Carol Coston, OP
28 Hein Road ¨ Boerne, TX 78006
Phone: 830/537-4327; Fax 830/537-4309; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
[Presented here by permission of the author.]
July 22, 1999
The attached document is a long letter I have written to women religious with whom I have worked and collaborated in my various ministries. It explains my anger and distress at what is currently happening to Jeannine Gramick, SSND, and Bob Nugent, SDS, as a result of their 25-year ministry to the gay and lesbian community and their families.
I deplore what the Vatican has done to them.
How shall we respond?
There are three issues that I believe we, as women religious, need to consider in deciding how to respond:
1) the role of the individual conscience and the process of faithful dialogue and discernment on mission followed by individual sisters and their communities;
2) the rights of self-determination and the principle of subsidiarity in electing congregational leadership; and
3) the process followed by the Church in arriving at the "official" teaching on homosexuality from which Jeannine and Bob are accused of not giving full assent.
I hope that this letter encourages fuller discussions and creative responses.
Thanks for reading it.
Carol Coston, OP
Reflections on the Notification regarding
Sister Jeannine Gramick, SSND, and Father Robert Nugent, SDS,
issued by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.
Sent to women religious with whom I have worked and collaborated
in my various ministries during 44 years of religious life.
"Tonight I come to share a question with you."
Thus began a letter that Sr. Francis B. Rothluebber, as Major Superior of the School Sisters of St. Francis, wrote to her congregation 30 years ago, on July 5, 1969.
"We have received word," she wrote, "from the Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Raimondi, that, at the request of the Congregation for Religious, Father Benjamin Roebel, O.F.M. is to conduct an apostolic visitation of our congregation. The question for us to consider is: ‘How shall we respond?’
Given the wrenching experience of a similar apostolic visitation endured months earlier by the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters of Los Angeles, Francis and her community had every reason to greet the news with fear and apprehension.
"How shall we respond?" Francis asked. And then she offered some basic guidelines, which shifted perception of the visitation from being a threat to an opportunity, and the sisters’ role in it from being subject to agent in dialogue.
We shall respond, Francis suggested, by seeing this as a time to review responsibly the changes that our community has been undergoing … to affirm the basic thrust and direction of our growth and development … to acknowledge that our renewal is incomplete … to deepen our love of the Church and help make its structures serve love … and finally, to remember that we are women and must bring to life a woman’s power of firmness and creativity.
In that spirit, the sisters embarked on a process of cooperation, spending months with Fr. Roebel in large and small meetings. In the end, however, the result was frustrating, painful, and disrespectful to the congregation. Francis noted later:
What could have been a more positive experience had we been involved in planning for the review and in presenting a joint report became a source of mistrust and increased tension in the community and beyond it. We were promised that, in the future, preliminary consultation would definitely be included. But without any consultation, within a few months we received notification that an apostolic observer was being appointed to the May general chapter. [Midwives of the Future: American Sisters Tell Their Story, p. 127]
I was reminded of this particular saga, and other painful encounters described in Midwives between women religious and the Vatican, when I received a press release dated July 13, 1999, from the Baltimore Province of the School Sisters of Notre Dame:
The Vatican Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has published a Notification, which permanently prohibits Sr. Jeannine Gramick, SSND, from any pastoral work involving homosexual persons and their parents. Sister Jeannine has also been prohibited from serving in a leadership position in her congregation for an indefinite period of time.
And so, the question that Francis posed 30 years ago comes hurtling back in relevance to us today, as women religious living on the brink of a new millennium:
How shall we respond?
There are three issues that I believe we, as women religious, need to consider in deciding how to respond: 1) the role of the individual conscience and the process of faithful dialogue and discernment on mission followed by individual sisters and their communities; 2) the rights of self-determination and the principle of subsidiarity in electing congregational leadership; and 3) the process followed by the Church in arriving at the "official" teaching on homosexuality from which Jeannine and Bob are accused of not giving full assent.
On matters of conscience and choosing ministry …
The issue of choosing one’s ministry has been a clear breakthrough for women religious in the last twenty-five years or so. Congregations have carefully worked through and created processes for these choices to be made in dialogue with other sisters, in local mission groups, with elected leaders, etc. We are asked to discern what we are being called to do, with whom we will work, and how we will prepare for the ministry. This we have tried to do faithfully.
In her own essay in Midwives of the Future, Jeannine Gramick describes meeting a young man named Dominic at a home liturgy in 1971. "Dominic’s two absorbing interests—his religious convictions and his deep concern for lesbian and gay people—were both part of his question: ‘What is the Church doing for my brothers and sisters’?" When Jeannine responded "I don’t know," Dominic challenged her to do something. Thus began Jeannine’s call to this work and to a process of educating herself about homosexuality. "I attended clergy conferences designed to explore Church attitudes toward homosexuality, met with psychiatrists, psychologists and ministers who counseled gay and lesbian people, and read scores of books, journal articles and other literature on homosexuality."
