Sr. Jeannine Gramick, S.L., co-founded New Ways Ministry in 1977 to minister to gay and lesbian Catholics. Her work has been investigated by Vatican officials and was cited in the ongoing investigation of American nuns and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). She was told by officials in Rome in 1999 to stop her work, but she refused, continuing to lead the Catholic organization and advocating for same-sex marriage and other LGBT issues in civil society and the Catholic Church.
Michael O’Loughlin: You began a ministry for gay and lesbian Catholics at a time when mainstream acceptance of LGBT people was much lower than today. Were Catholics open to these issues back then?
Sr. Jeannine Gramick: There was hesitancy of course. People were ignorant about the subject, but as people began to learn, and as we began to do educational workshops, that contained basic factual information, scientific information, the psychology behind sexual orientation, research in sexuality, basic questions that people had, they began to learn. Then they began to be more open. And what gave them the ability, you might say, to even come to that workshop, would be that Vatican II encouraged us to listen to scientific findings.
MO: Catholic bishops in the US today are some of the most vocal opponents of same-sex marriage and other civil rights issues important to the LGBT community. Was there institutional support for your work early on?
JG: We were able at to gather institutional support from bishops. Now it was very quiet support, but let me give you some examples. The first time that the US bishops spoke about homosexuality was in their pastoral letter on moral values that they issued in 1976. There’s a paragraph on homosexuality, which was introduced by an auxiliary bishop in Baltimore whom we spoke with. We influenced him to bring this issue to the attention of the bishops. There’s a paragraph that says homosexuals, like everyone else, deserve compassion, justice, and should have active roles in the Christian community. There were some bishops who would invite us into their dioceses to give workshops, and they came to our workshops and commended us. In fact, when [New Ways Ministry’s co-founder] Fr. Robert Nugent and I were going through our inquisition with the Vatican, we had 20 bishops who wrote supportive letters. They were all bishops in the late 70s and into the 80s, but by the early 90s, the complexion of the US hierarchy began to change because of the appointments by Pope John Paul II.
MO: Despite an order from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1999, who would be elected Pope a few years later, to cease your ministry, you continue to minister to gay and lesbian Catholics. How does official condemnation affect your work?
JG: The only way our ministry is impacted is when there’s something in the newspaper about a bishop saying he doesn’t like New Ways Ministry, or saying that our booklet on marriage equality is not really Catholic, all it does is increase the number of supporters that we have, and our donations increase. It’s only been a benefit to us.
MO: Some have said that with the leadership of Pope Francis, that the Catholic Church might be emerging from an anti-Vatican II mentally. What would this church look like?
JG: We would have pastoral bishops who look to the people, who not just consult the people, but bring the laity into the church’s decision-making. I think these pastoral bishops would have a more modern understanding of governance, that we don’t live in monarchies anymore, or even benevolent dictatorships, that we in the twenty-first century are looking for more democratic forms of governance. If they do that, we’re going to have a very different looking church. Because the polls show us that the laity, at least in the US, are very different from the views of the hierarchy, particularly in sexual matters, financial matters. The laity has a lot of experience that the bishops don’t have, and we have to draw on that experience.
MO: New Ways Ministry came out in support of same-sex marriage, putting itself directly at odds with US bishops. What would you to say those who cite this an example that your organization is no longer Catholic?
JG: First of all I would say, everyone in the church, no matter what your position, layperson priest, bishop, you have a right to express your opinion, whether or not its in conformity with the current teaching, because teaching has changed. The teaching that we have on marriage has evolved. For many centuries, the institutional church didn’t include love as part of marriage. It was for children, for procreation, and the church said nothing about the love of the couple. Love gradually came into the mix. Today we can say, this is another change, that the meaning of marriage is a commitment of two people who love each other, who care for each other, and who contribute to society, either through children or another way.
MO: What gives you hope in your work?
JG: Certainly Pope Francis is one source of hope right now. The other source of hope is the people. That gradually people are coming to believe that the best kept secret teaching of the church is the one of conscience. People are beginning to realize that to be a good Catholic, to be a true person of faith, to grow in your faith, you need to make decisions informed by conscience. And those conscience decisions look like what the guidelines in your tradition, or they may depart. But the point is, you need to follow your conscience. And that gives me hope because I see more and more people following their conscience.
MO: You had to leave your religious order and enter a new one after your work was condemned by Rome. Why do you stay Catholic?
JG: I stay Catholic because it is my home, my spiritual home. I was born and raised Catholic, baptized as an infant. I grew up in the Catholic community; it was my whole world. I love the church, I love the people of the church, I even love the institutional leaders, those bishops I don’t agree with, I love them. I think they’re doing what they believe in, and I pray for them. I’m not going to allow anyone to move me out of my faith community. However, I also say to LGBT Catholics, if you are not being nourished by your faith community, then yes, do leave, and find a faith community that does support you. Now fortunately I am nourished, and I’m working to make all our parishes, or as many parishes as we can, friendly and supportive of LGBT Catholics, to make it a place where all Catholics, no matter what their orientation, can feel at home.