Source: NCR Editorial Staff, National Catholic Reporter, https://www.ncronline.org/opinion/editorial/ncrs-newsmaker-2023-jeannine-gramick-tireless-advocate-lgbtq-catholics
There are many ways in which the Catholic Church of 2023, now more than 10 years into Pope Francis' papacy, looks very different from the Catholic Church of 2013.
A church prone to secret investigations of theologians and unjustified crackdowns on Catholic sisters has become a proponent of the open door and a "culture of encounter." A church where Synods of Bishops had become so predetermined that most prelates, quite literally, slept through the proceedings has become one of parrhesia, and of no subject being left off the table.
And a church once left with little to say to the wider political realm now leads the charge globally to save humanity from itself, and the coming world of "debris, desolation and filth" caused by our shameful exploitation of the planet.
But this year we have seen extraordinary, if tentative, movement in one area in particular: how the Catholic Church includes and ministers to its LGBTQ members. Things have happened in the past 12 months that would have once seemed the work of a novelist untethered from reality.
In February, days before a trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, Francis condemned the continuing criminalization of homosexuality in some African countries.
In October, he expressed openness to Catholic blessings for same-sex couples, at least on a case-by-case basis.
And in November, the pope signed off on a note from the Vatican's powerful doctrinal office clarifying that trans persons, even those who have undergone gender-affirming surgery, can be baptized and can serve as godparents.
Contrast all this with Pope Benedict XVI's March 2012 request to U.S. bishops from states then considering whether to legalize same-sex marriage that the prelates should resist "the powerful political and cultural currents seeking to alter the legal definition of marriage." Or Benedict's earlier instruction prohibiting nearly any gay man from even enrolling at a Catholic seminary.
The church of 2023 is certainly not the church of 2013.
The steps forward have been cautious, to be sure. And there are many, many disappointments. The 2023 synod assembly's inability to even acknowledge its discussions about LGBTQ issues in its final document was particularly discouraging. And the raft of so-called gender policies being imposed by U.S. bishops on American Catholic educational institutions are generally shameful, and possibly even dangerous for students already vulnerable to stigmatization, depression or dysmorphia.
But Francis certainly deserves credit for the steps he has taken. And so do the countless number of LGBTQ persons and advocates who have been praying, pushing and pleading for the global institution to at least live up to its teachings on the inherent dignity of all human beings, and, perhaps more, to see grace in all stable and loving relationships.
On this front, the American church has been gifted with an incredible litany of saints.
Persons such as Marianne Duddy-Burke, who because of her uncompromising ministry with LGBTQ Catholics as part of DignityUSA had not even been invited to speak at a Catholic parish over a period of some three decades. And Francis DeBernardo, who has dealt with his own share of disinvitations as part of New Ways Ministry. And Jesuit Fr. James Martin, who in 2022 launched the LGBTQ Catholic publication Outreach. And Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean clergy abuse survivor living in the U.S. who has developed an influential friendship with Francis. And many, many of our parents, sisters, brothers, children and grandchildren.
But over the past five decades of American Catholic experience, perhaps no single person has had the kind of impact for our LGBTQ community members as Loretto Sr. Jeannine Gramick.
Loretto Sr. Jeannine Gramick in Rome in October 2023 (NCR photo/Joshua J. McElwee)
Ever since launching New Ways Ministry with the late Salvatorian Fr. Robert Nugent in 1977, she has been a tireless, persistent and effective advocate. She has borne the scars of abuse by church authorities with uncommon dignity.
In 1999, when then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI, prohibited her and Nugent from any pastoral work with LGBTQ persons, Gramick kept at it quietly, and went to Rome to see about having that order reversed.
When the Vatican in 2000 pressured Gramick's first religious congregation, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, to order her to cease speaking publicly about her LGBTQ ministry, she simply moved to another congregation, and, again, kept going.
Tireless is the word, certainly. Another descriptor would be successful. Another, perhaps more important, would be cunning. Sensing a change in Roman winds, Gramick and her New Ways colleagues started a direct correspondence with Francis in early 2021.
Stunningly, the pope wrote back. He called Gramick "a valiant woman," who had suffered for her ministry. He also thanked the group as a whole for their "neighborly work."
This October, Francis and Gramick met in person at the Vatican, for a historic 50-minute encounter at the pope's residence. Ever the practitioner of persistent relationship-building, Gramick made sure to alter the arrangement of the room, in order to slide her chair a little closer to the pope's.
We cannot say exactly what has made Francis more open and aware this year to the needs of LGBTQ Catholics. But certainly, that sister scooching her chair forward has had an outsized impact. For her 50 years of successful advocacy, ministry and influence, Loretto Sr. Jeannine Gramick is NCR's Newsmaker of 2023.
Source: Jason Steidl Jack, National Catholic Reporter, https://www.ncronline.org/opinion/guest-voices/remembering-revolutionary-pax-nidorf-who-founded-lgbt-ministry-dignityusa.
