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Gramick: silencing inappropriate

NCR Staff

When the Vatican’s doctrinal office moved two years ago to end a popular Catholic public ministry to homosexuals in the United States, it provoked a new round of discussion around the issue of silencing in the church.

“Silencing is just not an appropriate technique for the Catholic church,” said School Sister of Notre Dame Jeannine Gramick in a recent interview. “It’s embarrassing personally and it’s embarrassing to all of us who want to present a good image of the church to the public.”

In July 1999 the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ordered Gramick and her partner in ministry, Salvatorian Fr. Robert Nugent, to cease their work with homosexuals. Communicating its directive through Gramick’s and Nugent’s respective superiors general in Rome, the Vatican further ordered the pair to remain silent on two points: the church’s teaching on homosexuality and the process that led to the Vatican’s ban on their ministry.

Since then, women religious in three different areas of the United States have organized three forums on silencing, the third to be held in Albuquerque, N.M., on May 18. The first was held Oct. 28 in New York; the second April 28 in Denver.

Gramick, who spoke at the first two, intends to address the Albuquerque session. Its sponsors are a local group of Franciscan Sisters of Rochester, Minn., the Center for Action and Contemplation, Call to Action of New Mexico, and Border-Women’s Group, El Paso, Texas.

The New York forum came about because Blauvelt, N.Y., Dominican Sr. Arlene Flaherty, the forum’s organizer, was preparing for a meeting of Dominican justice promoters when she read an article on Gramick’s silencing.

Flaherty said she was “horrified” that Gramick had been silenced for “embracing her right as a Catholic Christian to honor her conscience,” as well as by the lack of due process in the Vatican’s dealings with Gramick and Nugent, and particularly by the fact “that the church appeared to be using Gramick’s relationship with her religious congregation as a wedge” to discipline her.

Said Flaherty, “That made many of us, deeply committed to religious life and struggling to live it within the church, feel extremely vulnerable about the sacredness of our relationship to our religious communities in whose hands we make our vows.

“And we were deeply concerned, too,” she continued, “about the homophobia I feel is a subtext to all this, and the fact that (Gramick’s and Nugent’s) silencing was yet another message to our brothers and sisters who are gay and lesbian and bisexual that we are not honoring their God-given sexuality in our ministry.”

More than 90 men and women religious and laymen and women, straight and gay, attended the ritual and presentation in Union Theological Seminary chapel.

The forum issued a detailed public statement, “We Affirm, We Resist, We Insist” (published in NCR, Dec. 8).

Loretto Sr. Anna Koop, organizer of the Denver forum, held at the Iliff School of Theology, described the forum as “reasoned and gentle.” Loretto Sr. Elaine Prevallet told the 90-plus people present that “I speak as a reasonably well-informed person in the pew for whom faith is not a matter of accepting truths but rather an ongoing, open-ended process of deepening my own relationship to life.”

Prevallet added: “We’re faced with the age-old tension between priests and prophets among the people of God, of the ambivalence of the official status of religious communities and the larger question: How does the church discern the authenticity of its prophets?”

The first two forums answered that question ritually by opening with a representation of Christians who have been silenced. They included such historic luminaries as Galileo, Joan of Arc and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

“When teaching comes from a structure that is inherently exclusive,” Prevallet said, “and proposes to control the thinking of intelligent men and women, and holds both this exclusive structure and its pronouncements to be a matter of faith under the aegis of divine revelation, then the church does not lend itself to intelligent scrutiny.”

Gramick, in an interview before the Albuquerque meeting, told NCR that her own research into church teaching on freedom of expression shows that silencing is not considered “an appropriate technique” in dealing with controversial issues.

Her favored quotation is from the 1971 Synod of Bishops’ document Justice in the World, which declares, she said, that “the church recognizes everyone’s right to suitable freedom of expression, and this includes the right of everyone to be heard in a spirit of dialogue which preserves a legitimate diversity within the church.” Gramick said, “people question the reasonableness of the technique of silencing in this day and age.”

The titles of the three gatherings subtly pose the same question.

The New York session was “Speaking of Silence: A Forum.” Denver’s was called, “Silencing: the Conversation Continues.” And in Albuquerque it was “Silencing in the Catholic Church: Necessary or Counter-Productive?”

National Catholic Reporter, May 18, 2001