In Recent Book on Lesbian Nuns, Women Religious Continue to Break New Ground

The discussion of sexuality in the church should not be taboo, according to New Jersey priest Fr. Alexander Santora. In response to Love Tenderly, a compilation of 23 lesbian and queer nuns’ stories about coming to terms with their sexualities, Santora wrote that these stories reflect the current times and that religious women “continue to break new ground and lead the church by example.”

In February, Santora explained in Jersey Journal that he had never thought about the sexual orientation of religious sisters until he read both Love Tenderly (which is published by New Ways Ministry) and its ground-breaking predecessor, Lesbian Love, Breaking Silence, a 1985 anthology of 45 lesbian nuns’ stories. After reading these works, Santora said he changed.

“After reading two ground-breaking books about lesbian nuns,” he wrote in his column, he realized he had “internalized the historic shame for same-sex feelings.”

The 1985 book became an international sensation when it was published because, as Santora wrote, “the words ‘lesbian’ and ‘nun’ had never been uttered in the same sentence in such a public way before.”

Since then, religious life and formation has dramatically evolved. Santora commented:

Love Tenderly oozes with tolerance and sensitivity, not only by the sisters telling their sometimes painful coming-out stories, but also of more accepting religious leadership in their communities.”

In the past, women entering Catholic religious orders were encouraged to be friends with their fellow sisters, but be wary of “particular friendships,” (a code term for lesbian relationships) Santora explained. A woman religious who Santora wrote about under the pseudonym “Sister Petra” told him that “sex was never ever discussed” in the novitiate. Instead the formation focused on how to live a celibate life with other women.

When women did become intimate with other sisters, they were either shamed and sent to counseling or asked to leave the community.

These days, the novitiate is more “expansive and open,” according to Santora. Sr. Kathleen Tuite, OP, a 56 year-old Caldwell Dominican, who participated in programs offered by “Giving Voice,” a supportive space for young sisters from all over the country. This group lived out of a new understanding of church that centers around truth, social justice, and love, which Tuite said allowed lesbian and queer sisters to persevere in religious life and celibacy without shame.

In April, Santora wrote a follow-up column for the Jersey Journal and described the reactions he received to his February column. Most feedback was positive. One nun, however, expressed concern that his column appeared in a secular paper. Given the clergy sex abuse crisis, she worries that writing about lesbian nuns “seems to worsen the situation in the eyes of many of the faithful.”

Others sisters see it differently, though. One nun told Santora that the secular press can reach more people. The priest’s cousin Marlene Cunningham, a Catholic-educated lay person, commented:

“Wanting to keep such discussions out of the public forum is the same kind of thinking that causes lay people to be suspicious of the church, causing the public to believe or suspect untrue situations or situations being worse than they are.”

Sr. Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of New Ways Ministry and author of the foreword of Love Tenderly, responded to Santora’s February article:

“It (the column) explains well the difference in perceptions and acceptance of lesbian women in religious life now, as contrasted with 35 years ago when the first book about lesbian nuns appeared. The times have changed and so has the knowledge about sexuality on the part of most segments of U.S. society.”

Though religious life and formation has changed over the years, Blauvelt Dominican Sister Arlene Flaherty noted, “I would say there is still a lot of silence around sexuality in religious life.”

Santora agreed: 

“Flaherty got to the heart of the issue.

“‘Sexuality,’ she said, ‘no matter whose it is, will always get sensationalized. Put this reality together with people’s outdated image of nuns, the taboo that encircles this topic, and the ‘dis-ease’ that many men and women religious continue to experience in congregational discussion about sexuality, and you can understand why this topic is easy to misrepresent and blow out of proportion.’

“She considers the creation of spaces for open and respectful discussion and reflection on human sexuality, especially within the church community, ‘a way of living the gospel of justice.’”

According to Gramick, “a number of religious congregations are now planning programs about sexuality, LGBTQ issues, diversity, and the intersectionality of oppressions,” Santora reported.

“This book has ignited a spark that was ready to burst into flame,” she said.

For more information about Love Tenderly: Sacred Stories of Lesbian and Queer Religious or to order a copy, click here.

Beth Mueller Stewart, April 30, 2021

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