Federica and Isabel fell in love while working at rehab center for drug addicts and renounced being nuns but say they have not lost their faith
Federica and Isabel’s love story was not that unusual, apart from one detail.
The affair, which culminated in a civil union this week in the Italian town of Pinerolo, began “slowly” according to their friend, Franco Barbero. The two had a lot in common, having both decided to devote their lives to charitable work.
They fell in love working at a rehabilitation centre for drug addicts, but there was just one hitch.
Both were already married to the Catholic church.
Federica and Isabel were Franciscan nuns when they met and fell in love, and have both since renounced their vocation and spoken out against the church’s position against homosexuality.
“God wants people happy, to live the love in the light of the sun,” Isabel recently told La Stampa, the Italian daily newspaper. The two brides said that they have not lost their faith and would not otherwise have wanted to leave the church.
“We call upon our church to welcome all people who love each other,” added Federica, her new bride.
The courtship and civil union comes about one year after a Vatican official, Krzysztof Charamsa, publicly abandoned the church after announcing that he was gay and in love. Charamsa was sacked and defrocked after admitting he was in love with another man.
The two women were joined in a civil union in a ceremony behind closed doors in Pinerolo’s city hall, about 24 hours before they had planned. The ceremony was supposed to take place on Thursday, but the time was changed after the media were alerted to the story and the couple wanted to avoid a media frenzy.
Luca Salvai, the Five Star Movement mayor who performed the ceremony, told La Stampa: “We have guaranteed the right to privacy for this couple, who asked for discretion.”
He added that the couple were expected to remain in Pinerolo, which is near the city of Turin.
“Yesterday morning they arrived by themselves, scared by all the clamor, and after the ceremony they left by themselves in silence, one next to the other,” Salvai said.
It was the second same sex civil union ceremony performed in the town of Pinerolo since Italy passed legislation to legalise same-sex unions earlier this year. The couple are also due to participate in a religious service by their friend, Barbero, a former priest who was suspended because of his support of gay marriage.
“I can assure you that not all [of the other nuns] were against this. They have been criticised, but also understood by some sisters. Just as there are many good priests who do not condemn these kind of choices. I must add, for the record, that it is not the first time that I happen to marry two sisters,” he said.
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By Páraic Kerrigan
A PhD Candidate in the Department of Media Studies at Maynooth University, suggests the recent Maynooth ‘scandal’ implies that some have not kept pace with changing attitudes to sexuality in wider Irish society.
THE recent Maynooth ‘scandals’, to use the convenient media shorthand, seems to suggest that despite the major progressions surrounding LGBT rights in Ireland some attitudes remain relatively unchanged.
In particular, this remains the case for the more conservative pockets of Irish society and especially the Catholic Church.
Ireland and the Church has been subject to many sex scandals since the early 1990s but it appears that when it comes to members of our clergy and our convents being gay, (or straight for that matter) well, then all hats, or soutanes, are off.
We only have to look to an episode of The Late Late Show from a little over thirty years ago to see the moral panic that can be generated on the acknowledgement that priests and nuns can have a sexuality too.
On the release of their book, Breaking Silence: Lesbian Nuns on Convent Sexuality, Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan appeared on The Late Late Show to promote its release in Ireland.
Both Manahan and Curb were ex-nuns and lesbians who had risen to notoriety following the book’s release in the US.
Controversially, the publication contained within it interviews with women who entered convent life, only to later discover that they were lesbians.
Prior to its launch in Ireland, Nell McCafferty correctly predicted the book was ‘enough to create furore and a minor furore there will no doubt be’.
Immediately upon its release, a text acknowledging that nuns also have sexual inhibitions, and gay ones at that, was considered so heinous that the Irish customs authorities seized 1,500 copies on its arrival to the island.
It wasn’t just the customs authorities that were so scandalised. Middle Ireland wanted to have their say too.
In fact, they were so infuriated by both Curb and Manahan, that they mobilised themselves into a picket and protested outside of the Buswells Hotel on Molesworth Street, where the pair had been staying.
When The Late Late Show announced in the RTÉ Guide that same week that the ex-nuns would be making an appearance on that Saturday’s edition of the show, the telephone switchboards at RTÉ lit up with protest calls.
On the night of the broadcast itself, the shocked and appalled members of conservative Catholic Ireland held a vigil outside of the Montrose studios, where they erected a statue of the Virgin Mary, while being led by a priest through decades of the rosary as he was amplified from an ice-cream van on site.
Despite the furore caused during the week, the interview with the nuns ended up being not all that scandalous.
Despite getting one of the highest audience figures for any Irish TV show during the 1980s, the interview was fairly tame by Late Late standards.
Even Sr. Maura, an Irish nun from the Daughters of Sion who was on the panel that night, made the rather progressive comment reminding the Irish audience that the clergy don’t ‘leave their sexuality at the door’ when they enter religious life.
