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Gramick speaks; others silenced

Special Projects Writer

NCR Staff

In her first public presentation since she was permanently banned last July from ministering to gay and lesbian persons, School Sister of Notre Dame Jeannine Gramick charged that the Vatican had trampled on established, well-founded church policies and procedures in its investigation of her and Fr. Robert Nugent.

She spoke at DePaul University in Chicago Oct. 11 before an audience that was mostly students and highly supportive. The talk indicated the general thrust of the argument she intends to present in a yearlong effort to overturn the ban. She cited a barrage of accepted authorities, including popes, ecumenical councils, international synods, canon law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church to drive home her points.

Vatican II, the reform council of the early 1960s, teaches, she said, “that anyone who speaks about justice in the world should be fair and just in their own life. The church was less than fair in its dealings with us.”

Gramick spoke at DePaul four days after Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George opened a gathering of the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministry with an order that the organization not discuss the cases of Nugent and Gramick.

The order was accepted by the group’s leadership but caused one speaker to question whether, given such restrictions, the organization has a reason to exist.

At DePaul, Gramick cited four general areas in which, she argued, the Vatican violated church rights and even basic civil rights.

• Subsidiarity: The principle that a higher agency or court should not interfere in the competency of a lower one was well established by Pope Pius XI, Vatican II and other authorities, noted Gramick. She said that principle was followed in 1982 and 1985 when the Vatican asked her own religious order to investigate her ministry.

In both cases, the School Sisters of Notre Dame found no cause for concern. Instead of accepting that decision or approaching the next higher authority (the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, for instance), the Vatican began in 1989 its own probe through the Sacred Congregation for Religious.

“My religious order,” said Gramick, “never received any thanks for their investigation or any indication whether the Vatican accepted or rejected their findings.” The decision to launch a new probe from the top could mean either that her order’s study was not vigorous enough or that “they didn’t come to the right conclusion.” In any event, she said, the launching of a new probe strayed far from church commitment to subsidiarity.

• Judicial Process: The 1971 Synod of Bishops spoke eloquently on the rights of accused persons to be given adequate defense and to know their accusers, Gramick said. Yet, she noted, Cardinal Adam Maida, head of the Vatican’s three-member investigating body, refused to identify any of the accusers (referred to only as “bishops and others”). Later, after she protested, Gramick said, Maida admitted that of some 300 letters the Vatican had received concerning her and Nugent’s work, all but 10 supported their case -- and two of the 10 were from Cardinal James Hickey who had banned their work in his Washington, D.C, archdiocese in 1984.

In addition, she said, it appeared that she and Nugent were in double jeopardy in the probe since Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was also involved from the beginning and indeed took over the probe in 1995.

• Conscience: Gramick cited the Catechism’s lofty presentation of conscience as a “sacred” and private “sanctuary” that cannot be violated. However, she said, when she and Nugent replied to charges that their books contained “dangerous and erroneous” propositions, Maida’s investigation turned from its original intent -- a study of their public presentations -- into an invasion of conscience. Both were asked to sign a formula of faith designed by the Vatican that said they believed that homosexual acts are intrinsically immoral.

Gramick refused, claiming her work as a bridge between the gay and lesbian community and the institutional church precluded her from divulging publicly her personal beliefs. While Catholic ministers may be required to state their assent to “essential or core doctrines,” she said, they cannot be so obligated on lesser ones.

• Development of Doctrine: The Vatican’s apparent “underlying concern” throughout the investigation, said Gramick, was that she and Nugent were determined to change church teaching on homosexuality. When quizzed about this by Maida, she said, she explained that she always presented the official church position as well as other views but added her conviction that the church “must always be open to new data” coming from the social and physical sciences and from human experience. Clearly, doctrine does develop, Gramick told the audience, citing church views on usury, slavery, the ends of marriage and human freedom as examples of teachings that underwent total change. In the case of homosexuality, “the doctrine has already developed,” she said. “Today most Catholic moral theologians hold that homosexual activity in a loving, committed relationship is not morally wrong.”

