I must know at least 1,000 nuns. (Though they are actually called “women religious” or “sisters.”) They taught me. I studied with them. We lived in the seminary with them. I’ve said Mass for several women congregations. We ministered together. I attended retreats given by them. They have been spiritual directors. I’ve written about them.
Yet, not once have I said to myself, “This nun is a lesbian.” And I think it’s because of my respect and reverence for them.
After reading two ground-breaking books about lesbian nuns, though, I think it’s the opposite. I had internalized the historic shame for same-sex feelings. Or, it simply does not matter.
The recently released “Love Tenderly” tells the story of 23 sisters coming to grips with their sexual orientation in the context of religious life. The contemporary work reflects a different milieu than the first ground-breaking, sensational “Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence,” published in 1985, which told 47 nuns’ stories. Jarring, it became an international hit because the words “lesbian” and “nun” had never been uttered in the same sentence in such a public way before. It also gave the curious a peek behind the convent walls that was not always flattering.
“Love Tenderly” oozes with tolerance and sensitivity, not only by the sisters telling their sometimes painful coming-out stories, but also of more accepting religious leadership in their communities.
Religious life in the U.S. has changed dramatically over the last 36 years.
Years ago, young women entering Catholic orders were warned about “particular friendships,” which could be code for lesbians, and reminded to be friends with all sisters. But many women did bond and some crossed the line into sexual intimacy. When discovered, some were asked to leave the community or go for counseling or they were shamed.
Sister Kathleen Tuite — at 56, one of the youngest in the Dominican Sisters’ Caldwell order — is a product of the new formation. Entering the order at 25, she did her novitiate — or first period of formation — at a collaborative Dominican center in St. Louis with 10 other Dominican novices from all over the country. Unlike the closed environment in Caldwell, her novitiate was more expansive and open, exposing her to newer currents among young religious aspirants. A Dominican sister suggested I speak with her because she has her finger on the pulse of contemporary religious life.
“It was a wonderful experience with people on the same journey,” said Tuite, who later taught at St. Dominic Academy in Jersey City.
Throughout the next two decades, she also attended programs as part of Giving Voice, a program for anywhere between 50 and 80 young sisters, also from all over the country, so they would have support and encouragement to persevere in religious life. They also embodied a new understanding of church “where all God’s people live in pure love, social justice and truth,” she said.
These kinds of insights, she said, enabled sisters identifying as same-sex to remain in religious life, embracing the vow of celibacy with dignity and not shame.
The two anthologies recount the stories of young women who felt their call to enter the convent as sacred. Some described their feelings of attraction to girls since they were young, but not one said she entered because she wanted to fall in love with another nun. Though many described how their coming out was made safe in the confines of the convent in the company of other women, most felt lonely at first until they could confide in other sisters. Many stayed, some left and some returned.
“Sister Petra,” a pseudonym for a former congregational leader locally told me that “sex was never ever discussed” when she entered the convent. The main emphasis was “how to live a celibate life with women.”
She did become aware of “some people who did identify as lesbian and chose to leave.” It was not the lifestyle for them but “it was a safe space for exploration.”
She views the issue of same-sex relations as one of justice and adds that “inclusivity is always an issue” — not only in the matter of treating gays with dignity. Most religious communities of women have advocated for any people being treated unjustly in the church, especially women.
“Women are exiting the church like crazy and it has to come to grips with this exodus,” she said.
Tuite is now the vice president of Student Life at Caldwell University, owned by her religious order.
“My life is around women who have donated their lives as I have grown stronger in my religious life and allowed to develop the gifts I had,” she said.
She could see openly gay and transgender women disposed toward living celibate lives accepted in most religious orders today.
“Sister Petra” agreed, adding “if you have a vocation and feel called to serve.”
Religious communities of women continue to break new ground and lead the church by example.
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