Jeannine and Bob co-founded New Ways Ministry in 1977 "to promote justice and reconciliation among lesbian and gay people, their parents, families and friends and the larger Christian community." Jeanine indicated that the ministry was based on the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ 1976 pastoral letter To Live in Christ Jesus, which stated that the Christian community should provide lesbian and gay people "a special degree of pastoral understanding and care." Many women’s congregations contributed financial and moral support. Jeannine and Bob spent the subsequent years giving workshops, making presentations, and writing books and articles
They also have spent enormous amounts of study time, hours of personal prayer and reflection, countless consultations with theologians and canon lawyers, and ongoing discernment with their superiors, in responding to ever-increasing demands by ecclesiastical authorities to clarify their personal views on homosexuality and how these did or did not represent orthodoxy. In a statement he issued on July 15, 1999, Bob notes that "since 1977 I have co-operated respectfully and fully in five major studies of my ministry at various ecclesiastical levels…. The most serious charge raised about my pastoral ministry during the entire twenty-five years has been a perception by some of ‘ambiguity’."
Jeannine and Bob had co-authored Building Bridges (1992) and Voices of Hope: a Collection of Positive Catholic Writings on Gay and Lesbian Issues (1995). Both of these books came under intense scrutiny and appeared to be a major reason for the prohibition forbidding them to continue their ministry. The Notification stated that in mid-1998, after receiving another set of responses from Jeannine and Bob, the Members of Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith "were unanimous in their decision that the responses of the two, while containing certain positive elements, were unacceptable. In each case, Father Nugent and Sister Gramick had sought to justify the publication of their books and neither had expressed personal adherence to the Church’s teaching on homosexuality in sufficiently unequivocal terms."
Jeannine and Bob were then asked to formulate a public declaration "to express their interior assent to the teaching of the Catholic Church on homosexuality and to acknowledge that the two above-mentioned books contained errors." These declarations were examined by the CDF in October1998 and found to be "not sufficient to resolve the problems….
Sister Gramick, while expressing her love for the Church, simply refused to express any assent whatsoever to the teaching of the Church on homosexuality. Father Nugent was more responsive, but not unequivocal in his statement of interior assent to the teaching of the Church. It was decided by the Members of the Congregation (CDF), therefore, that Father Nugent should be given yet another opportunity to express unequivocal assent. For this reason, the Congregation formulated a declaration of assent…for his acceptance…. Father Nugent would not sign the declaration he had received and responded by formulating an alternative text which modified the Congregation’s declaration of certain important points. In particular, he would not state that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and he added a section which calls into question the definitive and unchangeable nature of Catholic doctrine in this area.
In his July 15 statement, Bob explained his modifications, saying that he was concerned "about the technical theological language of the Profession of Faith which I was asked to sign and the impact of this document on the pastoral life of the Church in English-speaking countries…. language of ‘evil’ and ‘disorder’ that would be heard by many as pastorally insensitive and a cause of further pain and alienation for homosexual Catholics and their families with whom I have ministered for twenty-five years."
Bob recognized that the "Profession of Faith was not, in itself, a pastoral document," however, he was acutely aware that it could be made public, with serious pastoral ramifications. "I felt, for example, that some terms such as ‘intrinsically evil’ were not essential for maintaining the authenticity or integrity of Church doctrine on human sexuality, marriage and homosexual acts. Therefore, I proposed, for pastoral reasons, the use of the alternative but theologically sound ‘objectively immoral.’ This wording, found in such episcopal documents as To Live in Christ Jesus (1976), Human Sexuality (1990), and Always Our Children (1997), is fully consonant with magisterial teaching on homosexuality."
The CDF, however, found that Jeannine and Bob’s positions regarding "the intrinsic evil of homosexual acts and the objective disorder of the homosexual inclination are doctrinally unacceptable…." Therefore, they "are permanently prohibited from any pastoral work involving homosexual persons and are ineligible, for an undetermined period, for any office in their respective religious institutes."
How shall we respond?
Where is the primacy of the individual conscience in these demands? Is there no place for respectful private dissent? Where are the openings for expanded conversations, in the light of new scientific evidence, on Church teachings? What can we learn from the Church’s experience with Galileo?
Why is it that episcopal documents produced by U.S. Bishops are doctrinally unacceptable in this instance?
On self-determination and the principle of subsidiarity …
A second area of concern for us is the directive that these two persons are "ineligible, for an undetermined period, for any office in their respective religious institutes." Is not the election process within our congregations our own right and responsibility? Is this not an abuse of the principle of subsidiarity? Are we not mature and grown-up persons, who are able to decide for ourselves who would or would not be a good leader within our religious communities?