It was her willingness to talk about the issue in all its implications that so disturbed the Vatican, said Gramick. “Some have told me they’re killing the messenger because they didn’t like the message.”

The Gramick and Nugent case may have been on the minds of many at the meeting of the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Gay and Lesbian Ministries, but not much was said after George gave his opening remarks.

“I have explained to my liaison to AGLO (the Chicago Archdiocesan Gay and Lesbian Outreach) that the direction and climate of this conference should make clear the purpose of this ministry -- to help those who identify themselves, in their own hearts and also publicly, as homosexual, to live chastely with the respect and the encouragement of the church,” he said, reading prepared remarks.

“As sons and daughters of the church, you accept the directives of the Holy See; specifically, this conference cannot be used to criticize or mount a movement against the recent clarification of the work of Fr. Nugent and Sr. Gramick.”

George went on to warn that the meeting “could not be a gathering place for Dignity and others who are publicly opposed to church teaching.” Dignity is a Catholic advocacy group for gays and lesbians that has publicly opposed some church teachings on homosexuality.

Earlier in his remarks, George repeated church teaching prohibiting homosexual sexual activity because “the gift of human sexuality is oriented toward uniting a man and woman in marriage for life, for their own unity in Christ and for the giving of new life to children.” It would be an impossible teaching to live, he said, “if Christ himself … did not give us the means to live according to the gospel.”

He said there are some “who do not believe you can or want to live chastely. … I believe they are wrong; but only you can show that to be true, because only each of you can ask God for the grace to live authentically in Christ Jesus, our savior.”

Dominican Fr. Bruce Williams, who was part of a group from New England attending the conference, in remarks to the convention the day following George’s appearance, painted a gloomy future for the organization.

“In terms of the parameters which the cardinal has indicated to us, I’m going to say very bluntly that the future of NACDLGM seems to me to be very questionable.”

Williams said that if the “clear purpose” of the group, as articulated by George, is to “help homosexual people live chastely according to the sexual teachings of the magisterium,” it would simply be duplicating the efforts of another group called Courage.

Courage, the brainchild of Oblate of St. Francis de Sales Fr. John Harvey, advocates chastity and also encourages gays and lesbians to get involved in programs that claim to be able to change sexual orientation.

“If we’re not just a reduplication of Courage, then how do we ‘explain who we are and make clear our distinct purpose and goals in the church’ as Cardinal George said we must do when we ask the National Conference of Bishops for another episcopal moderator?”

In a telephone interview following the meeting, Williams said he sympathized with the leadership of the organization who effectively pre-empted George’s comments with instructions to the assembly that the conference was not the place for activism.

“I’m in no way critical of the leadership. I very definitely understand the position the leadership is in. They are in a very threatened situation right now,” he said. “I know there has been strong criticism of this organization from John Harvey,” he said, as well as criticism from some U.S. bishops and the hierarchy in Rome.

Williams said he had no answer for the future. But he said he did not think it was necessary to order the convention to be silent about Nugent and Gramick. “I would tend to think that even if he felt the obligation to reiterate the church’s sexual teachings, I don’t know that he had to go the extra step of warning the convention away from what everyone knows is a problem. That’s the definition of a dysfunctional family, the inability to talk about a problem.”

John Good, president of the national association, said in a phone interview that he disagreed with Williams. Good said that a Courage chapter exists in Chicago, but there is an even more active diocesan-based ministry there. “I think the two operate differently and their purpose is different, and the cardinal supports both.

“One message that I have tried to get out,” Good said, “is I think it is more important that we have a seat at the table and that we work with the official church. And whether we like it or not, church teaching is what it is, and we as ministers need to understand that and incorporate it as part of our ministry. A significant part of pastoral ministry is meeting people where they’re at, and that continues to be an emphasis of what we do.”

Gramick, who attended the national association conference, said in an Oct. 14 phone interview, “I was sad to think that a leader of our church would say that in light of the right that all the baptized have under canon law to make their views known to each other and to the bishops of our church.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 22, 1999