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Pair dealt a lifetime ban on ministry to homosexuals

NCR Staff

After 20 years of investigations of Sr. Jeannine Gramick and Fr. Robert Nugent, focusing both on their public statements about homosexuality and their pastoral work with gay and lesbian Catholics, the Vatican ended the saga by barring them permanently from their ministry in mid-July.

An analysis of the documents generated during these two decades reveals that the investigation’s goal gradually shifted -- from determining the orthodoxy of their teaching regarding homosexual acts, to the demand that Nugent and Gramick declare their consciences to be in full agreement with official church doctrine in the precise words laid out by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Although several authorities on church history said the silencing is, in itself, not unusual, even in its permanence, some expressed anxiety over implications for both academics and pastoral ministers to homosexuals of requiring interior assent.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith took its final step after Gramick and Nugent, the U.S. church’s most prominent ministers to homosexuals and their families, failed to satisfy that demand.

Declaring their teaching “erroneous and dangerous,” the Vatican also declared Gramick and Nugent ineligible, for an undetermined period, for leadership positions in their respective religious congregations.

Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese, editor of America magazine and expert on the Catholic hierarchy, noted that Gramick and Nugent did not appear to be accused of public dissent, but rather of presenting less than the full Catholic teaching.

“This seems new to me,” Reese said. “It should certainly be of concern to academics because if this applied to them, then this may be what’s in store if the norms under consideration by the U.S. bishops are put into place implementing Ex Corde. They’re not only checked for public dissent, but also what kind of emphasis they do or do not give to certain teaching.”

Efforts to control

Reese referred to efforts by the Vatican to gain more control over U.S. theologians with norms to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the pope’s 1990 document on Catholic identity in higher education. U.S. bishops will vote in November on the norms.

Dominican Fr. Bruce Williams of Dover, Mass., a theological adviser to Gramick and Nugent during the investigation, said, “It seems we have a new and much more exacting standard. It’s going beyond avoidance of dissent, going beyond teaching in public, to a manifestation of conscience and total verbal conformity.”

Williams added, “I know some gay people, some priests, who criticized [Gramick and Nugent] for being too deferential to the magisterium. That people who are moderate are still to be slammed and silenced, it’s disheartening and frightening.”

Williams teaches moral theology spring semesters at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (“the Angelicum”) in Rome. The Vatican’s decision also sent a shock wave through the ranks of those involved in ministry to gays and lesbians, where Gramick and Nugent were considered consummate moderates.

At least seven Catholic organizations have issued statements in support of Gramick and Nugent. The most forceful came from Pax Christi USA, calling on U.S. bishops to appeal the decision, and from the National Coalition of American Nuns, calling for Ratzinger to resign. Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, an ecumenical group, said members feared the decision would encourage violence toward gays.

Nugent’s and Gramick’s work has long been controversial, however, drawing fire from conservative groups and some members of the U.S. hierarchy, most notably Cardinal James Hickey of Washington, one of their most vocal opponents since 1981. Contents of their two books were the subject of Vatican criticisms in the investigation.

Anger, sadness and hurt were the words most often used by gay and lesbian Catholics in response to the disciplinary action against two ministers who had often been a lifeline to the church for them and their families.

“A shining light has been darkened,” said Reginald Birks, a 50-year-old gay man who said he had been brought back to the church by their ministry. “I don’t know where people will go for hope and direction anymore.”

Some, however, thought the ban would have little effect. Francis DeBernardo, head of New Ways Ministry, the group founded by Gramick and Nugent in 1977, called the Vatican’s decision “an impotent act,” because the work of the priest and the nun has already succeeded.

Although the Vatican, at Hickey’s urging, ordered Gramick and Nugent to end their association with New Ways in 1984, they have continued a grassroots ministry to gays and lesbians, speaking and giving workshops around the country. Their efforts are widely regarded as the groundwork for “Always Our Children,” the U.S. bishops’ 1997 pastoral message for parents of homosexuals. The document, though underscoring church teaching against homosexual activity, urged compassion and understanding.

“Gay and lesbian people are now accepted in parishes and are making themselves known,” DeBernardo told NCR. “An action like this is going to strengthen people’s resolve to continue reaching out to gays and lesbians and listening to them.”

Specifically, Gramick and Nugent were asked to affirm that homosexuality is an “objectively disordered” condition and that homosexual acts are “intrinsically evil.”

