OF THE COMMISSION
STUDYING THE WRITINGS & MINISTRY
SISTER JEANNINE GRAMICK, SSND
FATHER ROBERT NUGENT, SDS
In March of 1988, the Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes formed an ad hoc Commission chaired by Archbishop Adam J. Maida, presently the Archbishop of Detroit, and at that time the Bishop of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Msgr. James Mulligan of the Diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania and Sister Sharon Holland, IHM, who was later replaced by Dr. Janet Smith of Irving, Texas, were also appointed to serve on the Commission.
The Commission was to hear and examine the theological writings and teachings on homosexuality of Sister Jeannine Gramick, SSND, and Father Robert Nugent, SDS. Sister Gramick and Father Nugent had been involved in a ministry to homosexuals since 1971. The Congregation had been aware of concerns that the teachings, writings and ministry of Sister Gramick and Father Nugent may have created an ambiguity which has caused confusion in the minds of some people with regard to the teachings of the Church on homosexuality.
The Commission was to meet with Sister Gramick and Father Nugent in the presence of their major superiors "to evaluate the clarity and lack of ambiguity of their statements with respect to the Churchs teaching on homosexuality." (Letter of Archbishop Laghi to Archbishop Maida of May 9, 1988.)
In 1984, the Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes had already instructed Sister Gramick and Father Nugent to separate themselves totally and completely from the New Ways Ministry as of September, 1984. In addition, they were obliged not to engage in any apostolate or to participate in any program unless it is clearly stated that homosexual acts are intrinsically and objectively wrong.
The Commission chaired by Archbishop Maida met three times in Detroit with Sister Gramick and Father Nugent and their respective superiors: March 18, 1994, and then on May 25th and July 26th. The March 18th and May 25th meetings principally addressed procedural matters. The July 26th meeting addressed both issues of procedure and substance. Msgr. James Mulligan who has fully participated in the work of the Commission, was unable to be present at the July 26th meeting because of illness. However, his concerns were raised by other Commission members. He has made himself fully familiar with the contents of the taped recording and the minutes of the meeting.
At the July 26th meeting, Sister Gramick and Father Nugent, in addition to their religious provincials, Sister Christine Mulcahy, SSND; Father Dennis Thiessen, SDS, the newly elected provincial of the Salvatorian Fathers; and Father Paul Portland, SDS, former provincial; were joined by their canonical, theological and pastoral consultants: Bishop John Snyder, Bishop of St. Augustine, Florida; Msgr. Leonard Scott, Judicial Vicar of the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey; Rev. Bruce Williams, O.P., a moral theologian and currently pastor of Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Valhalla, New York; and Dr. James Hanigan, chairperson of the Theology Department, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Sister Christine Mulcahy and Father Paul Portland were also present at the March 18th and May 25th meetings. Sister Gramick, Father Nugent and their religious provincials cooperated fully with the work of the Commission.
In its formal hearings, the Commission utilized a process modeled along the lines of the Doctrinal Responsibilities, a document approved by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1989. The Commission was pleased to hear from the participants at the July 26th meeting of their agreement that the process observed at the hearings was a fair one.
Sister Gramick and Father Nugent identified their book entitled Building Bridges: Gay and Lesbian Reality and the Catholic Church (1992) as being most representative of their work and reflective of their presentations. To focus the discussion, the Commission submitted a series of questions to them in writing as well as selected passages from their book and asked for written responses. At the July 26th meeting, the written responses were discussed in relationship to various passages from Building Bridges, as well as certain procedural matters.
The Commission is aware that the writings of Sister Gramick and Father Nugent have received wide distribution and that the various workshops they have conducted have covered both an extensive period of time (from the early 1970s until the present) and an extensive area. They have conducted "seminars in more than 130 of the 169 U.S. Dioceses and Archdioceses to educate people about homophobia" (Building Bridges, p. 206). In the course of its work, the Commission received in excess of 250 letters from bishops, priests, religious and laity, as well as national organizations in the United States, England and Australia. In various cities and dioceses where they have conducted workshops, the workshops have often been followed by newspaper articles in the secular press. The Commission believes that the writings and ministry of Sister Gramick and Father Nugent have made a significant impact on many involved in a homosexual ministry as well as homosexuals and their families.
