CATHOLIC LGBT HISTORY: Catholics Meet on Gay Role in Clergy

“This Month in Catholic LGBT History” is Bondings 2.0’s  feature to educate readers of the rich history—positive and negative—that has taken place over the last four decades regarding Catholic LGBT equality issues.  We hope it will show people how far our Church has come, ways that it has regressed, and how far we still have to go.

Once a  month, Bondings 2.0 staff will produce a post on Catholic LGBT news events from the past 38 years.  We will comb through editions of Bondings 2.0’s predecessor: Bondings,  New Ways Ministry’s newsletter in paper format.   We began publishing Bondings in 1978. Unfortunately, because these newsletters are only archived in hard copies, we cannot link back to the primary sources in most cases. 

Catholics Meet on Gay Role in Clergy

It seems like you can’t open a Catholic periodical or look at a Catholic news website today without the subject of gay priests being discussed somewhere.  Unfortunately, the extra attention given this topic recently is because of the erroneous theory that gay priests are responsible for the clergy sex abuse crisis.  Totally false.

But almost 30 years ago, the topic of gay clergy, as well as lesbian sisters and gay religious brothers, was so unique that a day-long conference about these categories of people was the subject of articles in both The New York Times  and The Washington Post.  

On September 28, 1989, The New York Times ran a story entitled “Catholics Meet on Gay Role in Clergy,” reporting on a conference held the day before which had been organized by New Ways Ministry’s Sister Jeannine Gramick.  The event,  called “Our Lesbian and Gay Religious and Clergy”  attracted over 100 church ministers and professionals to learn about the reality of the lives of this somewhat unknown segment of the church.  The Times quoted Gramick on the purpose of the conference:

” ‘We in the church also need a coming out,’ said the organizer, Sister Jeannine Gramick, a School Sister of Notre Dame from Baltimore. ‘Just as parents say “I have a gay son and I’m proud of him,” so must the church declare that it is proud of its gay sons and lesbian daughters.’ “

The article also quoted several of the speakers at the event:

“David Berceli, a 35-year old Maryknoll brother from Ossining, N.Y., said it was important for him to identify as a homosexual because ‘that is how I encounter the world, as a sexual being.’

“He drew a distinction between sexuality and sex, saying that sexuality could express itself in tenderness or in an esthetic sensibility, while sex was the biological function of the genitals. . . .

“Sister Mary Louise St. John, 46, a Benedictine sister from Erie, Pa., said ‘To alienate my lesbian identity from the identity of the Godness within me would be to dismember myself.’ . . .

“Rev. Richard Cardarelli, 38, a Capuchin friar from Middletown, Ct., told of his struggle to reconcile his homosexuality and his love for God. It was a journey, he said, that took him from shame, to trying to find solace in alcohol, to a suicide attempt and finally a belief that he could express both parts of himself. ‘I am proud and grateful to be a priest and a gay man, he said.’ “

The article reported that among the attendees were the Vicars of Religious from the Archdiocese of New York, the Brooklyn Diocese, and the Diocese of Rockville Centre.  The meeting was held at Graymoor, an Atonement friars retreat center in Garrison, N.Y.

Dr. John Boswell

The keynote speaker was Dr. John Boswell, a Yale University historian who pioneered the study of gay Catholic history with his landmark 1980 book, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality.  Boswell told the audience that there is historical evidence that the clergy always had a large gay sector.  The article summarized some of his points:

“The convent and monastery, he said, offered homosexuals a refuge from marriage, the only other option open to men and women in medieval times.

“Some of the ‘greatest love letters ‘ that remain from the medieval period, Dr. Boswell said, were written from one ‘lovesick’ nun to another.

” ‘What gay people have given religious life is incalculable–2,000 years of religious service,” he said. “

The Washington Post covered the conference two weeks later with an October 14, 1989, story entitled, “Gay Priests, Nuns Weigh How to Reconcile Sexuality With Demands of Church.” The story quoted the same speakers as above, though it captured different thoughts from them:

Sr. Mary Louise St. John said:  “The church has inflicted much pain and oppression on those who are homosexual. . . ” But, she added, “at its Gospel best,” the church “can leave the dialogue open.  . . .

“Berceli dwelled on a  theme that appeared very important for Cardarelli and St. John–that to be truly celibate, it is necessary, both for homosexuals and heterosexuxals, to be in touch with their sexuality. . . . True celibacy, he said, cannot be achieved if sexuality is simply avoided or denied. He distinguished between ‘those who are not having sex and those who are celibate.’

Rev. Richard Cardarelli said, “I believe in the truth of the hierarchy and I believe in the gay and lesbian community, and I am trying to stand with both.”

The  Washington Post closed with an optimistic assessment of the future from Dr. John Boswell:

“Boswell said he believes the Catholic Church will slowly come to be more accepting of homosexuality, perhaps by the end of the next century, even permitting liturgical ceremonies honoring commitments between people of the same sex.”

This conference was the first public one of its kind, though there had previously been many retreats for lesbian nuns and gay priests and brothers, organized by Communication Ministry, Inc. (CMI), which has since closed its doors.  New Ways Ministry continues trying to support lesbian nuns and gay priests, brothers, and deacons with annual programs of support and education.  Visit New Ways Ministry’s resource page on “Religious Life Issues” for more information, or learn about two upcoming programs on these topics by clicking here and here.

Almost thirty years after this groundbreaking conference, its clear that the church still has much to learn about some of its most dedicated religious community members and clergy–the ones who are lesbian or gay.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, September 30, 2018




3 replies
  1. Friends
    Friends says:

    It’s great to see an appreciation of the groundbreaking work of the noted Yale historian, Dr. John Boswell. He didn’t arrive at Yale until a couple of years after I had completed my own graduate work there (in 1972), so I missed the opportunity to meet and chat with him. But I urge all of our readers to go to the very detailed Wikipedia overview of his extensive research on the great variety of human sexual identities and self-expressions. Here’s the URL link:

    Yes, he really was a ravishingly handsome devil — in the best and most playful sense. It’s a shame that we lost him to AIDS, so early in his blossoming life.

  2. Friends
    Friends says:

    And if I may be forgiven the impudent presumption of following up my own post with yet another personal post, here’s the link to an extraordinary series of fond remembrances of John, written by the people who were closest to him:

    Perhaps most astonishing to us is the fact that he was a loyal and devoted practicing Catholic, for most of his adult life. Some paradoxes defy rational explanation. But what’s abundantly clear is that he was a deeply loved and cherished man. “In Paradisum Deducant Te Angeli”.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *