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Jeannine Gramick: The Church doesn’t belong only to heterosexual Poles  

Being transgender to me is normal for people, who are transgender. Being lesbian is normal for people, who are lesbian. Being Polish is normal for people, who are Polish. Being black is normal for people, who have black skin. My definition of normal is acceptable, to be embraced.
Jeannine Gramick: The Church doesn’t belong only to heterosexual Poles   
photographer: Tomasz Kaczor

By Wanda Kaczor and Jakub Niewiadomski

Since the early 1970s you have been in the ministry on behalf of LGBT people in the US. Do you see any similarities between what you know about the current situation in Poland and the situation in those times?

Yes, I would say that in the United States we as a Catholic community were probably very much where a lot of Polish bishops are today. By that I mean there was fear, negativity, boxing-in of people, looking at them just in term of sexuality. But we have grown, at least the people in the pew, in the US. There is much more acceptance of LGBT people.

I think that’s going to happen in Poland, when more and more LGBT people start to come out. Because I think the reason that we have grown and really have become more Christian is because people are realizing that some of their children, brothers or sisters, cousins or nieces are gay. With this realization you humanize the person. You look upon an individual as a friend, as a relative. That’s how we should approach individuals – the way Jesus did in the Gospel, he loved everyone. Even if you consider their lifestyle wrong, if you don’t agree with it, remember that Jesus is still loving and accepting. So I would just urge the bishops and all the people in Poland, all of us who call ourselves Christians to act in the Christian way.

But to what you are saying the bishops would answer that they do love gays and lesbians, but they hate their sin.

But their words do not say that. They talk about 'gender ideology’ or ‘rainbow plague’ instead of looking at them as at the individuals. It’s not the ideology! They’re people.

Do LGBT people who today come to you for an advice or just to talk have the same questions, the same problems as they had in the 70s? Or the conversation is different now?

Yes, it’s different now. Back then I had people who were coming and thinking of suicide. Or thanking me because they read my book and said: “you saved me from suicide”. Most gay and lesbian Catholics who I know today have made their own conscience decisions. And that conscience decision is they believe that what’s their life as a gay, lesbian or trans person, is the good life that is blessed and loved by God. And even though the official Church does not look kindly upon them, they feel that God does. They really don’t need that kind of counseling anymore. Another thing that’s changing is coming not just from LGBT people but parents. We’re giving retreats for parents of LGBT children. And what I would hear, let’s say, before 2000: “Oh, you know, my son, he’s such a good boy, I love him so much, but he doesn’t go to Church anymore. And sister, why doesn’t he? What can I do to get him to come to Church?”. The same parents after so many years, some after the retreats, just say: “I love my son. And my daughter is married. Why can’t my son get married? Why does the Church say it’s ok for my daughter, who is heterosexual, but why doesn’t the Church bless my son’s marriage, my gay son’s marriage?”

In those early 70s you were already a Catholic nun. What happened that you became an advocate on behalf of LGBT people?  

I was a graduate student and I met some gay people at the university. We became very good friends with one gay man. He asked me what the Catholic Church was doing for his gay brothers and sisters. He was born and raised Catholic, but he was going to the Episcopal Church, because he said the Catholic Church didn’t want him. He had been thrown out of the confessional, when he said he was gay. And he didn’t go back. But the Episcopal Church was beginning to have a ministry on behalf of LGBT people. He had lots of Catholic gay friends who haven’t gone to church like him for years, because they felt rejected. So we began to have a weekly mass at his apartment for his gay friends. And that was the beginning. I went on to teach, I’ve got my degree, I taught college mathematics. But when my religious community had another sister who got her PhD, who could replace me in the Math Department, then I was assigned to lesbian and gay ministry (those days we didn’t know about transgender).

So you must have found a priest, who wanted to celebrate that Eucharist with you. Now in Poland the Faith and Rainbow organization quite often has hard time finding a priest even to celebrate the Eucharist “under cover”. So many, many priests would not accept the invitation because of fear.

Maybe that was possible in the early 70s, because it was right after Second Vatican Council. And there was a lot of change happening in the Church. There was a lot of people going out and doing Gospel’s thing. It wasn’t difficult to find a priest in the 70s in the streets.

And before you met this man and this group, what was your attitude towards lesbian and gay community?

