In 1971, Sister Jeannine Gramick became friendly with a gay man while she was working on her doctorate in mathematics education.
“Sister, what is the Catholic Church doing for gays and lesbians?” he asked her.
She realized the answer was, “Very little.”
That’s when Gramick began working on LGBT issues in the Catholic Church and has since dedicated her career to helping gays and lesbians.
In 1977, Gramick co-founded New Ways Ministry, a Catholic social justice center working for the reconciliation of lesbian and gay people and the church. She founded several local Dignity groups and has served on the board of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.
“I do this because I believe this is what God is calling me to do,” said Gramick, who was in Dallas this week for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious with Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry.
DeBernardo said he came of age after Vatican 2 in the social justice tradition of the church. He said what’s more important isn’t someone’s sexual orientation but that people are not being treated equally.
New Ways helps parishes that want to become more gay friendly and helps them develop strategies to do that.
Gramick said that since she began her work, a number of bishops in the United States have supported her. But more and more conservative members of the clergy have been appointed to higher positions since she first took her vows.
In 1999, the Vatican prohibited her from doing pastoral work with gays and lesbians and the next year she was ordered to stop speaking about homosexuality and about Rome’s investigation into her work.
She refused to be muzzled and continued working tirelessly.
The head of her order was worried that Gramick faced excommunication. She suggested they travel to the tomb of the founder of their order in Munich, Germany, to pray for divine intervention.
They flew from Baltimore to Rome where they changed planes for Munich. On the plane from Rome, she sat next to a man she thought might have been a priest.
That’s where the divine intervention happened.
She interrupted him to introduce herself.
“I’m a nun,” she said and asked if he was with the church.
The man introduced himself as Cardinal Ratzinger. When she told him her name, he joked that he had known her for 20 years, meaning they had a thick file on her and had been investigating her for that long.
Before they landed, the head of her order told the cardinal her concern that Sister Jeannine would be excommunicated.
“Oh, no, no, no,” Gramick said the future Pope Benedict told her. “It’s not that level of doctrine.”
Gramick said that the work of New Ways Ministry is not considered an excommunicatable matter. She noted that despite the Vatican’s position on LGBT issues, no one has been excommunicated for working on gay and lesbian social justice issues.
Although Gramick disagrees with the pope’s position on a number of issues and believes the Vatican still doesn’t understand the impact pedophile priests have had on so many lives, she is gracious in describing him.
She recalls him as a friendly, spiritual, holy man.
“He was praying when I interrupted him,” she said. “He has a good sense of humor.”
She said that meeting him put a human face on the institution.
DeBernardo explained the work of New Ways Ministry. Helping parishes become more supportive of gay and lesbian Catholics is a major focus of the organization. He suggested a number of ways parishes can become more supportive.
“The oppression runs the gamut from silence to violence,” said DeBernardo. “Just breaking the silence is a good way.”
He suggests starting support groups in churches. Some churches have integrated gays and lesbians into their education programs.
“If you’re having a discussion on sexuality, you have to mention homosexuality,” he said. “You can’t ignore it anymore. It’s an important part of the current discussion on sexuality.”
Recognizing the gifts gay and lesbian members bring is another important step. One parish, he said, recognizes a lesbian mom or the mother of a lesbian every Mother’s Day.
He said his approach is not “one size fits all.” What works in one area of the country won’t work elsewhere. What works in one church won’t work in a neighboring parish.
In Maryland, New Ways is experimenting with a new program targeting legislators as well as Catholic grassroots voters.
DeBernardo said support of gay and lesbian issues is strong among the grassroots and among middle managers in the church.
“But bishops get the media,” he said.
The project, that they will bring to other states debating same-sex marriage legislation or other equality laws, helps educate legislators that they will not lose Catholic votes by voting in favor of social justice.
Gramick said that there is a disconnect between the church hierarchy and Catholics in the pews.
She spoke at Resource Center Dallas on Wednesday, Aug. 11, to a group of Catholics from around the Metroplex interested in her work.
A teacher who attended said she was afraid she would lose her job if she helped gay students who came out to her.
Gramick suggested the teacher help her students by teaching the full range of Catholic theologies. While the hierarchy teaches one thing, a vast majority of Catholic writers and theologians teach something else, Gramick said.
A parent of a gay son wanted to know how to help others in her parish and in other parishes around the diocese.
“Baby steps,” DeBernardo suggested.
He said the church puts a strong emphasis on family.
“Catholics are so much about keeping families together and when you have large families, you’ll have gays and lesbians in your family,” he said.
“Church leaders think a lot about sex,” he said. “For people in the pews, while sex is important, they don’t think of it as the primary way of interpreting the world. People know that sex is only one part of their lives.”
Gramick estimated that as many as half of all priests are gay. She said that the Catholics in the pews, however, separate the pedophile priests scandal from homosexuality.
Gramick said that when the scandal first erupted, there was a lot of confusion between sexual abuse and gay priests.
She said that people came to church because they liked their priest and didn’t care about his sexual orientation.
Congregations are showing their independence on the issue, Gramick and DeBernardo said.
One church in Greenwich Village has marched in the New York gay Pride parade for years. This year, New York’s new archbishop told them they could not carry their church’s banner in the parade.
Instead they all wore T-shirts with their church’s logo and carried a blank banner.
“They were on CNN. That was great publicity for the church that was being gay friendly,” Gramick said. “Not so good for the archbishop.”