Sister Gramick and Father Nugent are engaged in an important and needed ministry which they identify as an attempt to build bridges between the homosexual community and the Church and the Church and the homosexual community. The Commission recognizes the great difficulties involved in this endeavor and its controversial nature. It is a relatively new ministry, and one that they have dedicated their lives to developing. Many Catholics are unaware of the nature and condition of homosexuality, have had little opportunity to ponder the struggles faced by those with a homosexual orientation, and do not understand the pastoral needs of homosexual persons. Some clergy, religious and laity are reluctant to address the needs of homosexual persons for fear they will thereby be condoning sinful behavior. Sadly, some clergy, religious and lay persons, both heterosexual and homosexual, are not knowledgeable about what the Church really teaches regarding homosexual orientation, homosexual behavior and the rights of homosexual persons.
It is the view of the Commission that a thorough and sympathetic presentation of Church teaching could play a significant role in reconciliation with the Church of persons with a homosexual orientation. Many heterosexuals would be kinder and more just to homosexuals if they understood this same teaching. Many homosexual persons have had alienating experiences at the hands of Church people, are estranged from the Church, and need someone to reach out to them with love, compassion and understanding. This task of reaching out to others is sometimes made more difficult because the Churchs teaching has traditionally been expressed in language whose meaning is not easily grasped by those not familiar with the history of moral theology. This language can sometimes sound insensitive and even offensive if not properly understood.
The Commission believes that Sister Gramick and Father Nugent are to be commended for recognizing these important needs and for having the courage and zeal to attempt to address them. Their love and compassion for those who need someone to reach out to is clear and commendable.
The Commission observes that Sister Gramick and Father Nugent are in a position of special responsibility. Sister Gramick is a member of an institute of consecrated life. Father Nugent is an ordained priest and a member of a society of apostolic life. Their chosen state in life, that of consecrated individuals, brings with it certain responsibilities. They have special obligations to faithfully represent the Church in an official way that goes beyond what others may be called to do who are not religious. In addition, the special relationship between diocesan bishops and their responsibility for the apostolic life of a diocese, and religious communities and their unique mission and apostolate, must guide any ministry.
Sister Gramick and Father Nugent believe that their presentations are faithful to Church teaching. The written testimony from individuals who attended their workshops and presentations has been valuable for its witness to the listening abilities and compassion exhibitied by Sister Gramick and Father Nugent. Some of the testimony by writers judged their presentations faithful to the teaching of the Church. That testimony, however, was challenged by other individuals who found serious problems with their presentations. The Commission did not take the "word" of one set of evaluators against another, but, rather, studied their work, primarily paying attention to their book, Building Bridges. Sister Gramick and Father Nugent identified this booka s the work that best represents their ministry and writings. The Commission also had available a set of tapes that recorded one of their public presentations. In both written and oral form, the Commission members posed questions about the work of Sister Gramick and Father Nugent. Sister Gramick and Father Nugent were given an opportunity to explain their ministry and answer in full, both in writing and in the discussions, with their superiors and consultants present, the questions that were posed to them.
It is the view of the Commission that a major issue centers on a matter that Sister Gramick and Father Nugent do not consider central to their ministry, i.e. the question of the morality of homogenital acts. While this matter may be secondary to their primary purpose, it is a crucial question for the moral choices that affect the human person, and, therefore, it cannot be considered incidental. While the Commission believes that it is not inappropriate to criticize the Church at times or to speculate about possible development of Church teaching, the Commission found some of the criticism of the Church and speculation in the work of Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent to be inappropriate and misleading in a pastoral setting.
The Commission is aware that in a number of dioceses Sister Gramick and Father Nugent met with the diocesan bishop prior to conducting their workshops and seminars. However, a number of the workshops were conducted in various dioceses without the approval of the diocesan bishop and, in some instances, despite his objections. The commission believes that there is sufficient ambiguity in the writings of Sister Gramick and Father Nugent that would cause a bishop of a diocese to be concerned about the faithfulness of their presentations of Church teaching.
The Commission finds that there are some serious problems with their writings and ministry. While the written responses provided by Sister Gramick and Father Nugent to the questions identified by the Commission in writing were unobjectionable, those written responses appeared to be in conflict with passages in the book Building Bridges. When asked about seeming inconsistencies between their responses to the questions and their book, Sister Gramick and Father Nugent failed to resolve several serious problems raised by passages in Building Bridges.
Some of the more serious problems that the Commission discovered follow. Included is brief documentation that illustrates some of the reasons for drawing these conclusions. We do not believe that the texts cited to illustrate the problems identified are isolated instances of such problems. We thought it best, however, to cite only passages which Sister Gramick and Father Nugent had an opportunity to explain in their meeting with the Commission.
