In 1977, Sr. Jeannine Gramick, SSND, and Fr. Robert Nugent, SDS, founded New Way Ministries, “a gay-positive ministry of advocacy and justice for lesbian and gay Catholics and reconciliation within the larger Christian and civil communities.” They took this bold step because their experience with LGBTQ Catholics had demonstrated to them that the gay-negative approach was miserably failing. Gays were being daily threatened and abused by civil forms of discrimination (“gay-bashing”). It was criminal that the Church added to and reinforced this abusive situation by preaching that homosexual activity was always seriously sinful and, if not repented and confessed to a priest, automatically doomed them to eternal hellfire.
Gays, more often than not, were socialized into either pitying or despising their own homosexual urges. Most instinctively were repulsed by the fact that they were the rejects of society and, apparently, God’s rejects just as well. They urgently wanted public approval and divine approval, even if it meant denying their psycho-sexual orientation. Many spent years to convince themselves that their “homosexual attractions” were only a “passing phase.” Thus they entered into heterosexual dating scene and, with a little good luck, many of them gained social and divine approval by entering into lawful marriages. Not a day or night passed, however, when they did not have “doubts” and “disturbing nightmares.” They were getting the approval they hungered for, to be sure; yet, in their heart of hearts, they feared that “they were living a lie.”
This is the situation experienced by light-skinned African-Americans who decide to pass themselves off as White in an attempt to escape racial prejudice that circulates in American society. This is the situation of some Jews known to me who, in an attempt to escape the unsettling stigma of “being preferred by God but, at the same time, being hated by all men,” decide to conceal their blood line in order to pass as goy (a Gentile, a non-Jew). They end up getting the approval they hungered for, to be sure; yet, in their heart of hearts, not a day passes when they don’t fear being exposed as “an imposter.”
In a nutshell, the “gay-positive” Gospel begins in these terms:
In all cultures and in every period of history, a certain percentage of men and women develop as gays and lesbians. These individuals should be considered as part of God’s creative plan. Their sexual orientation has no necessary connection with sin, sickness, or failure [neither their own or their parents]; rather, it is a gift from God to be accepted and lived out with gratitude. God does not despise anything God has created.[i]
Notice that the “gay-positive” approach enables homosexuals and heterosexuals to equally lay claim to being created by God and being loved by God. Moreover, everyone is called to serve God through the unique gifts and callings that God has written on their hearts. What this means for gays is that, instead of hating their condition and denying it vigorously at every turn, gays and lesbians were invited to accept their sexual orientation “with gratitude” and to work out their vocation within their God-given and God-sanctioned sexual orientation.
The immediate result of this was two-fold. First, lesbians and gays could no longer escape their sexual orientation and conceal it to themselves and to everyone else as well. “Living a lie” was no longer a viable option because this would thwart “God’s creative plan.” Second, lesbians and gays were not required to shut down their sexuality and live the whole of heir lives as celibates in order to be approved by God on the day of judgment. Quite to the contrary, they were being called to work out their patterns of sexual bonding in such a way as to discover “God creative plan” for them. Instead of burying their treasure, they were required by God to invest it for the betterment of themselves and for the betterment of society.
Here is a further expression of a “gay-positive” approach:
The church’s traditional position has been that since every homosexual act is sinful and contrary to God’s plan, the love that exists between gay and lesbian people is [inherently] sinful and alienates the lover from God. [If God gives each of us a unique face, a unique calling, a unique sexual orientation; then it must be] argued that the love [in all its aspects] between two lesbians or gay men, assuming that it is a constructive human love, is not sinful. . . . On the contrary, it can be a holy love, mediating God’s presence in the human community as effectively as heterosexual love.[ii]
Year after year, New Way Ministries gradually gained increasing enthusiastic support by LGBTQ Catholics. The “gay-positive” approach brought faith acceptance and holistic healing into the lives of hundreds of gay Catholics. This made “coming out of the closet” much easier since each member was in contact with a network of faith-filled supporters that demonstrated the grace of being authentic with oneself and with one’s Creator. Being relieved of the “fear of eternal hellfire” is no small matter in the life of a Catholic. Moreover, once one became authentic with oneself, with one’s Creator, and with a group of supportive Catholics, then it became possible to be bold and to stand up for oneself in the face of both civil and ecclesiastical “gay bashing.”
In 1988, Cardinal Ratzinger, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, launched an official investigation into the theololgy of Sr. Jeannine Gramick and Fr. Robert Nugent because of concerns that the pair had “allowed ‘errors and ambiguities’ into their discussions of Catholic teaching on homosexuality.” Cardinal Ratzinger said the two had not sufficiently emphasized the official church teaching to the effect that homosexual acts were “intrinsically disordered.” The inquiry closed some ten years later with a directive ordering the pair to stop their pastoral ministry to gays and lesbians and their families. In 1999 Fr. Nugent was further required to remain silent on issues of homosexuality—no more speaking or writing. After submitting, he distanced himself from New Way Ministries and returned to full-time work in parish ministry.