Many Catholic women and men religious have participated as outside observers in elections held in newly democratic nations such as South Africa, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador to help insure fair procedures. How do we respond to restrictions on our own internal government affairs?
As I observe the pain and difficulties being endured by Jeannine, Bob, and the leadership and members of the SSNDs and the SDSs, I remember a similar pain and conflict felt in the 1980s by the Sisters of Mercy and their members—Agnes Mary Mansouer, Elizabeth Morancy, and Arlene Violet. Each of these sisters felt a strong call to political ministry and were serving well the people in their spheres of influence in appointed office with Michigan’s Health and Human Services, and in elected office as State Representative and Attorney General in Rhode Island. Yet they were forced by a Vatican directive to choose between their religious communities and their ministerial calls. Rather than put their congregations through any more suffering, each made the painful decision to leave religious life.
How many more good and faithful people will be similarly forced out? Are there not more creative paths that we can follow?
On Church teachings …
What process did the Church follow in arriving at the "official" teaching on homosexuality from which Jeannine and Bob are accused of not giving full assent? Has there been any reconsideration of the teachings in the light of new scientific research on the subject of homosexuality?
Are there any openings for a broader dialogue with experts in the fields of human growth and development, psychology, psychiatry, or genetics? What have been the experiences of spiritual directors, ethicists, medical professionals, theologians, gays and lesbians themselves, or their parents?
From my reading of the Notification, it appears that pressure to take these actions against Jeannine and Bob came "from Bishops and others in the United States of America." Who are these Bishops and "others?"
Are there not Bishops and "others" who believe in and support Jeannine and Bob’s ministry? How could we engage them in considering the implications of this message from the Church during a time of increased violence against gays and lesbians? We face today pockets of real prejudice against homosexual persons, some of whom have been killed in hate crimes. This climate of intolerance needs to be openly confronted by persons of faith. How will the forced removal of Jeannine and Bob from any pastoral work with the gay community and their families be perceived by those who already harbor hate against homosexuals?
As I ponder these current events and revisit a well of anger at the abuse that so many committed and justice-seeking religious have had to endure at the hands of hierarchical authorities, I come back to Francis Rothluebber’s haunting question in 1969: How shall we respond?
We women religious have many strengths to call upon, as well as the potential of institutional support from our congregations. We are highly educated, dedicated, and experienced in many old and new forms of ministry. We search for ancient and contemporary forms of prayer and ritual, which nourish our souls, support our ministries, and sustain our spirituality.
We are used to dialogue and consultation as a method of decision making. We feel passionately about the needs of the poor and we strive to make best use of our personal and collective resources to bring about the transformation of societal structures.
We also want to be self-determining and treated as partners in creating a renewed church. How then, shall we respond?
Four historical examples come to my mind, although I am confident that there are many others in our collective memories.
Hildegard of Bingen
[This incident was described in Hildegard of Bingen: Mystical Writings, edited and introduced by Fiona Bowie and Oliver Davies, Crossroad Spiritual Classics Series, NY, 1995, pp. 149-151 and p.14.]
In 1178 Hildegard agreed to allow a nobleman who had been excommunicated, but subsequently reconciled to the Church, to be buried on consecrated ground at Rupertsberg. The Mainz clergy disputed the fact that the man had made his peace with the Church and ordered that his body be exhumed. When Hildegard refused to comply with their request she and her community were placed under an interdict. They were forbidden to hear the Mass, receive the Eucharist or sing the divine office.
Hildegard wrote to the Mainz prelates explaining her actions and indicating her belief that the prelates were wrong in their judgement, particularly in forbidding the nuns to use music in their worship. The authorities failed to respond. It was only some time later, when Hildegard appealed directly to Archbishop Christian of Mainz, who was away in Rome, that the situation could be satisfactorily resolved.
Hildegard followed her conscience and was punished. She wrote many letters and used the intervention of witnesses, to no immediate avail. However, she did not give up, and finally got through to a more powerful supporter who was willing to countermand the interdict.
[This incident is described in Meister Eckhart and the Beguine Mystics, Continuum, NY, 1994, in the chapter on "Marguerite Porete and Meister Eckhart" by Maria Lichtmann, pp. 65-69.]
Marguerite was a member of the Beguines, a community of women who sought a way of living the Gospel life outside monastic walls. She wrote many mystical treatises, but because the local bishop of Valenciennes had her writings publicly burned sometime between 1296 and 1306, the only book that managed to escape complete incineration at the hands of her Inquisitors is The Mirror of Simple Souls. This treatise subsequently influenced mystics, especially Meister Eckhart, and mystical traditions.
