Style
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

Partners:
 
Judgment Day for a Priest

By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 7, 1999; Page C1

   


Stepping into the balmy air of a recent Roman evening, Bob Nugent and his boss, Karl Hoffmann, walked to Da Romolo restaurant in the narrow-laned district of Trastevere. Hoffmann wanted his friend from Baltimore to relax, so as they dug into pasta and a carafe of wine, neither mentioned why Nugent had been summoned to Rome. But Nugent just couldn't help himself. Grinning, he asked Hoffman, "Are you fattening up the calf for the kill?"

The next day, the Rev. Robert Nugent, a member of the Society of the Divine Savior, met the Rev. Karl Hoffmann, the order's superior general, in his office a few yards from the Vatican. Hoffmann softly delivered the bad news. In a sense, it was a kill - of the job to which the Roman Catholic priest had devoted 28 years.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's enforcer of doctrinal fidelity, having found that Nugent failed to agree "in sufficiently unequivocal terms" to church teachings on "the intrinsic evil of homosexual acts and the objective disorder of the homosexual inclination," ordered him "permanently prohibited from any pastoral work involving homosexual persons."

"I was stunned," the 62-year-old priest said later. "I thought that's a severe punishment. I never thought they would stop us entirely."

The rest of "us" is Jeannine Gramick, a 57-year-old nun with the School Sisters of Notre Dame who'd introduced Nugent to the spiritual anguish of gay men and lesbians feeling abandoned by the church. On the same day as Nugent, July 10, she also was banned from ministering to homosexuals.

The effusive, gregarious priest and the soft-spoken, precision-prone nun had led a guerrilla movement within the church aimed at changing how it viewed and ministered to homosexuals. Despite high-powered opposition from Cardinal James A. Hickey, head of the Washington Archdiocese, they had kept their ministry alive by operating as institutional rebels.

They moved from one "safe house" to another as sympathetic bishops, priests and nuns provided them places to live and work. They gained strength in numbers, expanding their workshops to parents of homosexuals. All in all, some believed their actions recalled that first agitator stubbornly determined to minister to a marginalized group known as gentiles Paul.

And so, the papally approved edict posed an extraordinary dilemma. Obey, and the priest and nun would never again be able to publicly minister to the group they had cared for since 1971. Disobey, and they would be cast from their religious orders.

'An Interrogation'


The Vatican's crackdown was not a total surprise since the pair had been under examination by church authorities for 15 years. But its decision illuminated the fissure in America's largest denomination, a community of 62 million people. On one side are those who stress doctrinal uniformity and traditional authority. On the other side are those who say that new social realities and increasing diversity demand doctrinal flexibility and new ways of pastoral care.

Rome's move is noteworthy for two other reasons. Gramick and Nugent were not disciplined for failing to present church teachings on homosexuality but for declining to give assent to them in writing.

"What began as an inquiry about my public statements and writings on homosexuality," Gramick said in a statement, "became, in the end, an interrogation about my inner personal beliefs on the subject."

Secondly, the doctrine the pair declined to endorse had not been used even by U.S. Catholic bishops in their most recent pastoral letter on homosexuality, "Always Our Children." Described by the bishops as an "outstretched hand" to parents of gay men and lesbians, the 1997 document is seen by many Catholics as a beacon of compassion. It did not call homosexual acts "intrinsically evil" but described them as "objectively immoral."

"The church teaches that homogenital behavior is objectively immoral, while making the important distinction between this behavior and a homosexual orientation, which is not immoral in itself," the letter said. As orientation is generally "experienced as a given, not as something freely chosen," and it "cannot be considered sinful, for morality presumes the freedom to choose."

Nine months later, under pressure from a Vatican determined to block any doctrinal mutation towards acceptance of homosexual conduct, the bishops amended their letter with a footnote describing homosexuality as "objectively disordered."

Which leaves a question hanging in the air.

Are U.S. Catholic bishops also out of step with Vatican views on the moral nature of homosexuality?

'We Complement Each Other'


Robert Nugent's gray hair has a tinge of faded honey that suggests a onetime blond and his large blue eyes are shielded by frameless bifocals. A hearty laugh masks a steely will and a flinty contrariness.