Sr. Gramick took a different tack with her response. As with Fr. Nugent, the CDF prohibited her from further ministry to homosexuals. And while she had long performed this ministry with the blessing of her order, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, it—under pressure from the CDF and the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL)—ordered her in 2000 to remain totally silent about the Vatican investigation and on matters of homosexuality more generally. This meant that she could not “encourage the faithful to publicly express their dissent from the official Magisterium, nor protest decisions of the Holy See, nor criticize the Magisterium in any public forum whatsoever concerning homosexuality or related issues.”
After much deliberation, Sr. Gramick decided that her conscience and commitments carried more weight than the Vatican pressure to force her hand by have her submit by virtue of the fact that she had made a vow of obedience to the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Under threat of dismissal from her religious order, she insisted on speaking out and honoring her commitments actively,[i] eventually transferring to the Sisters of Loreto in 2001.[ii]
In a healthy organization, someone in management might create a position paper and then give it to the people down the line who have lots of experience with which to critique and to improve it. As a result, the original position paper gets revised and improved by working experts in the field. In a dysfunctional organization, someone in management creates a position paper and then mandates that it must be implemented on all levels. Those disagreeing or dragging their feet when it comes time for implementation are “written up” for insubordination and, the next time around, if they persist, they are shown the door.
The latter case describes Cardinal Ratzinger in his 26-year tenure heading up the CDF. He produced the official position papers on homosexuality. No one knows whom he may have invited to write the first draft. Once he had the document prepared, no one knows whether he consulted anyone and asked them to make improvements. What we do know, however, is that Cardinal Ratzinger did not solicit feedback from Fr. John J. McNeill, S.J., Sr. Jeannine Gramick, SSND, or Fr. Robert Nugent, SDS, well-known persons who had years of experience with Catholic gays and lesbians, their troubles, their hopes, their fears, their victories.
???We have already observed that Cardinal Ratzinger formulated his analysis of homosexuality and of same-sex marriage without any intention of consulting the world-wide bishops for their input or for their approval.[i] Furthermore, we observed that he never organized theological or pastoral commissions that were charged to investigate the contemporary homosexual phenomena and to offer theological, psychological, and sociological guidelines for responding charitably and justly in the name of the Gospel. Rather, he took the course of publishing his own views, getting John Paul II to sign on, and then distributing a fait accompli to the bishops scattered throughout the world.
How do we judge this? Cardinal Ratzinger is a very intelligent and dedicated man, but no matter how intelligent, his gut reactions to homosexuality were formed in his personal experiences (which, following the Germanic scholarly tradition, he hides from his readers). Moreover, he wrote in complete isolation from the very priests and religious who had dedicated their lives to bring healing and holiness to gays and lesbians. Surely these persons would have to be consulted and their views taken into account if the Church was to have a safe and sure guide to assess the challenge of correctly understanding and ministering to gays and lesbians within the modern Church. But, for reasons unknown to us, Cardinal Ratzinger decided that he could not trust these people. Their compassion must have led them astray. He could not even trust the input of bishops who were dealing with this issue in widely diverse cultural and sociological contexts. Hence, taking the burden upon himself and trusting his Germanic training, he moved ahead with the dogged determination to bring gays and lesbians and their allies back on track. But this is exactly the arrogance that comes with fundamentalism that the Pope warns us against.
With such a defective process, is it any wonder that it produced such a misguided and misleading doctrine? Is it any wonder that such a one-sided and misinformed policy would rip into the soul of Catholic communities and tear them apart? And we judge this as the evil that comes in the wake of the Ratzinger Doctrine.
[i] This closed-door mode of operating was not always Cardinal Ratzinger approach. When it came to the preparation of the universal catechism, for example, the bishops throughout the world were brought in on the project. Theological and catechetical institutes were invited to make suggestions to improve the preliminary drafts. Throughout, Ratzinger worked in collaboration with other experts. For details, see Cardinal James Hickey, “Launching the Catechism for Australia,” address presented at the National Press Club in Canberra, 22 June 1994 (https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=5241).
Nor did he consult the world-wide Catholic bishops on this important issue. This would have given him an international and intercultural perspective on homosexuality and open up an exchange on the varieties of pastoral practice currently being used. Nor was the Pontifical Biblical Commission or the Vatican’s International Theological Commission brought into the picture. These groups were already formed and they would have been an excellent sounding board to explore how the bible treats homosexuality and how the history of the church offers diverse instances when disciplinary decrees and moral theology addressed various aspects of homosexual activity.
Once published, Cardinal Ratzinger used his office to harass and punish anyone who disagreed with him. He was their judge and jury. He had no intention to give anyone disagreeing with him a fair hearing. If they couldn’t learn to obey, then they deserved to be silenced, humiliated, and eventually thrown out of their orders and, if necessary, thrown out of their Church.
Was the CDF functioning as an unjust and dysfunctional system in this period? You bet it was.