Marguerite refused to be silenced when told not to spread her teachings, but in 1309 was brought before the Papal General Inquisitor of France for an examination by twenty-one theologians. On May 31, 1310, Marguerite was accused of being a "relapsed heretic," and on the following day, June 1, 1310, became the first heretic to be burned at the stake in the Paris Inquisition.
"Unlike the three theological authorities Marguerite consulted who had approved the book as a whole," the twenty-one theologians summoned by the Inquisitor "responded to articles extracted out of context of the book itself, which was never even named throughout the process."
Maria Lichtmann conjectures that Marguerite’s status in the Beguines, a marginalized semi-religious group, made her more vulnerable before the authorities. She had no established religious order, confessor, or institutional support to buffer her—and she lost the struggle. Marguerite was also unfortunate to appear "in the political arena at an extremely unfavorable time. France’s king, Philip the Fair, may well have used Marguerite’s case to reestablish favor with the pope after pursuing his personal vendetta against the too powerful Knights Templar. Robert Lerner, who wrote The Heresy of the Free Spirit in the Later Middle Ages, observes that "by prosecuting the first heretic to appear, the king could demonstrate his ‘unwavering orthodoxy’ to the pope."
So Marguerite appears to have been the victim of political and social considerations at the time, and a woman without the support of an established religious order. "Given the propensity of her work to find a place in orthodox settings over the centuries, the patently heretical nature of Marguerite’s Mirror of Simple Souls has hardly been established," writes Lichtmann.
Malleus Maleficarum (The Witches’ Hammer)
Beginning around 1486, Malleus Maleficarum, written by the Revs. Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, and endorsed by the Papal Bull of Innocent VIII, was the professional manual for witch hunters. These two Dominican priests were appointed as Inquisitors and the manual was used to identify and to punish people accused of witchcraft. According to the Rev. Montague Summers, who wrote the introduction to the 1948 edition, for nearly 300 years the Malleus "lay on the bench of every judge, on the desk of every magistrate. It was the ultimate, irrefutable, unarguable authority. It was implicitly accepted not only by Catholic but by Protestant legislature. In fine, it is not too much to say that the Malleus Maleficarum is among the most important, wisest, and weightiest books of the world." [Introduction, Malleus Maleficarum, 1948 edition.]
The authors of Malleus wrote that one of the ways in which witches attempted to control and subvert the world was to deprive men of their "vital member." In a part of the book, which explores the question of whether a man who does not see "the member in its right place" is deluded or whether in fact it has been taken away from him, the Malleus Maleficarum offers the following insight:
And what then, is to be thought of those witches who in this way sometimes collect male organs in great numbers, as many as twenty or thirty members together, and put them in a bird’s nest, or shut them up in a box, where they move themselves like living members, and eat oats and corn, as has been seen by many and is a matter of common report? It is to be said that it is all done by devil’s work and illusion, for the senses of those who see them are deluded in the way we have said. For a certain man tells that, when he had lost his member, he had approached a known witch to ask her to restore it to him. She told the afflicted man to climb a certain tree, and that he might take which he liked out of a nest in which there were several members. And when he tried to take a big one, the witch said: You must not take that one; adding, because it belonged to a parish priest. [Part II, Qn I, Ch. 7, Malleus Maleficarum, 1948 edition.]
This whole book could simply be written off as ludicrous, yet it was the vehicle by which thousands of women were found to be "witches," and in violation of "ultimate, irrefutable, unarguable authority." They subsequently were killed. History has since recognized many of these women as healers, herbalists, midwives, and women of independent means.
School Sisters of St. Francis
Earlier, we left the story of the School Sisters of St. Francis at a point where, following abrupt notice of an apostolic visitation and a subsequent promise of providing preliminary consultation prior to such action, Rome suddenly sent notice that an apostolic observer would be sent to May 1972 general chapter of the School Sisters of St. Francis. In Midwives, Francis Rothluebber records what happened:
At the opening session of the chapter, the delegates voted unanimously to ‘tolerate’ the presence of the official observer at the opening session only. The observer withdrew. The statement of the reasons for the objection to seating the observer was signed by all the delegates and forwarded to Rome. No acknowledgment was ever received.
* * *
We come from a strong lineage of creative, dedicated, and intelligent women. These women were committed to the common good, yet many of them were maligned, unjustly accused, and persecuted by Church authorities.
In light of their courage and fidelity, the challenge for us today is to honor the question, "How shall we respond?", from our own truth and inner authority, as women religious living into the next millennium.
Miriam, the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took up a timbrel and all the women followed her with timbrels, dancing. [Exodus 15:20]
Thank you for reading these reflections.
Carol Coston, OP
July 22, 1999
Feast of Mary of Magdalene