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Gramick says no to Vatican silencing, expects dismissal

NCR Staff

Since being served in late May with a formal order of silence by Sr. Rosemary Howarth, the general superior of her religious order in Rome, Sr. Jeannine Gramick has purposefully moved toward expulsion from the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

“I expect to be dismissed,” Gramick said in a recent telephone interview. Gramick has said she is unable to cooperate with the order, issued by Howarth under pressure from the Vatican, to refrain from speaking about her experiences as a controversial minister to homosexuals.

“It is very serious to be put under formal obedience, because if you don’t do what is required you are dismissed,” Gramick said.

Terms of the latest Vatican directive, aimed at Gramick and Salvatorian Fr. Robert Nugent, her longtime coworker in ministry to homosexuals, were presented as a “clarification” of a ban on their pastoral work issued last July, though Gramick described it as an “expansion.” They were summoned to Rome to receive the directive, which prohibits them from:

  • Speaking or writing about the ban or the ecclesiastical processes that led up to it;
  • Speaking or writing on matters related to homosexuality;
  • Protesting against the ban or encouraging the faithful to publicly express dissent from the official magisterium;
  • Criticizing the magisterium in any public forum whatsoever concerning homosexuality or related issues.

Nugent has said he will comply with the Vatican order, thus assuring that he will remain a Salvatorian priest.

Gramick and Nugent founded New Ways Ministry, a ministry to homosexuals, in 1977. Cardinal James E. Hickey of Washington has expressed opposition to their work for nearly 20 years -- the approximate length of the Vatican investigation that led to last year’s ban and the recent silencing.

Gramick entered religious life at age 18. She said she deeply loves her community and has never questioned her vocation to religious life. To leave, she said, would be “to sever bonds and relationships that have developed over 40 years.”

Nevertheless, Gramick said, the order to be silent violates her conscience. “I feel that no one has the right to ask another person not to tell their own story to a group of people who are willing to listen.”

In a May 25 statement she said, “I choose not to collaborate in my own oppression by restricting a basic human right.”

Gramick said her provincial, Sr. Jane Burke of Baltimore, would be overseeing her activities.

Church laws governing religious life require that members accused of a grave offense -- including “stubborn disobedience to the legitimate prescripts of superiors in a grave matter” -- be given two solemn warnings at intervals of at least 15 days. If the warnings fail, the congregation’s leaders may vote by secret ballot for dismissal. Such actions must be approved by the Holy See. Members dismissed have a right of appeal to the Vatican office for religious, the same office that asked Nugent’s and Gramick’s communities to take action against them.

Dismissals or forced resignations have occurred regularly, if infrequently, in recent years. Formal orders of obedience have been rare since the Second Vatican Council. Rather, decisions arrived at by mutual agreement between a congregation’s leaders and members have become the norm.

Loretto Sr. Maureen Fiedler of Catholics Speak Out has urged Gramick’s superiors to write leaders of her order and urge them to stop cooperating with the Vatican. And Gramick herself criticized procedures that put the leaders of her order in the middle.

The recent Vatican directive has “put our community leaders in opposition to a member of the community,” she said, “and asks them to do violence to an individual that they don’t want to do. It has put us in an awful situation.”

Those familiar with such procedures, however, say using established chains of command is standard modus operandi for Vatican officials.

Howarth, speaking by telephone from Rome, said she had acted in keeping with her conscience and the complexity of the case. “I did call on Jeannine to live out her vow of obedience to the congregation, which is a congregation within the church,” she said. “Jeannine freely chose to live within the parameters of our congregation and the church.”

She added: “I know the church isn’t perfect, and neither are we. But it’s our responsibility to deal with Jeannine, so I chose to assume my authority and to accept my responsibility … in caring for the person of Jeannine and in caring for the international congregation. I cannot deal with Jeannine in isolation.”

Howarth added, “I want to recognize the positive aspects of Jeannine’s dedicated service.” The congregation, she said, “continues to support pastoral ministry to lesbian and gay persons. We exclude no one from our concerns and we do want to respond to the urgent needs of our time.”

Burke, Gramick’s provincial, said the disciplining of Gramick and Nugent could represent “a watershed moment” for the church. It is forcing religious congregations to deal with many “lateral issues,” she said, such as the call of men and women religious to “be a prophetic voice within the church,” and the responsibilities of leaders within that context.

“We’ve got to avoid the temptation to speak and act as if this were a single issue,” she said.

National Catholic Reporter, June 16, 2000