Perhaps it was this attitude that may have benefitted Archbishop Martin in his recent press statements on ‘the strange goings-ons’ at Maynooth.
Despite major changes to public attitudes since 1985 in wider Irish society, however, homosexuality is still clearly viewed as a problem by the church.
Looking at Late Late incident and the Maynooth story in tandem highlights that the church’s attitude to homosexuality has not changed but at least Ireland’s Catholic elite have not yet descended on St. Patrick’s seminary at Maynooth with an ice-cream van and a statue of the Blessed Virgin.
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Dr Fran Fisher’s latest book blows the lid off the repressed sexuality of convent life. And it’s a subject the former nun knows first hand
By Joanna Moorhead
From nun to sex therapist isn’t an obvious career path but, says the former Sister Jane Frances de Chantal, “when you’ve been starved for a while, you certainly appreciate the feast at the end of it”.
Today, Sister Jane is Dr Fran Fisher, a California “sexologist” in US-speak. But she was born and raised in Yorkshire and entered a Franciscan convent in Derbyshire aged 18. She left two years later, met and married an academic, and moved to the US. It wasn’t until she was in her 40s, she says, that she began to understand how much her Catholic upbringing, and her experience of being a nun, had damaged her sexual instincts.
With her children growing up, she saw a course in sex therapy advertised and her interest was immediately piqued. “I enrolled, and what happened next blew my head off. One day the tutor said we were going to discuss our masturbation history and I thought, can I really do this? Somewhere inside I was still a nun even after all these years … I was still sexually naive. I realised that the legacy of my time in the convent was the cause of most of the problems in my marriage. It had been drummed into me as a novice that I didn’t really have ownership over anything, even my own body.”
Fisher decided to combine her new professional direction, running workshops and counselling, with her own past, and to find out whether other former nuns had had similar experiences: the result is a book in which she interviews 28 women who, like her, took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience only to later leave orders. She talked to them about their sexuality before, during and after their time in the convent and discovered many similarities. “Most of the women I interviewed had been raised in strict Catholic families. Many had an alcoholic father. Quite a few had a history of physical and/or sexual abuse. A lot of them described the convent as a safe place to go.”
Fisher, who is now in her early 60s, realised that some of the traits of her own childhood were typical – in particular the fact that both her Irish Catholic parents had wholly negative attitudes towards sex. Her father, she says, almost always described women in pejorative terms; her mother, meanwhile, thought sex was “dangerous, dirty, vile, nasty and filthy”. When Fisher, then aged 14, feared she was pregnant – after an episode of petting that didn’t involve intercourse – her mother fuelled her fears, leaving her with a sense of “never wanting to have anything to do with a man again”.
The convent had the allure of a place where women were pure and mysterious and – most importantly – safe. But once inside its walls, her sexuality began to surface. Fisher became increasingly unhappy, lost a lot of weight, and eventually left the convent one Saturday morning while all the other sisters were at mass. She was, she says, still as naive about sex as she was when she arrived. But that wasn’t the case with all the women she interviewed. “Those who spent decades in a convent had usually experienced a sexual awakening. Some had relationships with other nuns, some with priests, some with laypeople.”
Some of them, too, talked to Fisher about how they were aware of sexual abuse that was going on in the Catholic church – but most, she says, were unable or unwilling to do anything about it. “Very few nuns were whistle-blowers,” she says. “When you’re a nun, you give away your ability to judge a situation.” Obedience meant not taking the lead and not questioning those who were obviously in positions of authority – such as male priests.
Some of the women in the book describe exploitative and unequal sexual relationships with priests – relationships they later questioned but which, at the time, they accepted as “necessary” for the men. As for having a healthy, “normal” sexual relationship, some of the women Fisher interviewed were middle-aged before this happened for the first time. “One woman described having intercourse for the first time aged 52. Another told me that when she first got a boyfriend, aged 50, she had sex every night for the first two or three months. Her partner thought he was going out with an Amazonian – but she said to him: “I’ve waited half a century for this, just lie back and shut up!'”
Fisher, like some of those she interviewed, did eventually experience a happy and more typical sex life. But she is fiercely critical of the Catholic system that allows naive young women (these days, more usually they are from Africa or Asia rather than Europe or North America) to uproot themselves from their families and enter a convent.
“The practice of taking young women (or men) from a childhood of indoctrination and expecting them to make a lifelong commitment to celibacy in their early 20s is clearly wrong,” she says. “And it’s still going on. Not long ago, I saw some young nuns being interviewed on TV. I saw their faces, and I thought: it’s still happening. There are still young women in some parts of the world for whom a convent offers a sanctuary from difficult questions about sex, an education, opportunities. But it’s running away from life, and there’s a huge toll in terms of individual fallout down the line. The church shouldn’t allow it to happen.”
