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Rome’s not-so-veiled power play


The Vatican’s most recent move to silence School Sister of Notre Dame Jeannine Gramick and Salvatorian Fr. Robert Nugent begs analysis. Most people think if you are silenced that is the end of it, but not in the current Roman thinking. In this case, silence on one issue apparently was not enough. Now Gramick and Nugent are prohibited from speaking out about the process involved in the first silencing and are warned not to encourage any of the rest of us to trouble Rome with our scruples about the matter.

The issue of homosexuality is no longer the centerpiece. Power and obedience have displaced it. Gramick and Nugent founded and served effectively as leaders of New Ways Ministry for many years, helping first lesbian and gay people, later their families and friends, to cope with homosexuality. Their efforts were part of the construction of a new Catholic context in which scholarly, personal and activist work has led many Catholics in the United States to claim that, like heterosexuality, homosexuality can be natural and holy when expressed in committed, responsible relationships.

Ironically, neither Gramick nor Nugent takes such a public stand. I wish they would and understand why they don’t, but it doesn’t keep others from doing so. I see the move to silence them further -- if that would be the linguistic contortion in English -- as a tacit admission that the Vatican has lost on the substantive issue of homosexuality and can now only “win” some credibility through brute force.

Of course not all Catholics agree about homosexuality, but so many people have come to know and love their gay sons and their lesbian neighbors that they have deeper questions about the church’s teachings and flagrantly unjust actions than they do about homosexuality. This move to silence good people is simply one more nail in the ecclesial coffin, a scandalous use of power that makes even those who oppose homosexuality join with its proponents in common cause against injustice. Homosexuality is now a decidedly secondary concern to Rome’s primary agenda, to compel a person’s conscience, and in so doing to shore itself up.

This latest move punishes not simply an individual but a whole community. Gramick was silenced on homosexuality, but now the School Sisters of Notre Dame are being put through a wrenching process that contradicts what it means to be a religious community. They are ordered to do the dirty work of enforcing the will of Rome on one of their own with the implied, and perhaps explicit, threat that if the current leaders do not act, others will be put in place who will. It is a not-so-veiled power play.

The hierarchical structure of the church relies on the cooperation of those down the pecking order to carry out the bidding of those on top. Nothing could be further from the collegial, egalitarian, mature, respectful models that many women’s religious communities have struggled to create since Vatican II.

Recent history provides at least one sterling example of women refusing to cooperate in their own oppression and living to tell the tale. When Srs. Barbara Ferraro and Patricia Hussey refused to retract or otherwise “regularize” their situation with Rome over The New York Times ad on reproductive health in the 1980s, their community was faced with a similar situation. When pushed to dismiss Ferraro and Hussey, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, to their credit, refused. The sun came up the next day. Admittedly, Ferraro and Hussey left the community of their own volition a short time later, so we do not know what the consequences might have been. But we do know that their sisters stood firm.

Gramick’s case is also about the whole church. Events like this silencing are straws that break camels’ backs. It would be easy to see this as one more anti-gay statement, as the bullying of one more woman like Ivone Gebara and others before her, or even a case of making an example of one community in order to keep the others terrified and in line. But I read it as more than that. I read it as a desperate effort to regain some semblance of control over a church that has taken its own council’s words to heart and head.

Everyone has choices to make, and we collectively have some as well. Do we want to live as a church in which human rights, like free speech, are abridged, or do we want to be a “discipleship of equals” wherein we discuss and discern? Do we want a church in which some are forced, threatened and punished, or do we want to learn to live with differences, gather around the table to share a meal among friends? Do we want raw power exerted to keep people in line, or the grace of the Spirit to prevail? Some choices are obvious.

Mary E. Hunt is a feminist theologian who is the co-director of WATER, the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, in Silver Spring, Md.

National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2000