Across the street from my home in Mount Rainier, Maryland, is a white three-story house with a wooden sign hanging next to its front door that reads, “NEW WAYS MINISTRY.” The house is among the quietest on the block, with its blinds drawn nearly all year round. Its residents are a couple of very friendly Catholic nuns and a quarrelsome pair of cats.
I was put in mind of my neighbors last month, when the Vatican announced that it was effectively instituting a hostile takeover of the Leadership Council of Women Religious, a body that represents some 80 percent of American nuns. On April 18, Rome’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared that it was placing the nuns’ group under the caretaker authority of Archbishop James Peter Sartain of Seattle, so that he could ensure a number of reforms were carried out. Specifically, the Vatican faulted the nuns for focusing too much on social injustice, and not enough on abortion and euthanasia; for evincing a “radical feminist” streak; and for their history of collective dissent against Rome and the American bishops, “the Church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.”
On this last point—the bit about dissent—the Vatican would seem to have a wealth of examples it could cite. Anyone who paid close attention to the debate over health care reform in 2010, for instance, knows that American nuns parted ways with the Catholic hierarchy rather starkly. Various sisters’ groups fought to pass the Affordable Care Act; the American bishops sought to strike it down.
But the Vatican’s document did not mention the fight over Obamacare. One act of dissent Rome did highlight, however, was the American nuns’ collective support of something far smaller—a tiny organization called New Ways Ministry. Rome, apparently, has it in for my neighbor.
NEW WAYS is an organization that advocates for gay and lesbian Catholics and their rights within the Church, including the right to marry. The group was founded in 1977 by a priest named Robert Nugent and a nun named Jeannine Gramick. Father Nugent is no longer part of the organization—having obeyed an order to silence himself on matters pertaining to homosexuality—but Sister Gramick is still preaching the somewhat renegade good word.
The New Republic, May 4, 2012