We need a victory of speech over the violence of silence

This story appears in the Orlando shooting feature series. View the full series.

by Jeannine Gramick


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"I have been thinking about you a lot lately … first with the news about the Loretto sisters being called to Rome. And then, of course, since the shootings in Orlando. … At morning prayer at home we prayed for the LGBT people and their families and for a strengthening of the message of nonviolence." 

I've received many phone and email messages like this one lately. You see, I'm a Sister of Loretto and I've been involved in ministry on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics for 45 years. 

On June 12 came the shocking news that the most lethal mass shooting in modern U.S. history had occurred inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. -- 50 people dead, including the gunman, and 53 injured. 

This was by no means the first such attack. More than 40 years ago, an arson fire at a gay club in New Orleans snuffed out the lives of 32 LGBT people. Every day, LGBT people around the world are at risk because of verbal threats, intimidation and bullying, and even imprisonment, torture and death. 

Often we don't even recognize the homophobia and transphobia in unacceptable jokes or casual comments. But subconscious, intolerant attitudes toward LGBT people fuel the kind of bizarre violence that happened in Orlando.

One kind of violence not often recognized is the violence of silence. After the Orlando massacre, some in our church were guilty of this kind of violence. Headlines the world over noted that the shooting took place in a gay club, but statements released by the Vatican press office, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Orlando's bishop conspicuously passed over references that the people targeted were lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Some bishops issued no statement at all.

Silence is violence when, as in this instance, it denies the existence of a whole category of people, people who have been targeted with physical violence because of who they are. If I don't acknowledge your existence, I do not need to recognize your rights; I do not see that you need added protections. Furthermore, I am unable to know you or to relate to you in a meaningful way.

"Silence=Death," the slogan of AIDS activists in the 1980s, not only questioned President Ronald Reagan's silence about the disease, it also boldly declared that, as a matter of survival, silence about the repression of LGBT people must end. The violence of silence kills.

I thought again about the email from my friend who wrote to me also because the Sisters of Loretto were called to the Vatican. Fifteen U.S. communities of women religious have been contacted by the Vatican's congregation for religious life to continue conversations begun during the 2008-2014 apostolic visitation of women's orders. Four of those 15 have been identified. Three have spoken publicly about the Vatican's latest summons: the Loretto sisters, the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

These three communities represent for me a victory of speech over silence. Church investigations of individuals or groups have usually been shrouded in secrecy, which has had disastrous consequences for the life of the church. Secrecy instills fear and enables authorities to exercise control of mind or action. When significant matters are kept secret from the faithful, church leaders cannot be held accountable for their actions, nor can the faithful engage in informed conversations about important issues.

Of course, confidentiality may be needed for certain considerations, but confidentiality is more respected if used sparingly. To the average Catholic, what church leaders choose to keep confidential seems arbitrary. Perhaps the church needs a Freedom of Information Act?

Silence can destroy any family, not only a family with LGBT persons. It can destroy a family that is not accepted at a church because of a divorced parent, or is ignored by neighbors because of a special needs child, or cannot talk about some dysfunction within it. Silence can even destroy the spiritual family we call church. 

To the three religious communities we know of, the Vatican congregation has expressed concern about public dissent from church teaching. Apparently, the congregation prefers that individuals and groups keep silent if they dissent. 

Rather than be alarmed, the congregation should view accusations of dissent as possible signs of vitality. How has our church been able to change over the centuries, if not by dissent? Modifications in the church's position on slavery, usury, and salvation outside the church are the usual examples of doctrinal change all affected by public dissent.

Public dissent can stimulate in people the courage to speak honestly about their experiences. In the search for truth, there will be much diversity of opinion, many ambiguities and even confusion. Only the test of time will show what is authentic.

Pope Francis seems to encourage dissenting views. He tells youth to "make a mess" and exhorted the bishops at the Synod on the Family to speak their minds, even if they disagreed with him. I believe that Francis is depending upon the people of God to hasten needed reforms in our church, but these reforms depend upon free speech and access to information from church sources.

If our church were a democracy and this a campaign year, my yard signs and buttons would read, "Down with the violence of silence and up with a victory for speech!"

[Loretto Sr. Jeannine Gramick is longtime friend of NCR.]

A version of this story appeared in the July 15-28, 2016 print issue.

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