National Catholic Reporter

October 20, 1989

pages 3-4



By Patricia Lefevere Special to NCR

GARRISON, N.Y. - The festering issue of homosexuality among Catholic clergy and nuns brought 125 religious to the Friars of the Atonement Novitiate here late last month. The group of diocesan vicars for religious, heads of congregations, pastoral counselors, vocation and novitiate directors was more than twice what the organizers - the Catholic Coalition - had anticipated.

What they heard was both pain and hope as three celibate religious disclosed their homosexual identities and the price each had paid for sexual liberation. Maryknoll Brother David Berceli, 35, of Ossining, N.Y, set the tone:

But men need and want intimacy whether they are gay or straight, he said. Gay men can and often do express this intimacy through tenderness or in an aesthetic sensibility, he said, but because they are homosexual, they meet with much resentment and abuse.

Berceli said he found "homophobia" to be pervasive in religious communities. He called the use of one's sexuality to diminish someone else "a sin of sexual abuse," and said he has often been sexually abused as a religious. However, he said,

Because of this abuse, many gay and lesbian religious hate themselves and either leave their communities or stay and lead "wretched" lives, he said.

One who did not leave is Benedictine Sister Mary Louise St. John, 46, of Erie, Pa., who entered the convent at 26 and at 40 fell in love with a much younger woman outside her community. Besides having to overcome the "neuter" stereotype that is accorded to many sisters, St. John has had to define her lesbian self from a wheelchair - a place that has "automatically rendered" her "asexual" to most people for decades, she said.

St. John praised her prioress, the first to whom she confided her lesbian identity. Since then, she has shared her "secret," as she called it, with about 30 of the Benedictines in Erie. She spends much of her time in outreach to other lesbian sisters nationwide and has discussed the issue with the diocesan vicar for religious in Erie.

While St. John in no way advocates sexual license in the midst of a celibate life-style, she said gay and lesbian religious

Capuchin Franciscan Father Richard Cardarelli of Middletown, Conn., said he knew from age four that he was gay and that he wanted to be a priest. But his journey out of the closet and toward altar was filled with name-calling and "fag-bashing" during his Catholic high school years, with two failed attempts at religious life followed by alcoholism and a suicide attempt.

At 38, he said, he is proud to be a priest and a gay man.

Another fear the priest expressed was having to look outside the church for spirituality now that he is banned from Dignity.

Father Daniel Callahan, vocation director at Garrison, said he felt the spirit of the resurrection coming from Cardarelli's story. And De La Salle Christian Brother Joseph Samson called the and its disclosures

Samson is executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference in Chicago.

A recent inquiry sent from the Chicago conference to 160 religious orders, asking whether they had a policy on HIV testing, netted 16 responses, Samson said. Only two of the 16 orders required the test, and one of them was an order staffing foreign missions.

As the numbers of men and women who enter religious life at a later age grows, there is a presumption of sexual experience on the part of vocation directors and novice masters, many told NCR. While some religious orders of women said that discussion of sexual preferences did not come up unless a candidate or a psychologist raised it, all of the men's orders who spoke with NCR said the subject was discussed.

said Father John Coleman, vocations director for the Carmelites in Washington, D.C.

Carmelites, like many other orders, decide on candidates case by case, Coleman said.

Other important factors, he said, were a candidate's spirituality, how he lives his daily life and whether he has any serious compulsions.

While no accurate statistics exist for the percentage of gays in religious life, School Sister of Notre Dame Jeannine Gramick of Baltimore - an organizer of the conference - ventured that there were 10 gay men to every gay woman in religious life. She based her estimates on nearly two decades of ministering to gays.

In late 1985, the National Conference of Religious Vocation Directors collected data on those entering religious life and found that the number of communities willing to consider a declared gay or lesbian candidate is far greater than those actually accepting them.

Is there a religious haven for gay vocations? No one could be sure, although Franciscan Brother Patrick Murphy noted that

One Garrison attendee who had attended the recent vocation directors convention in Savannah, Ga., but who did not wish to be named, said

Statistics for gay women interested in religious life were not known but were estimated by some at under 10 percent of would-be applicants. Homosexuality is hardly being dealt with among women religious, said Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Maria Regina, who serves as covicar for religious along with Murphy, in Rockville Centre.

Despite the lack of accurate statistics, religious life has been the "premier" gay life-style in the Christian West for centuries, said Yale historian John Boswell, whose book, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, traces the church's attitude toward gay people from Roman times to the 14th century.

Boswell, the conference's keynote speaker, said there has always been a disproportionate number of homosexuals in the ranks of Catholic clergy - so much so that Muslims and other non-Christians spoke of the clergy as a "confraternity of gays" during much of the Middle Ages.

Many at the conference said they awaited the historian's forthcoming book on Catholic gay marriages. Boswell, a practicing Catholic and a gay, has collected about 70 same-sex marriage rites from many lands, in many languages - many of them authenticated in Vatican documents.

While participants expressed appreciation for the conference's openness and educational outreach, a few questioned whether the disclosure that religious orders had gay members and a policy of accepting more might not threaten contributions from donors.

Coleman told NCR. He predicted a

But Berceli said he is hopeful for gays in religious life, noting that the church has some catching up to do to match in practice its

[picture caption] - Some of the leaders at a meeting to discuss homosexuality among Catholic clergy and nuns included, from the left: Benedictine Sister Mary Louise St. John, Maryknoll Brother David Berceli, Capuchin Franciscan Father Richard Cardarelli and Yale historian John Boswell.