal came from Bishop Raymond Lucker of New Ulm, Minn., who, during one of the workshops, referred to those attending the conference as “holy people of God”

A central question today, he said, is “how do we foster a more adequate dialogue concerning many of the serious pastoral concerns that we face as a church?”

He cited changes in past church teachings. For instance, the teaching that once held that the human race began with Adam and Eve eventually changed to accept the possibility that humanity may have developed as a group at an unspecific moment “at the dawn of creation.” The first teaching was promulgated in 1950 in an encyclical that stated, according to Lucker, “that once a teaching on a controversial matter is declared by an encyclical, the issue is closed. Fifteen years later it was changed.”

That was also the case with teaching that held “that membership in the church of Jesus Christ is made up of those who are Roman Catholics.” Again, at the Second Vatican Council that teaching was changed to speak of membership in the church as broader than just the Roman Catholic church.

“We have come to realize that popes in encyclicals and in official teachings have made mistakes,” he said.

Earlier he emphasized, “We’re not speaking here about infallible teaching. Dissent from that would be heresy. We’re not speaking here about definitive teaching. The opposite of that would be error. What we’re talking about is authoritative teachings, which is another way of saying this is the best we can do at this point.”

Disagreement with such teachings including “ordination of married men or the involvement of women in every aspect of church life and ministry” will lead to dissent, he said.

While dissent has taken on negative connotations, it can be good for the church. “A thoughtful critic is a friend. And yes, dissent within the church has pastoral and doctrinal, practical limits. But within that framework, dissent can play a very healthy role in the life of the church.”

Lucker added that central to any renewal would have to be reform of the Roman curia, which he termed “one of the obstacles to the ongoing reform of the church.”

National Catholic Reporter, November 19, 1999