Gramick refused to disclose her personal convictions. Nugent gave his assent, but using language the congregation found insufficiently explicit. The congregation then asked him to sign a profession of faith using the language the congregation wanted affirmed, along with other statements, such as the church’s teaching that sexual continence is morally incumbent on all but married couples.

In a 2,300-word statement issued after the ban, Nugent said, “I believe that at the conclusion of the 10-year process no compelling evidence has been forthcoming to substantiate any charge of public, persistent dissent from any level of church teaching on homosexuality which would merit such a severe punishment. Having found no serious objections in my public presentations which were not clarified and corrected” in officials proceedings, “the primary goal had now become an attempt, through a uniquely crafted profession of faith, to elicit my internal adherence to the intrinsic evil of homosexual acts, a second-level, definitive doctrine considered infallible by a non-defining act of the ordinary and universal magisterium.”

The nearly 1,700-word notification from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was released July 13 and published in L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, the following day. The notification said that Gramick and Nugent have, “from the beginning” of their ministry, “continually called central elements of [the church’s] teaching into question” -- promoting “ambiguous positions on homosexuality” and criticizing documents of the magisterium.

The notification declared that “promotion of errors and ambiguities” denies homosexuals a right to truth. “Persons who are struggling with homosexuality, no less than any others, have the right to receive the authentic teaching of the church from those who minister to them,” the statement said.

Nugent, 62, a Salvatorian priest, and Gramick, 57, a School Sister of Notre Dame, were called to Rome by leaders of their religious orders to be informed of the decision to ban them from ministry just before the notification was released.

Approved by pope

The notification was dated May 31 and signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, the congregation’s secretary. A final paragraph noted that the document had been approved by Pope John Paul II.

In his statement, Nugent said he accepted the congregation’s decision. According to a statement from the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Gramick was directed by leaders of her religious order to take a month “to reflect on and discern her future direction in light of the decision of the CDF.” Gramick told NCR she was preparing a statement for later release.

Some feared the decision would have a chilling effect on ministry to gays and lesbians, despite assurance by Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, of continuing Catholic commitment.

A statement from Fiorenza, bishop of Galveston-Houston, emphasized the bishops’ commitment to ministry to homosexuals and expressed hope that Gramick and Nugent could accept the church’s teaching. “Such a step would be of benefit not only to them personally, but also to the ministry which, though they are now permanently excluded from it, has been so important to them and for which the church maintains a continuing pastoral responsibility,” he wrote.

Whatever the hierarchy’s intentions, many felt the decision to discipline Nugent and Gramick sent an opposite message.

Fr. Richard McBrien, theology professor at Notre Dame University, said, “It reinforces the view that the Catholic church, at least at the official levels, continues to be very unsympathetic towards gays and lesbians and is very suspicious of any efforts to reach out to them pastorally -- any effort is tantamount to approving their lifestyle.”

Charles Cox, executive director of Dignity USA, predicted the ban would have “a devastating effect” on ministry to gays and lesbians. “This is certainly going to put a great deal of pressure on diocesan ministries -- pressure to absolutely conform to church teaching, with no room for compassion or understanding of lesbian and gay people.”

Former Jesuit John McNeill, who was himself censured by the Vatican for his writings and ministry to homosexuals, said, “I have the paradoxical feeling that the power of church authority to control gay and lesbian people is destroyed. It’s another step forcing gays and lesbians to make use of conscience and to realize that the church is wrong. We’re blessed with a fallible church that forces us to mature.” McNeill was silenced for 10 years and then ousted from the Jesuit order in 1988.

Internal investigations

Nugent and Gramick began their ministry to gays and lesbians in Philadelphia in 1971. Six years later they cofounded New Ways Ministry, with headquarters in the Washington archdiocese. Their religious orders conducted internal investigations of their ministry three times between 1977 and 1988 at the request of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (formerly called the Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes).

While Gramick and Nugent found support from the leadership of their religious orders and from numerous bishops, their workshops and retreats were banned from church property by some dioceses. Most recently, Cardinal Adam Maida barred Pax Christi Michigan from holding its annual conference in a Catholic church in the Detroit archdiocese because Gramick and Nugent were featured speakers (NCR, April 30).

Maida headed the commission charged by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life in 1988 to investigate Nugent’s and Gramick’s ministry. In 1994, the commission recommended disciplinary action. In 1995, the case was turned over to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

In particular, church leaders seemed concerned that Gramick and Nugent were ambiguous in presenting church teaching on the immorality of homosexual acts.

