Conventional Wisdom: Don’t Mess with Nuns!!
Empowered by their love of God and sharing God’s commitment to justice and charity for all, nuns have been holy gadflies to the Roman Catholic Church. According to the faith and scripture of the Church, Jesus constantly advocated for the poor, vulnerable, and oppressed, while condemning the human forces causing their pain, poverty, and oppression. All too often, the Church has contributed to that pain rather than alleviating its causes.
Sister Jeannine Gramick is a hero in this long line of justice-seeking religious women. She has lived most of her life with one foot in the Church and the other foot in the gay and lesbian community, including in more recent years with bisexual, transgender, and other queer folk. She calls to account those in her Church who have condemned LGBTQ people and labeled them as “intrinsically disordered,” using both righteous anger and patient teaching to reach the Church’s leadership and advocate for change. Confronting the powerful and accusing them of violating the commandment to love, taught by Jesus, has brought her virtually unrelenting criticism, numerous attempts to curtail or silence her work and ministry, and a questioning of her faith and her devotion to the Church. She has nevertheless continued that good work with patience, courage, and grace. Just recently, Pope Francis himself personally thanked her for her decades of ministry with and on behalf of the LGBTQ community which has suffered at the hands of the Church.
Why would such advocacy in a religious institution matter in the public square and the secular fight for equal civil rights for LGBTQ people today? Arguably, it is religious institutions and their sacred, ancient texts’ condemnation of what seems to be homosexuality that have been absorbed by the secular society and form the basis of the culture’s homophobia. That negative moral teaching has infected even those who’ve rarely stepped inside a place of worship. It’s in the air we breathe. Add to that the anti-LGBTQ opposition of the Christian Right, supposedly based on religious principles, and the march toward full inclusion and equal justice for LGBTQ people in America has been a slow one.
Sister Jeannine has understood from the beginning that until we change religion’s condemnation and moral judgment against LGBTQ people, society will drag its feet on treating them with the same dignity and equality promised to them by the Constitution. Sister Jeannine’s message is as simple as it is strong: LGBTQ people are children of God, and like all children of God, are worthy of dignity and respect.
Sister Jeannine’s ministry and activism haven’t been all words. She has been present with her body and soul to the LGBTQ community and to the issues that impact it. She is a holy warrior, sure of the moral ground on which she stands and confident in her work as a “calling” from God. She has founded advocacy organizations and served on the boards and planning committees of others. She has received profound thanks and appreciation from the people she serves and awards from numerous civil rights and LGBTQ groups. But the “reward” she seeks is the reality of full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people in society and an eventual change of teaching in the Church.
Sister Jeannine has never confused God with the Church. She knows that God never gets it wrong, but the Church often does. In the end, it is God and her LGBTQ neighbors whom she serves. Those of us in that LGBTQ community owe her a great debt for her service and our undying gratitude for loving us so fiercely and publicly, at great cost to herself. It is right that the American Bar Association would join with others to recognize and honor her for her enormous contribution to our common life.