Oh, I was just very stereotypical. I thought they were… weird. I felt sorry for them. I thought there is something wrong with them psychologically. But I just thought we should be kind to them. I didn’t think they were like a normal person. And when I met Dominic and his friends it really caused me to change my attitude. Because out of the fact that they were gay or lesbian, I thought these are just like the heterosexual people I know. They were in all walks of life. They were funny, down-to-earth, like normal people. So I had to change my views. If by “normal” you mean acceptable, nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to be afraid of, nothing that should cause people worry, nothing psychologically wrong, then being lesbian, gay, transgender is absolutely normal. Being transgender to me is normal for people, who are transgender. Being lesbian is normal for people, who are lesbian. Being Polish is normal for people, who are Polish. Being black is normal for people, who have black skin. My definition of normal is acceptable, to be embraced. There’s nothing wrong with it.

If you look at the opinion even among Catholics in the US, 75% to 80% of Catholics accept LGBT people. They don’t think there should be any discrimination in society, in laws, they don’t think there should be discrimination in Church. They might think that way because they have met people who have come out and that can change your views, it changes your attitude.

All of the things you called normal, so many people, among them Catholics, would say that what you are saying is against the teaching of the Church, because for example the Catechism says that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and under no circumstances can be approved.”

But it doesn’t say anything about the person. It’s talking about sexual activity. First of all, there is the whole school of thought of Catholic theologians, and other Christian theologians, who believe that the Church’s theology of sexuality needs to be reconsidered, because it’s based on the science of the 14th century. It hasn’t been updated. And I’m in that school. But whether or not you are in that school, the church’s sexual teaching the way it is now, doesn’t condemn or it doesn’t say that a lesbian, gay or transgender person is abnormal. All it is saying is that sexual activity of two people of the same gender is not acceptable. So this illustrates my point, that bishops and others when they talk about lesbian, gay, transgender or bisexual people, immediately they go to sex, instead of the whole person.

You just pointed out that teaching of the Church on sexual ethics – why don’t we go to the teaching of the Church that deals with human dignity – the social teaching of the Church. We have emphasized the sexual teaching so that is way out of the proportions.  Even if you are of a conservative viewpoint and think it doesn’t need to be reexamined, I think you still concede that it’s way out of the proportions. Sexual ethics change. Augustin taught that if a husband and wife had sexual intercourse and didn’t produce a child, there were sins involved, because procreation had to be evidently, had to have a core. Well, that teaching changed. But it was always procreation and then gradually what came in to the Church’s sexual teaching was that the love between the husband and the wife was important. There were two ends to sexuality – there had to be a procreative and the unitive dimension, the love of the couple. But when I was in high school and we were taught that the procreative dimension was more important than the unitive one. The Second Vatican Council changed that. Now there are coequal in importance. And more progressive theologians today are saying that the dimension of sexuality that pertains to procreation needs to be developed. So we don’t necessarily need to procreate, we should be creative to the community.

Yes, we know that the Catechism calls everyone to treat homosexuals with dignity and in Poland we still have a lot to do in that matter. But once there is already bigger acceptance for homosexuals in the society and among the priests, we will eventually get to that point when we have to talk about reexamining the teaching on homosexual marriages. Is there any chance for a change in Roman Catholic Church? 

The German Church is taking up that issue. They’re instituting the synods in all their dioceses. That’s what Pope Francis is advocating. This synod approach is that bishops come together with lay people in their dioceses and everybody has a vote. And there are more lay people then there are bishops, so bishops are going to be outnumbered. There are bishops in Germany who are calling for revision of the Church’s sexual ethics, teaching on homosexuality. There are some Catholic churches that are already blessing same sex unions, for example in Switzerland. We’re doing it in the States, too, but it’s not public there as it is in Germany and Switzerland. These are all indications that, in my view, things are going to change the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics. It not just needs to change for lesbian and gay people. It needs to change for heterosexual couples. We still have on the bookshelves a teaching about artificial birth control. And Catholics at least in the United States don’t follow that. More than 90% of Catholics don’t believe that at all that artificial methods of birth control are immoral. There is a basic flaw in the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics.

Which is…?

The teaching says that every sexual act should be open to procreation. And yet no Catholic theologian has been able to explain, why the Church allows to a man and a woman to marry and have sexual intercourse if the woman is beyond childbearing years or if either one of them is incapable. And yet the Church doesn’t require them to live as brother and sister. And yet there’s no possibility of procreation. There is an inherent contradiction there. So it is allowed for heterosexual couples to express their love, even if they can’t procreate, but it’s not allowed for homosexual couples. Basic injustice.

So the Roman Catholic teaching and Catechism shouldn’t be a very strict boundary in your opinion?

No, it shouldn’t. We do need Catechism. We need Canon Law and guidelines. But we can’t be rigid about it. I remember 1983 that changed the Code of Canon Law from the Code in 1917. And I had a wonderful lecture being given about the Code. Basically the Canon lawyer was saying: “the moment that the Canon Law is promulgated, it is already out of date”.

