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Gramick, Nugent story is not over

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

-- 1 Corinthians 13:12-13

The story begins in 1971 when a young Catholic nun, School Sister of Notre Dame Jeannine Gramick, was asked by a young gay Catholic named Dominic Bash, “What is the Catholic church doing for my gay brothers and sisters?”

The question challenged her to study homosexuality, eventually leading to meetings with other gay Catholics and Anglicans. After a newspaper account of this appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper, she received more than a dozen responses, one from Fr. Robert Nugent, a Philadelphia priest.

Nugent suggested he might help out, marking the beginning of what became a three-decade gay and lesbian ministry characterized by perseverance, temperance, fidelity and, most of all, compassion.

When the Catholic history of the 20th century is written, it will be said that Nugent and Gramick stood out as -- to use an overworked but in this case precisely accurate word -- prophets. The twosome not only enriched Catholic spiritual awareness but helped redirect the mission of the church itself. Though their work has been permanently banned by the Vatican, Gramick and Nugent will be remembered in at least four realms:

  • For their work with tens of thousands of young, often abandoned, frequently confused, gay and lesbian Catholics. To these they helped restore belief in God’s boundless love, and helped restore the precious gifts of self-awareness and human dignity.

  • Second, for their labors with often equally confused and frequently estranged parents of gays and lesbians. For these the twosome served as bridges linking generations. They taught understanding based on Catholic tradition and supported by contemporary reflection by prominent Catholics on God’s mysterious ways.

  • Third, for their reflections and writings, bringing to the wider Catholic community both scholarship and pastoral guidance. Though the two never set out to seek it, they found themselves positioned as critical channels of information, flowing from Catholic pastoral thinkers, including bishops and moral theologians, to gays and lesbians, and back from this oppressed segment of church to the wider community. In this regard, Nugent and Gramick have provided service of incalculable magnitude during a particularly incendiary time.

    No one can ever know how much the two contributed to diffusing conflict, how many Catholics were persuaded not to walk away from the church, because of their unique ministry.

  • Fourth -- and this may sound strange in light of the order from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to Nugent and Gramick to discontinue their ministry -- for the influence they have had on the Catholic hierarchy as they helped bishops formulate a pastoral response to gays and lesbians.

Their influence is clear. Once viewed by the hierarchy as men and women distinguished solely by sexual acts, gays and lesbians are now taking their places within the church community as valuable members, guided by the same moral principles found in the gospels and articulated over the centuries and in emerging Catholic thought.

To measure this effect, one only need look at the 1997 U.S. bishops’ statement, “Always Our Children.” Whether the bishops acknowledge it or not, the fingerprints of these two religious are all over the document, and the drafters obviously learned much from the Nugent and Gramick ministries.

In each of these four areas, we see mission characterized by prophecy. A uniquely New Testament prophecy. Faith-filled and guided by compassion. Anchored in spiritual awareness of God’s boundless love. We also see a mission still unfolding, having taken firm root in so many different places and ways over the years.

Nevertheless, the struggle continues. The work to formulate and articulate moral principles for personal and communal guidance must go on. The Catholic church should be leading the way.

For the moment, citing his vow of obedience, Nugent has announced he will end his ministry to gays and lesbians. Gramick has asked for time to discern. Whatever her eventual choice, both she and Nugent need to be shown the understanding and support they have generously given to others over the years.

It seems terribly wrong that these two faithful Catholics should be called on to make such choices. Both firmly believe they have upheld official church teachings, as required of them, including the Vatican’s insistence on the “intrinsic evil” in all homosexual acts and “objective disorder” in the homosexual inclination.

This story is not over. There will be a more generous legacy than this Vatican condemnation. While those intent on ending Nugent’s and Gramick’s ministries may feel temporary satisfaction, Catholics might well wonder, given today’s church climate, whether Jesus, had he come in our time, might not be banished, too.

National Catholic Reporter, July 30, 1999