In an essay for The National Catholic Reporter’s “Global Sisters Report,” New Ways Ministry’s co-founder, Sister Jeannine Gramick, tells a story about LGBT ministry in the Catholic Church that needs to be told, re-told, and re-told again: Catholic nuns have been LGBT people’s strongest supporters among institutional church people.
Having been involved in Catholic LGBT issues for going on 47 years, Sister Jeannine has a perspective that few in the church have. Based on her own experiences and her observations of many LGBT activities, she asserts confidently, what a Protestant lesbian minister recently said to her: “I knew that the Sisters were on our side!”
Catholic nuns’ support of LGBT people needs to be repeated over and over again because there is a great presumption on the part of many in the world that nuns, based on the misguided stereotype of them present in the media, are strict and repressive. Definitely not true. I wish the image of nuns as compassionate and justice-seeking people would replace the old and idiotic image of nuns that still gets repeated.
In her essay, Sister Jeannine notes that her initial entry into LGBT ministry back in 1971 was able to happen only because the sisters in her community guided and supported her:
“My LGBT ministry was certainly not ‘mine.’ It belonged to ‘the sisters.’ My congregational leaders had vision, imagination and foresight. They were readers, thinkers and women of action who tapped into needs that had been too long neglected by our church. From the 1970s, three successive provincial leaders of the School Sisters of Notre Dame assigned me to lesbian/gay ministry. (At that time, there was no discussion or awareness of transgender issues in the Catholic community.)”
And the sisters supported her even when the going got “rough”:
“They were strong women who did not flinch in the face of numerous complaints from lay Catholics and some bishops and cardinals. In those days, Catholics were not as accepting of lesbian/gay people as they are today. The Vatican lodged three requests for internal investigations, but all provincials and three General Superiors continued to support this new ministry.”
The support of nuns has also been evident in a variety of public actions, beyond the ministry that Sister Jeannine has conducted. She recounts a number of strong examples:
“[T]he first Catholic organization to support gay and lesbian persons was the National Coalition of American Nuns. The board of this small, grassroots nuns’ group publicly called for civil rights for gay and lesbian people back in 1974. The organization also publicly supported the right of same-sex couples to marry and spoke out against bullying of LGBT people.
“Since the late 1990s, sisters have ministered among transgender people, healing spirits and saving lives. Members of several congregations including the Eucharistic Missionaries of St. Dominic, Racine Dominicans, Dominican Sisters of Peace, and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet have companioned transgender people and their families on this sacred journey. Through a ministry of presence and accompaniment, the sisters have welcomed transgender folks into their lives and been welcomed in return. The sisters’ basic message is that God loves them for who they are. . . .
“The sisters’ support has not been only on a private level. Last year, a Catholic teacher in San Francisco came out as transgender and had the public backing of the Sisters of Mercy who operated the high school. Shortly thereafter the Sisters of St. Agnes in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, organized a public prayer vigil after the rampant shooting of LGBT people at an Orlando night club. Six months later, the Sisters of the Congregation of Mother Carmel in India offered their buildings for a school for transgender people who had dropped out because of the psychological trauma they experienced. . . .
“So many women religious have affirmed the goodness of LGBT students or strangers. Sisters have opened their motherhouses and retreat centers for LGBT programs. Many have signed petitions, demonstrated, or written letters of complaint when LGBT people are fired from Catholic institutions. Some have marched in solidarity in gay pride parades. Sisters have been part of the LGBT struggle in the past; they are their allies today. And, as this conference made me so very aware, sisters give LGBT people much hope for the future.”
The list could go on and on, and it would include the fact that the Vatican’s investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious was based, in part, on the women’s support of LGBT people.
The story of nuns’ commitment to LGBT justice is not surprising when one realizes that the motivation for much of the ministry of women religious is relationship and encounter, not authority and restrictive tradition. Women religious develop their ministerial agendas based on whom they encounter, and with whom the enter into dialogue. Sister Jeannine illustrates this concept with a story from Sister Mary Zollman, BVM, who described having a discussion with a bishop about homosexuality where she was told that the phrase “intrinsically disordered” to describe homosexuality came from the natural law. Zollman reflected on that moment:
“I found myself tapping into a place of grief and alienation. In my heart’s eye, I saw faces of men and women I know whose sexual orientation is gay or lesbian and who live compassionately, justly yearning for a return of compassion and justice on the part of a church they love. I thought of men and women whose passion for wholeness in relationship is lived in deep commitment to life-long same-sex partners. I heard deep in my own being, their struggle to find a home in our church. … Around that meeting table, I was compelled to speak on their behalf, to tell the story of the beauty of their relationships, and to offer an alternative ethic of sexuality.”
The Sisters’ ministry of presence and support for LGBT people long pre-dates the newer ministry paradigm of encounter and dialogue that Pope Francis is trying to usher into the church. Other church leaders can learn a lot from the wealth of experience that women religious have in welcoming LGBT people and witnessing for justice for them.
Sister Jeannine points out in her essay that the nuns have been an important part of the history of the Catholic LGBT movement. For all they have done, continue to do, and will do, a heartfelt thank you goes out to them all.
—Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, January 5, 2018