Laws change. But it takes a long time for law is changed. By the time they wrote Canon Law in 1983 there was something that was already out of date. Law is based on the culture – what people do, what people believe, how we should act, how we treat each other. We’re constantly learning and getting new insights, and realizing that what we did at first wasn’t quite right. We have to revise it.

Probably the most common argument against gay marriages, women priests, and optional celibacy would be that it’s against the Catechism.

Well, we have to remember about the need for change. Having laws is good, but they constantly need to be reviewed and revised. We can’t think that something is written and stoned.

So you think that Church’s teaching would evolve in time. And how do you feel about issues like celibacy or women priests for example?

I think celibacy is good, I think celibacy is a gift. But God doesn’t give that gift to everyone. And God could call someone to priesthood and not call that person to celibacy. Why should we think that God gives those two gifts simultaneously to a person? So I believe in optional celibacy for priests.

For women – why do we think God is only calling males to be priests? Because there were twelve male apostles? Well, they were all Jewish. Maybe God is calling only Jewish people to be a priest? I mean – really? Who are we to block the gifts of God?

For us here in Poland such words from a Roman Catholic nun are… surprising.

And let me say I’m not unique in among the nuns in the US. Not every nun of course, but the majority of nuns would be for optional celibacy for priests, for equal rights for lesbian and gay people, even for same sex marriage, for women priests. The US nuns generally want to see those changes come about in the Church. So we don’t block the gifts that God is giving to the community.

For your activism, for what you’re saying, you also had some unkind reactions from the Church officials. There was a letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1999 and also from the Conference of the US Bishops in 2011 to the New Ways Ministry you were part of. They were told not to identify themselves as the Catholic organization anymore. So how do you feel about this rejection as a person that devoted life for the Church as the community, but also the Church as the organization?

For a couple of years I felt very depressed. I felt rejected by the Vatican. The community that had assigned me to this ministry for over twenty years, wanted me to continue, if there hadn’t been that Vatican intervention they were afraid of. And the superior general begged me: “you know, just do something else and later on you could come back to it”. But I knew that wouldn’t be the solution. So I transferred communities. I felt great sorrow because I had to leave my religious community that I had been a part of for 40 years, that I loved and that loved me, supported me, assigned me to the ministry. That separation was really painful. But it was a blessing in the skies, because the new community, Sisters of Loretto, embraced the ministry and me. I’m now Sister of Loretto for almost twenty years and I truly love my sisters. To me it’s an example that good things can come from painful situations. There is a quote I’d like to share with you from the foundress of my first community. Mother Teresa Gerhandinger from Germany said: “All the works of God proceed slowly and in pain, but their roots are the stronger and their flowering is the lovelier”. So when it happened I felt great pain, but then my roots got stronger. And I think the flowers are much lovelier.

Did the Vatican interventions stop ever since you’ve transferred communities?

They continued. Sisters of Loretto got letter from the Vatican that I should seize this ministry. But they politely wrote back, that it was the work of the community, that the community stood for justice and this was the part of justice.

I don’t know if there is a connection, but I think there is, in 2012 the Vatican decided they were going to investigate all of the US nuns. And I’m a believer that there should be investigation if there are complains. But they should be conducted fairly. The conservative Catholics in the United States wrote to the Vatican that they were concerned that the US nuns were not following the Church’s teaching. Specifically, as always, the sexual issues. So the Vatican stated they were coming over to hold hearings and they investigate about 700 different congregations in the United States. And they visited motherhouses and had dialogues with people, representatives of the communities. And that investigation really was not concluded until Pope Francis. And the conclusion was that the US nuns are doing nothing wrong, that they should be commended for what they’ve done. Since Pope Francis, there’ve been no letters from the Vatican, even for any of the other congregation or for my particular ministry. And in fact in 2016 I led a pilgrimage of 50 LGBT people and their families to Rome. I wrote to Pope Francis to say that we would like to meet with him. We didn’t get the private meeting, but his secretary said that there were special tickets for us. So that at the general audience the Swiss Guard assured us up the steps of Saint Peter’s and we were right on the platform next to where Pope Francis was going to come out to the speech.

So talking about Pope Francis do you have any intuition whether during his papacy will the gay marriages be enabled in the Catholic Church or any changes in that direction?