I. It is the view of the Commission that the effort to combine the task of speaking for the Church to the homosexual community and speaking for the homosexual community to the Church has created ambiguity and confusion. Observations, language, and criticisms that may be appropriate when attempting to call the Church to greater sensitivity to the concerns of homosexuals is mixed inappropriately with attempts to convey Church teaching to homosexual persons.
A. It is often not clear 1) whether they were speaking for homosexuals to the Church and presenting the homosexual experience in a descriptive and neutral fashion; 2) whether they were not just reporting the homosexual experience in a descriptive and neutral fashion, but were reporting the homosexual experience as somehow definitive and as contradicting Church teaching, or 3) whether Sister Gramick and Father Nugent were speaking for themselves (in a critical tone against something in the Church). Examples of this ambiguity would be as follows:
"The king could easily represent some members of the church hierarchy who are often kind but misguided men. Esther may portend lesbian and gay Christians who, through their perseverance and devotion to humanity, may eventually prevail upon church leaders to change their current approach to sexuality and sexual ethics that is placing unnecessary and unrealistic burdens on Gods people. Just as Esther saved her people, lesbian and gay Christians will save the church by enabling the faith community to make peace with their sexuality and to cease an emotional destruction of human lives .
" Lesbian and gay persons remind the Christian community that God alone is absolute. Those who cling to an inflexible heterosexism, who fear a world in which heterosexuality is not thought to be a superior form of sexuality, fail to reverence other human beings properly. Heterosexuality is their god.
"Lesbian and gay Christians must begin to articulate an alternative spiritual and theological vision that will be taken seriously by the larger Christian community.
" Domestic partner relationships, with the legal rights and benefits accruing to same-sex couples, have been acknowledged by several large cities in the United States. These social developments portend a future conducive to spiritual and theological change. Only when lesbian and gay persons have been accorded full and equal respect and dignity as human beings in society and in the church so that they are no longer categorized as inferior insiders or outsiders, will the Christian community be able to say that the god of heterosexism has been eradicated." (pp. 192-93, Building Bridges)
When asked to explain passages that seemed critical of Church teaching and of the hierarchy, Sister Gramick stated that she was not presenting her own views, but those of homosexuals. Nothing in these passages makes that clear. The Commission believes it would be a reasonable interpretation of these passages to conclude that the author thinks the Church should change its teaching.
B. Few of the responses of Sister Gramick and Father Nugent to the letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of 1986 or 1992 showed that they were prepared to interpret this official Church teaching in a sympathetic light. While it may be appropriate to speak critically to Church authorities about certain pastoral insensitivities they find in the document, as religious persons they should minimally be expected to show to the homosexual community that, in spite of such problems, there is no significant departure from earlier Church teaching on homosexuality in that letter. Passages such as the following show that this expectation is not fulfilled.
" The letter is inappropriately named because most of the 18 paragraphs betray little pastoral concern. Most of the letter is devoted to stemming the tide of increasing acceptance of same-sex behavior. It seemed to devalue individuals it considered threats to the social fabric and implied that individual bishops have been manipulated into supporting a change in civil statutes. Instead of condemning the perpetrators of violence against lesbian women and gay men, the Vatican letter claimed that increasing violence is understandable. In a classic example of blaming the victim, the congregation erroneously asserted that lesbian and gay people have no conceivable right to any civil legislation that protects their behavior. Society, the Congregation said, should not be surprised when violent reactions increase " (p. 72, Building Bridges)
C. Sister Gramick explained a passage from Building Bridges as an expression of the anger of the homosexual community, not as an expression of her own anger. In that passage she writes:
"How can the Christian churches justify any theology that ignores the experience of more than one hundred million lesbian and gay Christians? How can we be complacent with church structures that accept heterosexual persons but punish lesbian and gay persons when they are true to their natures? How can we claim that the Christian churches are following the gospel of Jesus if Christianity aggravates the alienation from the faith community that lesbian and gay persons face?" (p. 187, Building Bridges)
The Commission believes that a reader would reasonably understand this passage to be the expression of the views of the author. If the passage is addressed to those who are responsible for "church structures" that "punish lesbian and gay persons when they are true to their natures," the grounds for the accusation should be made more clear. If it is addressed to homosexuals, it would seem to foster alienation from the Church. It would not serve to draw people closer to the Church.
