Jeannine Gramick, a Roman Catholic nun and co-founder of a U.S. ministry for gay and lesbian Catholics, met Pope Benedict XVI only once, by chance, on a plane flying from Baltimore to Rome in the late-'90s. Because of her work with the lesbian and gay community, Gramick had by then been under investigation by the Vatican for more than two decades.
The encounter was serendipitous, Gramick recalled Monday after hearing news of Benedict's resignation. Gramick and leaders at her ministry had been worried that she would be excommunicated. She was traveling with the head of her order to Munich, via Rome, to pray that she would keep her place in the church. When she boarded the plane, she saw Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became pope, sitting with two empty seats beside him. She mustered her courage and sat next to him. "When he found out who I was, he just smiled and said 'Oh, I've known about you for 20 years,'" she said.
Ratzinger helped lead the investigation into Gramick's work with gay Catholics as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican-based organization that oversees church doctrine. In his years as pope, his opposition to gay rights has not faltered. Benedict, a staunch conservative, has said since his appointment that saving human kind from homosexual behavior was as important as saving the rainforest from destruction. He has called same-sex marriage a "dangerous and insidious" challenge to society. In recent months, he sought alliances to oppose efforts to legalize same-sex marriages around the world.
While few gay rights supporters within the Catholic Church anticipate a significant change in policy with a new pope, some on Monday said that they hoped Benedict's resignation might at least lead to a conversation about these issues, and a change in tone from church leaders.
"Whenever there's an opportunity for a change, there's always the hope that the change will be for the better," said Francis DeBernardo, the director of the New Ways ministry, a pro-gay ministry and advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Catholics. "We need a pope who's going to listen to the faith of Catholics, whose faith has told them that they should be supporting LGBT people, that they should be respecting the dignity and the human rights that these people have."
DiBernardo said he has seen glimmers of such a change from bishops and cardinals in Europe, who have stopped short of supporting same-sex marriage, but have made positive statements about same-sex relationships and civil unions. And while the Vatican remains one of the most powerful opponents to same-sex marriage and other gay rights causes, recent polls have shown that Catholics in the pews mostly support gay rights, with more than two-thirds of Catholic voters supporting legal recognition of same-sex relationships.
Signs like these give LGBT advocates within the church hope that change may be possible. When Marianne Duddy-Burke, the director of Dignity-USA, the nation’s largest organization of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics, heard of Benedict's resignation, "my mind immediately went to the possibilities," she said. The cardinals are expected to elect a new pope by the end of March, and in the coming weeks, Duddy-Burke said she hopes fellow advocates and supportive Catholics will speak up. But she is far from certain that any substantial change is on the horizon. In her years at Dignity-USA, she's seen first hand that leaders at the Vatican have been closed to dialogue. "It's sad," she said, recalling a vigil in 2001 where her group attempted to arrange a meeting with a Vatican official. "Our contact with the Vatican is mostly through the security officials."
"I feel like the hierarchy is so far removed from the needs of the people, and that's a huge problem," Duddy-Burke continued. "To me the real hope for change on these issues comes from the people in the church, not the leadership."
The least likely place to find change is from the cardinals who will select the next pope, according to observers of the church. Nearly all of the cardinals who can vote were selected by Benedict or his predecessor, who also staunchly opposed gay rights.
"There could be a change of tone if you get a cardinal who has had experience with gays and lesbians," said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor at America, the national Catholic magazine. By "coincidence or providence," Martin said, the cardinals may chose someone with a gay family member, or someone who worked at a diocese that had gay outreach.
"So much of it is based on experience, in terms of how you even speak about gays and lesbians," Martin said. Pope Benedict, he added, "did not come to the papacy with a great deal of experience in that kind of ministry."
Jeannine Gramick first started working with gay and lesbian Catholics in 1971, when she was in graduate school and became close friends with a gay man. When she met Benedict on the plane, he asked her questions about her work, and then she asked him one. "I said, 'have you ever met any lesbian or gay people?'" she recalled. He said that he had -- at a "demonstration of homosexuals" in Berlin. "So that was his idea of meeting gay people," she said.
"I didn't have my wits about me, but later, after we got off the plane, I thought I should have said to him, 'Oh, But Cardinal Ratzinger, you have met gay people, but you don't know it,'" she said. "It's unfortunate that gay people hide, when coming out would be a great contribution to the church, because he would have had a wonderful learning experience if he could sit down and hear the stories of lesbian and gay people."