How could Sister Jeannine Gramick have known that meeting a handsome gay stranger named Dominic at a house party on Spruce Street in West Philadelphia would completely change the course of her life?
Dominic strode up to her. He was a baptized gay man who had left the Catholic Church because a priest told him he was going to hell. He wasn’t alone.
Most of his circle of gay friends hadn’t set foot in a church for years for the same reason.
Dominic’s story made the young nun squirm. She knew there was a profound stigma against homosexuality, especially in conservative Philadelphia, but she despised the idea that the Church would exclude anyone for something so inconsequential.
Dominic asked Sister Jeannine if she would be willing to host a home liturgy for him and his buddies, telling her he missed his faith and the Church. Anxious to help, to do something to heal his wounds, she agreed.
“There was this feeling of great exhilaration, great joy. We made them feel very loved,” Sister Jeannine said. That was the beginning of Sister Jeannine’s fight for equality for gays and lesbians within the Catholic Church.
Since 1977 she has been running New Ways, an organization that fights for equal rights.
“When we first began, my role was tenuous,” Sister Jeannine told me. “No one in the Catholic community had been assigned to gay ministry before. It wasn’t even a thing. People were anxious about any sexual issues, much less homosexual ones. Those superiors were women of vision. They stood by me.”
Sister Jeannine’s fight was about exclusion. It was about civil rights. She wanted to flip the script and pivot from a focus on sexual ethics to a narrative about social justice.
“Lesbian and gay people have been marginalized because of their orientation. They are denied basic human dignity,” Sister Jeannine told me with an angry tinge to her voice. “It is a clear affront to the social-justice teachings of the Church.” She added with a chuckle, “If we were going to fire every person whose life is not in line with the sexual ethics of the Church, we wouldn’t have many people in the Catholic institution.”
She recounted a story to me about an older nun who had no idea what it meant to be a homosexual or what “New Ways” was all about.
The elderly sister was in the dark about what Sister Jeannine even did with “those people,” and why they needed their own special ministry in the first place. Sister Jeannine patiently explained the basics of homosexuality. The older nun just shook her head.
“I understand now,” the older sister replied slowly. “But I think I like the ‘Old Ways’ better.” Sister Jeannine at least had to give her credit for asking. That was the institutional stance in a nutshell.
Sister Jeannine’s mission was to educate Catholics that their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters were just like them.
On most days, Sister Jeannine wakes in the morning delighted to go to work. Somehow she has managed to remain delighted in the face of serious oppression from within the Church. Working with the gay community has made her a target of the male bishops who would like to see her ministry eradicated completely.
One particularly vociferous complaint came from Cardinal James Aloysius Hickey of Washington, DC.
In 1980, Hickey began lodging formal complaints about Sister Jeannine’s work with the Vatican. Yet Sister Jeannine’s community had her back. Each time they got a letter, her fellow sisters responded to the Vatican that she was simply doing the work of the Church and recommended that she not be sanctioned. It was a more polite way of saying “Mind your own business.”
Cardinal Hickey’s continued letters had their intended effect. In early 1988, the Vatican convened a three-member US-based committee headed by Bishop Adam Joseph Maida, the archbishop of Detroit, to render an official judgment on Sister Jeannine’s gay ministry.
In May of 1988, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), then headed by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who would later become Pope Benedict XVI, ordered the nun to sign a “Profession of Faith,” declaring that she agreed with the Church’s official stance on homosexuality.
Her community stood strong in support of her and her work, but they could not go against the Vatican’s final decree.
“I felt that what was being asked of me was unjust…that lesbian and gay people are so marginalized in the Church that they need an advocate,” Sister Jeannine said. “They need someone connected to the Church institution to speak on their behalf, and I felt that God was telling me, ‘There is still work that you need to do here.'”
Sister Jeannine didn’t want to cause the LGBT community needless pain or to draw more of the Vatican’s ire toward them, so she left them and moved to a new order—the Sisters of Loretto.
Being an outcast of the Church hierarchy has helped Sister Jeannine relate even more to the people she serves. “If you’re a shepherd, you have to smell like the sheep, as Pope Francis says, and God knows I have now experienced just a tiny fraction of what gay and lesbian people have experienced their entire lives,” she said.
There is a button stuck on a bulletin board in Sister Jeannine’s house that reads: “We shall not be silenced. I support Jeannine Gramick.”
She smiled when I looked at it.
“I don’t like people to say I was silenced. The Vatican tried to silence me, and it just didn’t work.”
This post is an excerpt from the new book, If Nuns Ruled the World (Open Road, September 2014), which aims to shatter stereotypes about Catholic nuns.