On Feb. 11, 1971, Fr. Pat Nidorf, an Augustinian priest from San Diego, was called on the carpet by Los Angeles Archbishop Timothy Manning. Nidorf's sin? Arranging monthly self-help meetings for gay and lesbian Catholics in the basement of St. Brendan Church. Nidorf had named the group Dignity. "One of our basic goals was to bring dignity into the spiritual and social lives of some very special people."
Pax Nidorf (Courtesy of Pat McArron)
Pax Nidorf (Courtesy of Pat McArron)
The support group, which affirmed the goodness of same-sex relationships and celebrated gay and lesbian identities, was the first of its kind in the institutional Catholic Church. For the archbishop, that was also why it was "untenable."
Without Manning's permission to move forward, the gathering was illicit and Nidorf was unwelcome. The Augustinian became one of the first American priests to be censured for his work with gay and lesbian Catholics. He would not be the last.
By the time that Nidorf was barred from ministry in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, he had already been leading Dignity for more than a year. In the late 1960s, he was a teacher at St. Augustine High School in San Diego, where he met students who struggled with their sexuality.
As a professional psychologist, Nidorf recognized the limits of the church's approach to homosexuality and proposed a group, as he later said, to confront the "excessive and unreal problem of guilt that was sometimes reinforced in the confessional instead of resolved."
After securing the support of his fellow Augustinians, Nidorf founded Dignity.
At that time, it was still unsafe to publicly identify as gay, so Dignity advertised in gay newspapers and magazines. To protect participants' identities, Nidorf interviewed potential members, who often used pseudonyms to protect their anonymity, and sent out announcements about future meetings through a monthly newsletter.
Dignity's first constitution, written in May 1970, argued that "homosexuality is a natural variation on the use of sex," and that gays and lesbians could be proud of their "responsible and fulfilling" experiences of sexual intimacy.
Nidorf, who died in in Escondido, California, on March 27, 2023, at the age of 91, was revolutionary at a time when the American Psychiatric Association still classified homosexuality as a mental disorder. Soon after Dignity's founding, letters seeking counsel and care poured in from around the country.
Nidorf moved the meeting to Los Angeles, where there were many more gays and lesbians and a much greater need for his work.
Months after Dignity's Los Angeles chapter began, its members clamored for archdiocesan recognition. In the years immediately following the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, laypeople were inspired to push for innovative ministries and forms of community to meet their spiritual needs. It was a time of experimentation and openness, long before Pope John Paul II expelled groups like Dignity from Catholic parishes. Dignity members were sorely disappointed when Manning banned them.
Nidorf's reaction to Manning's decision, however, reflected his personality. Rather than fighting back or creating a commotion, he quickly and quietly handed over leadership to capable laypeople. With Nidorf's resignation at a community potluck on February 20, 1971, Dignity became a lay-led group.
Marianne Duddy-Burke, current executive director of DignityUSA, recalled that Nidorf "clearly supported what Dignity had become as a lay-led ministry and organization and downplayed his own role in our birth. ... He always saw Dignity as a community, a legacy we build on to this day."
According to Pat McArron, who first met Nidorf in San Diego in 1971 and was DignityUSA president from 1999 to 2002, the Augustinian priest was "very friendly, very warm, cordial, [and] nonjudgmental."
For years after leaving Dignity leadership, Nidorf returned to say Mass for local meetings and occasionally visited regional and national gatherings. McArron said that many Dignity members were fond of Nidorf, considering him the "grandfather" of the organization.
As happened with many priests in the heady years after Vatican II, the council set in motion changes to Father Pat's personal life as well. Just a few years after starting Dignity, Nidorf changed his name to Pax, left the priesthood, and exchanged his celibate vocation for romantic love. In 1973, he married Dacia St. John, also a psychologist, and the pair were happily married for 26 years until her death in 1999.
After marrying, Pax continued to serve gays and lesbians as a therapist in private practice. In addition to writing spirituality-themed books, he developed his skills as an artist, a lifelong passion that he described as his "first love."
Many of his paintings incorporated religious and homoerotic themes. One of his favorite subjects to paint was the handsome face of a bloodied Christ wearing a crown of thorns, an image, perhaps, that reflected the suffering of gays and lesbians he served throughout his life.
Although Nidorf's most important contributions to LGBTQ ministry had already been made by the end of 1971, his interventions were critical to the future of the Catholic movement. According to McCarron, Nidorf "was the spark that lit the flame" for DignityUSA, an organization that has supported thousands of queer Catholics since it began more than half a century ago.
In a statement to mark Nidorf's death, current DignityUSA President Meli Barber shared, "Because Pax had the compassion, the vision, and the courage to understand that LGBTQIA+ Catholics needed a safe space to pray and find a spiritual home, people my age have never had to live in a world without Dignity. ... What an amazing gift to so many, and to the whole church."
At the 25th anniversary of Dignity San Diego's founding, Nidorf, by then a respected elder, encouraged the group "to share our strength, love and faith with one another. Let us challenge anyone who would question our validity."
As the movement for LGBTQ affirmation and pastoral care continues to advance in the Catholic Church, his words and actions challenge us now more than ever.