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Living with silence

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

The past 18 months haven’t been easy for Sr. Jeannine Gramick, whose ministry to gay Catholics has been cut off by the Vatican. But Gramick, a School Sister of Notre Dame, says she has been able to find some silver linings in what has otherwise been a period of grief and sadness.

After close to three decades of service to the gay and lesbian community, Gramick and her co-worker, Salvatorian Fr. Bob Nugent, were sanctioned by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in July of 1999. The pair is permanently prohibited from any pastoral work with lesbian or gay persons, and both are ineligible, for an unspecified period, for any office in their respective religious communities.

Yet, Gramick says, the penalties have raised awareness of their work.

“Even though I might not be doing direct service to lesbian and gay people, just speaking about what has happened has raised the issue in the public arena,” Gramick said, “and it has put it on the church’s agenda much more front and center, so in that sense it has been of service to lesbian and gay people.

“So really the Vatican in July of 1999, even though it sanctioned both Bob and myself -- and it was a terrible blow -- in the long run it prompted the Catholic community to talk about the issue of homosexuality when they wouldn’t have before,” she said.

The Vatican notification said Gramick and Nugent have, “from the beginning” of their ministry, “continually called central elements of [the church’s] teaching into question” -- promoting “ambiguous positions on homosexuality” and criticizing documents of the magisterium.

In May of this year, Gramick, 58, and Nugent, 63, received additional restrictions from their religious communities, sanctions Gramick has openly opposed. Nugent has decided to fully comply with both the Vatican and his order’s guidelines.

The second set of “obediences” that Gramick received from her superior general in Rome prohibit her from speaking publicly about the Vatican’s notification process, prohibit her from criticizing the magisterium regarding homosexuality or related issues, prohibit her from speaking or writing about the topic of homosexuality, and forbid her from “enticing the faithful to protest in my regard,” Gramick said.

After the initial Vatican notification, Gramick traveled the country speaking about the restrictions and asking people to express their opinions on the matter to the Vatican. “The Vatican got thousands and thousands of letters,” Gramick said. “I was told that the Vatican was alarmed by the letters that they were receiving on our behalf.”

Gramick thinks those letters led to the Vatican asking her religious superiors to further restrict her speech.

Nugent and Gramick began working together in 1971 after Nugent had read about Gramick’s work with gays and lesbians and sent her a letter of support. Two days later, Gramick contacted Nugent and asked for his help. Some of the gay Catholics Gramick was working with wanted to speak with a priest. The two eventually founded New Ways Ministry and began leading workshops throughout the country calling for a more loving acceptance of gay Catholics in the greater church community. As per the Vatican notification, both Gramick and Nugent no longer lead workshops on homosexuality. Nugent said he still accepts invitations “for conversation” in small-group settings about his experiences, and he continues his sacramental ministry and personal one-to-one counseling.

Like past theologians who have been silenced by the Vatican, Nugent hopes his cooperation with the obediences might eventually lead to a reversal or modification of the restrictions. Canon lawyers have given him some cause for optimism. “One of the things that I hope my obedience will precipitate is a reconsideration of the decision, say, when we get a new pope,” Nugent said.

Canon lawyers said Nugent can request reconsideration when there is new leadership. “Disciplinary actions and punishments, I understand, die with the pope, and they would have to be reconfirmed by a new administration.” Nugent said his community could petition a new pope to lift the censure or modify it. “That’s what I’m hoping for,” he said. “That’s my game plan, anyway. Whether it’s going to materialize or not, I don’t know. If I didn’t accept [the obediences] and cooperate, there’d be no chance for that at all. I think I would just kind of be sealing my own fate. I’m hoping that my silence and obedience will help me in the future to have the case reconsidered and perhaps the decision reversed or even modified.”

Gramick, who is not fully complying with the sanctions, said she is also hoping for a change of heart by church officials, but she continues to accept invitations to speak about her journey, answering questions in areas in which she has been restricted. “I choose not to collaborate with my own oppression,” Gramick said. “I have been speaking on silencing, which is not the [Vatican] notification. I have been speaking about the role of public minister in the church. I’ve been speaking about conscience. So any of those topics do not violate the notification, but when I speak, if people ask me questions about the notification or homosexuality, then I do answer. I see myself complying, but not complying passively” to the ban on retreats or workshops for lesbian or gay people or their parents. That’s the extent of the ban of July of 1999.

