On the heels of the Vatican's dispute with American nuns, one sister is taking a defiant stand against the Catholic hierarchy's opposition to gay marriage.
Jeannine Gramick is the main speaker for a Saturday program where Catholics supporting Maryland's marriage equality law discuss ways to prevent the legislation from being repealed on referendum during the November elections. The gathering runs from 1 to 4 p.m. at Alumni Hall.
"It's a great shame that the leaders of my church—the bishops—are all out there campaigning against marriage equality," she said. "I want to be proud of my church and that makes me very ashamed."
Gramick, the 69-year-old co-founder of New Ways Ministry—which services homosexuals—has attracted the disapproval of Catholic officials as well.
"No one should be mislead by the claim that New Way Ministry provides an authentic interpretation of Catholic teaching and an authentic Catholic pastoral practice," wrote Cardinal Francis George, former president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a 2010 statement. "Their claim to be Catholic only confuses the faithful regarding the authentic teaching and ministry of the Church with respect to persons with a homosexual inclination."
Growing up in the 1940s and 50s, Gramick described her hometown of Philadelphia as a "Catholic ghetto" that was blindly obedient to church leaders.
"You didn't associate with non-Catholics," she said. "I probably unconsciously thought that being Catholic made you superior."
Gramick, now a resident of Mt. Rainer—a Washington, D.C. suburb— entered the convent at the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Baltimore when she was 18 years old. She said she first heard God's call to become a nun as a young child.
"You had this idea that nuns and priests were really close to God, so if you really loved God, you became a priest or a nun," she said. "Of course, we now know that's bad theology."
Though Gramick was initially content to accept the religious norm, she said the Second Vatican Council—a series of sessions that ran from 1962 to 1965 where church leaders addressed the faith in relation to the modern world—changed her outlook on Catholic conformity.
"The council had urged the nuns and priests to adapt, to be open-minded, to question," she said.
When Gramick first became exposed to gay culture while a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1970s, she indulged her curiosity rather than shy away from a lifestyle the Catholic Church condemns.
At the time, the Episcopal parish at the school was working on outreach efforts to gay students. She asked a pastor if she could serve drinks at a dance for the community.
"It was pure voyeurism," she said with a laugh. "I was curious."
Gramick soon befriended a gay man who joined the Episcopal Church after being rejected by Catholic leaders.
"He told me priests were throwing him out of confession when he told them about his homosexuality," she said.
Shortly afterwards, she became involved in weekly liturgies at her friend's apartment catering to the gay community.
"These people were just normal people," she said. "They were so reverent, so grateful that they could have the sacraments; that there was a priest and a sister who didn't recoil from them, who welcomed them."
Gramick and ordained priest Robert Nugent founded New Ways Ministry in 1977. The organization—which she continues to work with today—is an advocacy and research Catholic center.
Response from church leaders hasn't been favorable.
Gramick said the now-deceased James Hickey, who was a Washington, D.C. archbishop, and William Lori, then an auxiliary bishop, made several complaints against her and New Ways Ministry to the Vatican. She said Lori was mainly responsible for the dealings with the church's top leadership.
"I've never said this myself but [Lori] was known around the diocese as Cardinal Hickey's hatchet-man," she said.
Despite multiple attempts, Patch was unable to receive comment from Lori. Sean Caine, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore—where Lori now serves as archbishop—referred Patch to the 2010 statement from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops denouncing New Ways Ministry.
"New Ways Ministry has no approval or recognition from the Catholic Church and that they cannot speak on behalf of the Catholic faithful in the United States," George wrote.
The statement can be read in full on the organization's website.
Caine told Patch that Lori affirmed the statement on Wednesday.
A Tough Fight
After nearly 40 years with the School Sisters, Gramick had to leave the community because of Vatican letters asking the sisters to dismiss her if she continues with the ministry. She then joined the Sisters of Loretto, who also received threats from the church leadership but have not taken action against her.
"I discerned and felt that God was still asking this of me; to continue my work," she said.
With the conservative-minded Lori at the helm of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, however, Gramick is bracing for a tough fight.
"[Lori's] very virulent," she said. "You hate to judge others' motives—you shouldn't. I guess I could applaud him for being an advocate for what he allegedly believes in...I just don't agree."
Church vs. Parishioners
Patrick Wojahn and Dave Kolesar, College Park residents who have been together more than 10 years, are staunch advocates of Gramick's cause.
The couple was legally married in D.C. on January 2011. Prior to that, they participated in an unrecognized religious marriage ceremony in 2005 through Dignity Washington, a church not supported by the Vatican that caters to Catholics and other Christians in the homosexual community.
"I think one thing I discovered growing up Catholic is that the institutional church doesn't necessarily speak for the parishioners," Kolesar said. "I think homosexuality and gay marriage is one area where the church leadership and laity diverge."
In fact, a 2011 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that 52 percent of Catholics believe that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.
Wojahn, a College Park councilman, said it's not the church's place to comment on civil marriages.
"I'm not going to tell the Catholic Church what they should or should not believe," he said. "But our state shouldn't discriminate."
Gramick said she plans to do her best to avoid just that.
"What I believe the Vatican is trying to do is stamp out questioning, to stamp out dissent; to really destroy any kind of thinking that's different," she said.