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In late October, on the day an out-of-season snowstorm some have called “epic” and “historic” broke nearly 200-year-old weather records and almost shut down parts of the Northeast, something else happened that was perhaps unprecedented: A Catholic university hosted a daylong formal discussion on the topic of homosexuality within communities of nuns and priests.
For the 100 or so theologians, members of the clergy, women religious, students and others who braved the heavy snow Oct. 29 to attend “The Care of Souls: Sexual Diversity, Celibacy, and Ministry” conference at Jesuit-run Fairfield University, the day was packed densely with history, stories and plenty of questions.
It was the final event of a four-part series of talks titled “More Than a Monologue: Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church.” The series aimed at expanding the conversation on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues within the Catholic church.
“Unfortunately, any speech about Catholicism, sexuality and clerical power is so vexed, so scandalous, that I can’t begin the meditation without underlining three more cautions against misunderstanding,” said the first speaker, Mark Jordan, a professor of divinity at Harvard University Divinity School.
“First, I’ll be talking about the configuration of power in relation to sexuality within ecclesial systems, not about all of the individual lives under those systems. It is, of course, possible to lead a Christian life of unstinting love, of vivid witness, of embodied grace under the present system of Roman power,” Jordan said.
“Second caution: I want to talk about this clerical power as homoerotic. By this I don’t mean to imply anything about the sexual acts, real or fantasized, of those who participate in this power,” he said. “This form of clerical power seems to me the object, and the instrument, of sharp longing, of desire.
“Third and final caution: I speak of the configuration of homoerotic power in the Roman Catholic clergy at particular times and places. There are partial repetitions across church history, I think, and there are striking structural similarities across church cultures in a given time. But if we know anything about the Catholic church, it is that it is not one thing. It is a complex network of thousands of different communities.”
Before beginning his discussion about power and the Catholic church, Jordan traced the church’s history of thought in relation to homosexuality over the past few decades, a history that would serve as backdrop and context for the speeches that followed.
Loretto Sr. Jeannine Gramick of New Ways Ministry in Maryland talked about the organization’s role in discussing homosexuality within the Catholic church, beginning in the 1970s, and particularly about its work in support of lesbian nuns.
After reflecting on the past 40 years of history and discussion, Gramick said she has seen three central issues emerge: celibacy, sexual identity and “coming out.”
In the first 20 years, in the 1970s and 1980s, the overriding question that surfaced for women religious was “sexual identity,” Gramick said. “People wondered about — how do you know you’re lesbian?” In the 20 years that followed, she added, “the overriding question seems to be [about] coming out.”
Throughout this time, however, Gramick said much of the emphasis was placed on the question of celibacy. But the important question to ask, she continued, is, “How do lesbian sisters — and by extension how do heterosexual sisters — live out their celibacy in healthy ways?”
Following Gramick’s detailed analysis, speaker Jamie Manson, who is an instructor in religious studies at Fairfield University and a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, began with humor:
“I am firmly convinced had I been born, rather than in the 1970s, in the 1940s, I today would be a lesbian nun,” Manson said. “And I would not have become a nun simply just to avoid having to face married life with a man; I would have answered that because I have a call of intense witness to the Gospel — I still have that — but being able to avoid marriage wouldn’t have hurt, either.”
Manson said there is a difference between the experience of gay and lesbian Catholics.
“For lesbians the experience of being Catholic affects more than their sexual orientation; it relates to the anatomy itself. By banning women from serving as priests, the hierarchy says — in this great cosmic hubris — that God simply cannot work sacramentally through the body of a woman. For most lesbians, and many straight women, this leads to feelings of isolation and disempowerment,” Manson said. “I cannot stress enough how corrosive it is to the spirit to have never seen a woman’s bodily form wear a stole, stand behind an altar, raise the bread and wine, place her hands in the waters of the baptismal font, step through the center door of the confessional.”
If you are a lesbian, Manson continued, “you’re in double jeopardy with the church. You’re alienated because of your body and also because of the way your body relates in response to desire and love in erotic relationships.”
The conference, which wrapped up with a panel discussion about future exploration of this topic, also featured remarks by Elizabeth Dreyer, religious studies professor at Fairfield; Fr. Donald Cozzens, writer in residence at John Carroll University; and Gerard Jacobitz, religious studies professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.
In closing, Paul Lakeland, professor of Catholic Studies at Fairfield and one of the organizers of the conference series, said he was pleased with the outcome of the program, and the cooperation between the four host schools. (Previous conferences were held at Fordham University in New York, Union Theological Seminary in New York and Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Conn.)
“A lot of gay and lesbian and straight, and Catholics and non-Catholics, but especially Catholics, got together on four weekends and talked about issues that the church would really — the institutional church — would really rather they didn’t, and the sky didn’t fall in,” Lakeland said. “We, I think, are collectively a little wiser, I’m sure, and hopefully a little more encouraged as we go on from here.”
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