D. Certain passages from Building Bridges expressed hostility to the Church:
" Many grassroots Catholics believe that the church is obsessed with sexual bodily parts while lesbian lives are stunted or destroyed
"We need a conversion of heart that will take us back to the basics of the early Christian community. We may have to choose between defending church teaching and proclaiming Jesus message of love " (p. 75)
" Attempting a delicate balancing act, the U.S. hierarchy is trying to demonstrate to lesbian and gay Catholics a sense of care and compassion while, at the same time, trying to maintain loyalty to Roman expectations. The two goals may be incompatible." (p. 168)
II. A most serious deficiency seems to be the inability on the part of both Sister Gramick and Father Nugent to provide an accurate and sympathetic explanation of the terms "natural" and "disorder," both of which are critical to the churchs teaching on homosexuality. Neither in the book nor in their answers to questions of the Commission was the understanding of the Church of the words "natural" and "disorder" clearly and accurately stated.
A. For instance, they ask a series of questions which seem to call into doubt the truth of the Churchs teaching that homosexuality is unnatural (again, without having truly clarified the meaning of that teaching):
"The basic question gay and lesbian Catholics raise is this: why is heterosexuality judged to be normative for full humanity and sexuality? What are the grounds for such a claim? Do we need to examine that claim and all of its sources, including biblical, psychological, and theological ones? Is heterosexuality such an intrinsic part of authentic human nature that without it the individual person is in some way lacking or inferior? Is human nature the same for all times or are we learning more and more about previous positions concerning what is normative? Do we not need to be a bit more humble about definite teachings on sexuality in the face of new information from the sciences, as Rembert Weakland (1980) has suggested?" (p. 154, Building Bridges)
"The freedom of moral theologians to move in this direction, however, could be seriously threatened by direct outside interventions and attempts to curtail certain trends in moral theology. But there is little to prevent lay Catholics, other than discouragement and frustration, from continuing to reflect upon their experiences, articulate the goodness and humanity of their lives, and continue to stand in their own truth. In the long run, this might be the most crucial and effective ongoing contribution to the process of analyzing new data, asking new questions, and proposing new answers to questions about homosexuality in particular and sexuality in general." (pp. 155-56, Building Bridges)
B. They use the term "natural" in reference to "homosexuality" in such a way that one could reasonably conclude that homosexual sexual acts should be considered morally permissible. While, when asked, they state that they are using the term "natural" in a sense nearer to the "popular level" or in a "psychological sense," they do not take care to make this clear when speaking of homosexuality as "natural"; thus, they seem to contradict the Church.
A passage on p. 33 of Building Bridges notes:
" I am now convinced that homosexual and bisexual feelings and behaviors are just as natural as heterosexual ones.
" That the main stumbling block to my argument comes from theological and philosophical discourse demonstrates to me that these disciplines either have failed to keep abreast of scientific developments or have willfully ignored current findings in order to legitimize a preconceived notion of divine intent for the human order. How can I say that bisexual and homosexual feelings are as natural as heterosexual ones? What does it mean to be natural let me consider that definition of the word from various disciplines."
C. Their response to the use of the word "disordered" in Church documents would seem to reinforce the view of those who find offensive the judgment that homosexuality is "disordered." They do not seem prepared to offer a precise explanation of that term in line with the Churchs employment of the term, an explanation that may conceivably lead those who are offended by the perceived meaning of the word to cease being offended.
"A positive and affirming lesbian gay theology or spirituality rejects the notion that a homosexual orientation is abnormal, sick, sinful, or criminal. The 1986 letter from the Vaticans Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which contended that a homosexual orientation was objectively disordered, obviously did not begin from the experience of being lesbian or gay. Such experience confirms that a homosexual orientation is not contrary to nature but is part of Gods plan for creation and essential for developing the human family. Without the presence of lesbian and gay people in the world, reality would be truncated and humankind unfulfilled. These assertions are based on the testimony of lesbian and gay Christians and the witness of their lives (Curb & Manahan, 1985; Gramick, 1983, 1980; McNaught, 1988; McNeill, 1988; Zanotti, 1986)." (p. 189 of Building Bridges)
D. Sister Gramick and Father Nugent hold out as a possibility that the Church may change its teaching and eventually approve of homosexual genital activity. In a direct response, Sister Gramick indicated she would want to see the Church open to any development, including the eventual approval of stable, single-sex, committed relationships that involve genital activity.