I offer three reflections:
#1 As for the repressive conduct of Cardinal Ratzinger and a large segment of the hierarchy in this matter, one would do well to remember the cautionary words of President Harry S. Truman:
Once a government [or a Church] is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens [believers] and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.
Some might think that a tyranny cloaked in the garb of Jesus can hardly be a tyranny. The truth, however, is just the opposite. The insistence of Cardinal Ratzinger and his allies that they were merely implementing the sovereign will of our Savior in these matters fundamentally distorts the person, the teaching, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.[iii]
#2 Recently, John J. McCoy wrote a very thoughtful biography of Archbishop Hunthausen, a pastor who was powerfully transformed during his participation in Vatican II. In his biography he laments how Hunthausen was hounded out of office and was replaced by a series of “autocratic monarchs who had little concern for transparency or accountability.” Then he writes this:
Under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, we became a church that censured, excluded, and punished to protect what was defined as universal Catholic Church. I abhorred Benedict’s notion that for the sake of the truth, if would be better if the church dwindled to a small, faithful, and orthodox remnant. Such an idea presumes that doctrine is unchanging. Yet Vatican II recognized that doctrine evolves and develops in its encounter with the world. How could a church that once justified slavery and called Jews “Christ-killers” hold that its teaching on marriage, sexuality, ordination, or any issue—save Christ’s divinity, love, and promise of eternal life—are immutable and unchangeable?
#3 When Pope Benedict XVI was elected in 2005, the Jesuit magazine, America, published an editorial wherein the editors presented “Challenges for the New Pope” as they saw them:
During the last couple of decades, there have been too many issues taken off the discussion table. This has been very unhealthy for the church. By some estimates, over 100 theologians have been silenced or reprimanded by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
A church that cannot openly discuss issues is a church retreating into an intellectual ghetto. And the issues are many: birth control, divorce, women priests, married priests, homosexuality, the selection of bishops, the over centralization of decision making in the Vatican, inclusive language, enculturation of the liturgy, catechetics, intercommunion and the role of the laity in church governance. There are no simple answers to these issues, and reformers must recognize that every change has both positive and negative effects. But without open discussion, church life will become more and more dysfunctional.[iv]
As we now know, Benedict XVI was incapable of allowing, much less encouraging, open discussion and collective decision-making. In fact, once Cardinal Ratzinger was elected as the pope, he showed his true authoritarian colors. He wasted no time in using his new position to his advantage. With an unquenchable will to power, he pushed forward a retrenchment on a whole series of Vatican II reforms. The hope of the Jesuits, however, was not entirely spoken in vain. Benedict resigned on 11 Feb 2013[v] and Pope Francis, himself a Jesuit, was elected to fulfill, in steady measured steps, the shattered hopes of his Jesuit brothers.
A church that cannot openly discuss issues is a church retreating into an intellectual ghetto.
Those who want to interact with this blog are invited to “Leave a Reply” below. A solid way to begin doing this is to offer “readback lines.” To do this, quickly glace back over the entire blog and pick out the one or two lines that have made a deep impression upon you. Copy them [CTRL-C] and then paste them [CTRL-V] into an empty comment box below. If you wish, signal the emotion that you feel when reading your readback lines. The primary emotions are anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise. No need to further explain yourself. It is enough to identify the text important to you and to name the emotion(s) that it evokes. All of this normally takes less than a few minutes.
I and others will “thank you” for your contribution. If you are tempted to say more, I urge you to hold back. Your sense of safety and the safety of others is best protected by not getting overly wordy in the beginning. This will come after a few days or weeks.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Endnotes and Leave a Reply~~~~~~~~
[i] I discovered an extended statement presented by Sr. Jeannine Gramick following a public debate with Bishop Thomas Paprocki in 2013. Her statement is very balanced, very compassionate, and very persuasive. See “Sister Jeannine’s Debate with Bishop Thomas Paprocki on Marriage Equality,” Bondings (https://newwaysministryblog.wordpress.com/2013/07/15/sister-jeannines-debate-with-bishop-thomas-paprocki-on-marriage-equality/).
[ii] The two short biographies here are reprinted from Catholics for a Free Choice, “Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s Preparation for the Papacy: How ‘the Vatican’s Enforcer’ ran the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1979 – 2005),” April 2006, pp. 10-11. (https://www.catholicsforchoice.org/topics/reform/documents/2006movingforwardbylookingback.pdf)
[iii] For a balanced analysis of when and how the bishops overstep their authority and overestimate their competence, see Richard R. Gaillardetz, ed., When the Magisterium Intervenes: The Magisterium and Theologians in Today’s Church (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 2012).
[iv] Editors, “Challenges for the New Pope,” America, 25 April 2005
[v] The significance of this date and the personal impact of Pope Benedict’s resignation just after it happened can be seen here: Archbishop Leo Cushley, “A monsignor sobbed, then silence fell: an eyewitness account of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation,” Catholic Herald 11 Feb 2015 [two years after the event] (http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2015/02/11/a-monsignor-sobbed-then-silence-fell-an-eyewitness-account-of-benedict-xvis-resignation/).