Yes, but I don’t think Pope Francis himself will initiate that. Nor do I think he should. I think Pope Francis is doing a wonderful job in moving us to what the Second Vatican Council called us to do. And that was to be a people of God. The Church belongs to the people. The Church doesn’t belong to the hierarchy. The hierarchy should reflect the faith of the people. It shouldn’t tell the people what to believe. It should proclaim what the people believe. And so Pope Francis is trying to get the whole Catholic community, the one billion plus of us in this world, to take honorship of the Church. And that’s the synodal process that he’s talking about – we come together as a Church. And we talk, we discuss, we disagree. It’s going to be chaotic. There is going to be confusion. And the conservative bishops in the United States criticize Pope Francis because he’s causing confusion. Well, that’s what life is about! That’s what the community is about! But after a while if you truly have faith in the Spirit, the Spirit will show us where to go. But meanwhile we have to have this disagreement. So Pope Francis is laying the groundwork for us to become a mature Church, a mature community. And if we are a mature community I think we are going to get to that point of embracing gay marriage, same sex marriage. Bishop Jacques Gaillot, who is now retired, was called out of office because he was blessing same sex unions and John Paul II called him out of his diocese. When Gaillot met with Francis and told him he was blessing same sex unions, Francis said he was doing something good.

There is a big criticism of Pope Francis among many conservative Poles. I feel that they are convinced that he is an exception, when his papacy is over the next pope will be John Paul III. But the others do hope that after Pope Francis, the Francis II will come. What’s your viewpoint?

Right now these are the cardinals that elect the pope. And right now he has appointed practically half of the cardinals. There are 120 that would be voting. So he has appointed a few more cardinals that are Francis bishops, Francis cardinals, to carry on his movement to get us back to the Vatican II. We have 35 years of repression, of trying to undo the Second Vatican Council. He’s trying to get us back on track. And he is not political I think as I am. The way he’s appointing cardinals it’s not what they believe on sexual ethics or change. He’s looking for cardinals who are for the poor. He has this great love for the poor, for the marginalized. Just as Jesus. To me he is a living example of what Jesus would be, if Jesus lived on this age. That’s why he invited our group to come. And he met also with another group of LGBT people from England. It was a last year when they came on pilgrimage. This Pope really gives me hope.

Without a doubt Francis is a change. And what he does with the excluded and with the LGBT community is one thing. But also for a few occasions he said words about the validity of marriage for example that should always be with one man and one woman. So one may think that he does and he acts one way, but when you ask him a deeper question, than he says something different.

Well, not really. First of all I should say he is open to change. He admits that he makes mistakes. It’s one thing popes don’t like to do. And he is open to listening and revising. He met with a gay man from Chile who was sexually abused and told him that “God loves you the way you are.” Now, he may not right now agree with same sex marriage, I know he talked about a civil union when he was Bergoglio in Argentina. But I think we shouldn’t look to him to make changes. We need to do it ourselves.

You already told us about your feelings after or due to the rejection of the Church’s officials but how do you define yourself: more still a Catholic nun or maybe in some points more as a social justice rebel?

Oh, I’m a Catholic nun. I will always be a Catholic nun. There is no contradiction.

Maybe that’s the thing. Because some would say that maybe as a nun or as a priest you should not be so involved in political issues. 

Of course you should. I don’t think you can be a good nun or priest and not be involved in political issues. Because politics is how you act. One’s faith should not be sterile. One’s faith impacts on the community. And if you truly believe something, you want to let people know what you believe, and you want to use whatever mechanisms you can to affect good. So I’m heavily involved in Church renewal because the Church can always be renewed. I like Cardinal Newman’s words: “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” And we will never be perfect. Until we die. So we have to keep changing, we have to keep moving toward that perfection. And so we have to be social activists.

Few months ago there was a scandal in Poland over the poster of Virgin Mary with rainbow halo? Many people in Poland claim it offended their religious sentiments. What would you answer them?

Well, I guess my feeling is that the Madonna belongs to everyone. We in the Western world picture Mary as white. But in the Western world we picture Mary as white. But she can be pictured as a black Madonna. And that would speak to people of black color. Mary could be pictured like in Guadalupe so she’s more Hispanic looking. And that speaks to the heart of the Hispanic person. Putting the rainbow around the Black Madonna, now she speaks to the heart of the LGBT person. So what’s wrong with that? I mean icons or images are meant to bring out of our hearts and lift our hearts up to God. If there is a way to lift up the hearts, and the minds, and the souls of LGBT people to God in this way, for that would do it with the Black Madonna – that’s beautiful. That is a lovely work of art. We need to take our religious symbols and make them meaningful for whatever group of people. It doesn’t just belong to one group. Mary doesn’t belong to just people in Poland.

People treated it rather as a provocation rather than an attempt to make this picture more inviting for other groups of society.

I would hope and my wish is that we could put ourselves in the other person shoes. How would they feel if they were a gay person, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person? Looking at that that, they would feel comforted. Don’t always think of yourself. We should be looking at it from another person’s point of view.

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