While speculating that the Church might change its teaching in some respects may be appropriate in rather narrow academic circles, to engage in such speculation as part of a pastoral presentation to audiences that may include individuals who are called to live in accord with the Churchs teaching is inappropriate.
III. While Sister Gramick and Father Nugent take care to state clearly the Churchs teaching about homosexuality, they themselves are not manifest advocates of the Churchs teaching. They merely present the Churchs teaching, but give no evidence of personal advocacy of it. Neither was prepared to give personal assent to the Churchs teaching on homogenital behavior. Both were ambiguous in their responses regarding legislation that would allow for single-sex marriages or adoption by homosexual individuals.
The Commission believes that it would be a reasonable judgment from Sister Gramicks and Father Nugents words and presentations to conclude that they are lobbying for a change in the Churchs teaching. This change would consider the homosexual orientation to be natural in some sense of natural that would permit stable, single-sex relationships that involve genital behavior. They are careful not to state explicitly that they are lobbying for a change in Church teaching, and deny (when asked) that such is their intent. The manner in which their thoughts are expressed, however, is not consistent with that denial.
"I am now convinced that homosexual and bisexual feelings and behaviors are just as natural as heterosexual ones." (p. 33 of Building Bridges)
IV. It is the view of the Commission that the work of Sister Gramick and Father Nugent contains troublesome and even dangerous ambiguities regarding the meaning of "Church" and the weight of various Church documents. When they speak of "the Church," it is unclear to whom they are referring. At times it appears to be the hierarchy; at other times the clergy, or the laity, or those responsible for drafting Church documents. Sister Gramick and Father Nugent make statements that seem to be critical of what the "Church" teaches or says. When queried about these, they respond that they are simply stating what homosexuals have expressed. It is the view of the Commission that as religious they need to help homosexuals clarify the true object of their criticism are they angry at individuals, "structures," at language and analogies used by the Church, or by the very teaching of the Church?
They claim that the "theology" of the Church "ignores the experience of more than one hundred million lesbian and gay Christians" (Building Bridges, p. 187 and 189):
"How can the Christian churches justify any theology that ignores the experience of more than one hundred million lesbian and gay Christians? How can we be complacent with church structures that accept heterosexual persons but punish lesbian and gay persons when they are true to their natures? How can we claim that the Christian churches are following the gospel of Jesus if Christianity aggravates the alienation from the faith community that lesbian and gay persons face?" (p. 187)
"A positive and affirming lesbian gay theology or spirituality rejects the notion that a homosexual orientation is abnormal, sick, sinful, or criminal. The 1986 letter from the Vaticans Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which contended that a homosexual orientation was objectively disordered, obviously did not gain from the experience of being lesbian or gay. Such experience confirms that a homosexual orientation is not contrary to nature but is part of Gods plan for creation and essential for developing the human family. Without the presence of lesbian and gay people in the world, reality would be truncated and humankind unfulfilled. These assertions are based on the testimony of lesbian and gay Christians and the witness of their lives " (p. 189)
There are two important points left ambiguous here. 1) Which part of the "Church" are they speaking of: the teaching itself of the Church, some documents written by the Church, or some Church theologians? 2) What "experience" of lesbians and gays are they speaking of? That experience is wide and varied and all would not say the same thing to the Church.
In addition, there is a failure to distinguish the relative authority of Church documents and all documents appear to have similar weight independently of their source. Documents issued by various individual bishops, committees, or conferences seem to be given equal or preferential weight to the documents of the Holy See.
V. While claiming to present the full range of research and thinking on homosexuality, they fail to give sufficient attention to some important responses to homosexuality. For the most part, they seem convinced that any change in homosexual orientation is impossible. They do little with considerable testimony among evangelical Protestant communities and some portions of the psychiatric and psychological communities that such change is possible.
VI. They were directed to separate themselves completely from New Ways Ministry in 1984. They continue to distribute New Ways Ministry materials at their workshop and continue in various national programs and seminars to be listed as co-founders of New Ways Ministry in a manner that suggests they continue to be involved.
This evaluation of the statements of Sister Gramick and Father Nugent with respect to the Churchs teaching on homosexuality is submitted by the Commission in carrying out the mandate conveyed to the members of the Commission by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. The Commission clearly recognizes the value of certain aspects of their ministry, but is obligated to point out the other significant areas that are problematic.
Respectfully submitted, this
4th day of October, 1994
Archbishop Adam J. Maida
Msgr. James J. Mulligan
Dr. Janet E. Smith