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The Renegade

How my neighbor, a fearless nun, went to war with the Vatican.

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.

Until recently, my neighborly interactions with Gramick did not extend much beyond the occasions when she has taken my cat in on cold nights and then gently chided my wife and me for leaving him outside. But, after the recent news about the Vatican, I invited myself over for a cup of coffee.

With bright blue eyes, a slight chin, and a poof of short gray hair, Gramick looks no less the part of a nun for her years of conscientious disobedience; as she busied herself in the kitchen during my visit, she wore sandals with socks, gray drawstring pants, and a chambray button-front blouse under a navy cardigan.

From the age of seven, Gramick told me, she knew she wanted to be a nun. She entered a convent in 1960, on the eve of the Second Vatican Council—the broad progressive reform of the Church that redefined Catholicism for the modern era. It was the best of times to join religious life, Gramick says. “It was just so exhilarating,” she told me. “It felt like you were an early Christian.”

Gramick started her career as a teacher in a parochial school before going on to pursue her Ph.D. in mathematics in the early ’70s. While dispensing soft drinks at a church dance one night in graduate school, she crossed paths with a gay man named Dominic Bash. The two later befriended each other. At Bash’s suggestion, she began organizing worship services for gay and lesbian Catholics who felt estranged from the Church. It turned out there were a lot of them. Six years later, she started New Ways Ministry.

A year after that, with the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978, the Church began its long conservative backward drift—guaranteeing a life of friction between nuns like Gramick and the Vatican. One day in the late ’90s, Gramick was boarding a flight from Rome to Munich when she noticed a familiar-looking man sitting on the plane. It was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which had by that point been conducting an investigation of Gramick for more than a decade—and had been building a file on her for longer than that. Not wanting to miss a chance to meet her inquisitor, Gramick struck up a conversation. When the cardinal learned who she was, he chuckled amicably. “I have known you for twenty years,” he said.

Notwithstanding the friendliness of that in-flight exchange, Ratzinger’s office issued the conclusion of its long assessment of Gramick a year and a half later, in 1999. It was essentially a spiritual cease-and-desist order: no more speaking or writing about homosexuality, period. Gramick took some time to reflect on the command and then wrote a response: “I choose not to collaborate in my own oppression.” In effect, she treated the Vatican’s order as a suggestion—and politely declined to follow it. Since then, she has proceeded with her work, operating in a kind of Catholic doctrinal twilight.

Today, in response to Rome’s recent doctrinal assessment, some prominent nuns—including Joan Chittister, a former president of the Leadership Council of Women Religious—are suggesting that the umbrella group should simply disband and then reconstitute itself as a non-canonical institution, outside the Vatican’s purview. Effectively, they are recommending that the vast majority of American nuns do the same thing Gramick did 13 years ago: remain Catholic yet try to separate themselves from Rome. Gramick, for her part, is eager for the rest of her sisters to join her. “If we comply, if we submit to what is being asked by the Vatican, it would be a repudiation of all the renewal that we’ve done in religious life,” she told me. “I don’t believe that nuns will say we can do that.”

John Gravois is an editor at The Washington Monthly. This article appeared in the May 24, 2012 issue of the magazine.