Maida and Hickey both released statements praising the fairness of the process that led to the congregation’s decision. Hickey noted his early objections to Gramick and Nugent’s work. “In the intervening time, many other bishops and theologians have expressed additional concerns that Sr. Jeannine’s and Fr. Nugent’s writings and public activities in the area of homosexual pastoral ministry are vague, misleading and even contrary to the Catholic faith,” Hickey said.

Maida’s statement said, “We never lost sight of the realization that ministry to the homosexual community is both sensitive and necessary. At the same time, we clearly understood the concern of the church that such ministry can cause more harm than good if it is conducted in the midst of controversy and ambiguity.”

Nugent and Gramick argued that their purpose was to present the “full range” of church teaching, which included teachings that a homosexual orientation is not in itself a sin; the call for pastoral care of homosexuals; condemnation of prejudice and discrimination against them; and respect for the civil rights and human dignity of homosexuals.

Gradually the investigation appeared to move from an examination of Nugent’s and Gramick’s public orthodoxy on teaching regarding homosexual acts, to the demand that they declare their consciences were in full agreement with that teaching -- in the words laid out by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Williams spoke for Nugent and Gramick at the Maida commission hearings. Williams said he had hoped that Nugent’s and Gramick’s full cooperation throughout the investigation might have been able to ward off the worst, but he found the process designed to “progressively pin them into a corner.” He said, “I cannot think of many that would have humbly put up with this long ordeal as they did. I can’t imagine doing it myself.”

Another consultant to Gramick and Nugent at the Maida commission said he suspected an unfavorable judgment would result as the investigation pursued more and more questions. “I had hoped that it would be something less drastic,” said James Hanigan, a professor of moral theology at Duquesne University and author of Homosexuality: The Test Case of Christian Ethics.

“Their work is certainly orthodox,” Hanigan told NCR. “There’s no question about that. Every document I ever saw kept accusing them of being ambiguous. Well, that’s a very difficult charge to answer, isn’t it?”

Nugent and Gramick’s pastoral consultant for the Maida commission, Bishop John Snyder of St. Augustine, Fla., declined to comment on the Vatican decision.

Linda McCullough, a lesbian Catholic who lives in Silver Spring, Md., echoed the thoughts of many who had experienced Gramick and Nugent’s ministry: “They never left any doubt on what the church’s teachings were. They didn’t misrepresent those teachings. Lack of clarity was just not part of it.”

“They were true reconcilers,” said McCullough, 38, who worships with Dignity Washington. “They were not urging gays and lesbians to ditch the church. They were asking them to be faithful and bear with the church.”

A Massachusetts mother of a gay son said that in the retreats and workshops she and her husband attended, the priest and nun “never, ever, ever in our presence said anything against church teachings.”

The woman, who requested anonymity, said Gramick and Nugent offered the chance “to be able to say who you are and know you’re accepted, your child is accepted, and that your child is not intrinsically evil. When you can put a face to the title ‘homosexual,’ it’s a whole different look. Because you know your child from the moment they were born, the way the church describes them is not who they are.”

Why do they stay?

In the wake of the Vatican’s decision, she said she wonders sometimes why parents of homosexuals stay in the church. “But for me and my husband, we’ll never leave the church because we are the church,” she said. “We’re going to stay in it and work one by one with people.”

A number of homosexuals said they found themselves grappling with the question from friends and from their own consciences: Why do you stay?

Donna Acquaviva, founder of a ministry to gays and lesbians in her parish in Shepherdstown, W.V., spoke of a gay man who had come back to the church through the ministry at St. Agnes Parish, which had received advice and assistance from Gramick and Nugent. “When he came back -- to receive the sacraments again, to be known as gay and accepted -- it was so touching, such a heart-opening experience for him,” Acquaviva said. But now she said she thought he was not going to come back to church. “He’s angry,” she said. “He’s had enough pain. He’s had it.”

Birks, however, said he will continue to attend Mass at Sacred Heart Parish in Trenton, N.J. “This is just one issue,” he said. “My faith in Jesus and the Eucharist and the saints and redemption -- all of what faith is -- is still there.”

Layne Kulwin, who said he was asked to leave the seminary “because of issues surrounding sexual orientation,” said the Vatican’s decision “reopens many old wounds, not just for me, but for many gay and lesbian Catholics.”

But Kulwin, 48, a member of St. Bernadette’s Parish in Severn, Md., held out hope that good could come out of the situation. “Has it hurt us? It’s sparked people to come out and say something, do something, take a stand,” he said. “Show me detriment, and I’ll show you opportunity.”

National Catholic Reporter, July 30, 1999