“The May obediences from our superior generals went farther,” Gramick said. “And it’s those obediences that I think infringe upon my freedom of speech. ... I want to be clear that I still see myself complying with the notification from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, although not passively. I still have hopes that it will be reconsidered and lifted, because I do believe it was an unfair decision because it was based on unfair processes.”

The silencing has also resulted in Gramick’s having to change her focus away from pastoral work with gays and lesbians to that of church reformer. Gramick has devoted a lot of her time to studying the social documents of the church as they apply to freedom of expression and the primacy of conscience. “I have learned more about the absolute importance of conscience decisions, that that’s how we grow as individuals in the faith,” she said. “Hopefully these decisions are congruent with what our church calls us to, our church leaders call us to and the community calls us to, but they may not be. It’s important that we make conscience decisions, because I think in that struggle, in coming to a conscience decision, that’s where we meet our God and we grow in our faith relationship, our love relationship, with God.”

Gramick presented her views on free expression and conscience in a speech, titled, “The Place of Silencing in the Teaching of the Church,” delivered at Haverford College in Philadelphia on Sept. 16, 2000. “Secrecy and control guard against change and foster the status quo,” Gramick said in her address. “Without freedom of expression on religious views within the church itself, the community risks the danger of perpetuating erroneous views, such as its former position on slavery. Without freedom of expression, thought itself is stifled.”

In the battle between obedience and conscience, Gramick cited the scripture passage in the Acts of the Apostles (5:28) when the Sanhedrin arrest the apostles and the high priest rebukes them for “disobeying the silencing order already imposed” to not teach in Jesus’ name. “Gamaliel, a member of the council that passed judgment on Peter and the apostles, advised the Sanhedrin to take no punitive action,” Gramick said. “Gamaliel counseled: ‘My advice is that you have nothing to do with these men. Let them alone. If their purpose or activity is human in its origin, it will destroy itself. If, on the other hand, it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them without fighting God herself’ ” (Acts 5:38-39).

“Gamaliel’s famous words intimate that silencing should not be employed to suppress dissension or radical views on the grounds that a movement or idea will collapse on its own merit if it is not from God,” Gramick said. She also quoted from the 1971 encyclical, “Justice in the World”: “The church recognizes everyone’s right to suitable freedom of expression and thought. This includes the right of everyone to be heard in a spirit of dialogue which preserves a legitimate diversity within the church.”

While she sees a silver lining from the attention her case is receiving, Gramick is also coping with grief and a sense of alienation from the church and the religious order of which she has been a member for 40 years. “I am very much in a state of grieving,” Gramick said, adding that many of her contemporaries in the School Sisters of Notre Dame are also upset by the community’s decision to impose additional sanctions on Gramick. “I think many of them are in a state of grieving, and I think many of them are in a state of denial,” Gramick said. “When I say denial I mean not even able -- I don’t mean not willing -- but not even able to talk about what has happened. They’re grieving for me, and many of them, I think, are grieving and fearful for the whole congregation.”

Gramick, who said she was advised by a superior to refrain from granting an interview for this report, said she is required to provide monthly updates of her activities to a superior. In these meetings, Gramick said she has been advised that she has violated the community’s obediences, which could result in her receiving a canonical warning. After a second canonical warning, the general council of the community would vote on whether to dismiss Gramick from the order.

To date, Gramick has not received a warning. “The community leaders have that right to give me the canonical warning, but there’s no specification in canon law as to when it would be given,” Gramick said.

Nugent said he admires Gramick for her stance. “It certainly takes a lot of courage to take the step that she has taken,” he said. “I couldn’t do it. I could not live with the conflict and the stress that her position has evoked and is bound to evoke. I’m just not made that way that I could continue that constant struggle and stress.”

Gramick says her prayer life, and the belief that God is in control, have given her the sustenance to endure her trials and tribulations. “As time goes on, I am growing more at peace with God’s will,” she said. “Whatever happens happens.” If she is dismissed from her religious order, “that would be terrible,” she said. “I have faced that in prayer, and I’m not going to fall apart. I have gained so much strength through my prayer life. I think I have been showered with God’s graces. I can’t tell you how many retreats I’ve made. Sometimes during the day I just think about God, and I feel God’s protective arms around me.”

National Catholic Reporter, January 5, 2001