Friends say the mild-mannered nun, who declined to be interviewed, is as stiff-willed as Nugent.

"She's a mathematics teacher. She's very organized, very precise," said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry in Mount Rainier, the gay and lesbian Catholic organization founded by Gramick and Nugent in 1977. "She's good at taking a wide view of things and breaking it down into sets of things that need to be done."

Apart from a shared pastoral passion, the Gramick-Nugent partnership worked, friends said, because their talents meshed and they have an enduring, though not always easy, friendship.

"Sister Jeannine doesn't like when I say this but I think we complement each other," said Nugent. "People have described us as two very strong-willed people and they can sense there is some tension and conflict. We have different views about homosexuality and we had to work on that. I tend to be the head part, the theologian part of the team and she tends to be the heart, the emotion part of the team."

Their work raises an inevitable question about their private lives.

"We don't answer that question for two reasons," Nugent said. "First, it's a personal question and . . . secondly, it's a political question. By that, I mean the answer has implications. If we say we're homosexual then a certain number of people would feel disappointed because they want us to be heterosexual and they might say we are biased in our opinions. If we say we are not, other people would be disappointed and say, what do we really know about it, not having experienced it.

"In 25 years no one has ever implicated us in anything that would be a violation of our vows [of chastity]," he added. "And I think that's because we've kept our personal lives out of it."

Born in Norristown, Pa., to a railroad clerk and a homemaker, Nugent and his sister went to Catholic schools. Impressed by priests he met, "I decided that if I wanted to do something with my life, being a priest was a good way to affect people for the good," he recalled in an interview at the home of friends in Hyattsville. He entered the Archdiocese of Philadelphia seminary in 1955, was ordained in 1965 and served in parishes for five years.

But Vatican II opened a Pandora's box of church reforms, secular culture was changing, and Nugent was antsy. He tried organizing local priests so they'd have more say with the archbishop in how they lived; he got a degree in library science; he moved into a community of Christian Brothers and worked in a skid row men's shelter. All this over the objections of his superiors who'd schooled him to do parish work.

"I wanted a ministry that I felt was engaging and satisfying, and I guess more creative," he recalled. "I liked parish life but I felt that I was called to do something else. I wasn't quite sure what it was."

Enter Gramick. She was getting her doctorate in mathematical education at the University of Pennsylvania, didn't wear a habit and at a time when reaching out to homosexuals was not high on the sacred radar, she was inviting gay men to her convent for group discussions and counseling. That was her response to an encounter with a gay Catholic who had asked her, "What is the church doing for my gay brothers and sisters?" His question, she'd later say, "changed the entire direction of my life."

The only child of a Philadelphia laborer and a housewife, Gramick entered the convent at 18. She graduated from the College of Notre Dame in Baltimore and got a master's degree in math from the University of Notre Dame. Nugent met Gramick after he read a 1971 newspaper profile of her and sent a note of support, casually offering his help. Within days, she was on the phone telling him that some of the men wanted to talk with a priest. "I grew up with all the fears and anxieties about homosexuality that . . . most Irish Catholics do," Nugent recalled. "I was really uncomfortable and really didn't want to be part of it."

But having made the offer, he reluctantly agreed to follow through.

"I came away really changed by the stories of the people, who spoke of loving the church, wanting to be part of the church and feeling the church didn't want them [because] they were sick, they were sinful . . .," he said.

He became increasingly active on behalf of gays and soon realized that if he wanted to stay in the priesthood, "I was probably not going to last in Philadelphia." He joined his current order, also known as Salvatorians, and moved to Maryland. Gramick, with her doctorate, returned to Baltimore to teach.

In 1976, they began offering workshops in homosexuality for priests and nuns to broaden their understanding of how to minister to gay men and lesbians. They put out "a primer on homosexuality. What does the church say? What do other theologians say?" Nugent said. "We felt that as educators, dealing with intelligent Catholics who read, who were college-educated, we had to discuss with them what the theological thinking around this issue was. So we presented other positions."

In 1981, the two announced plans to hold the first national symposium on homosexuality for Catholics. That got Hickey's attention. The prelate, who objected to their ambiguity toward church teaching on homosexuality, called Gramick and Nugent to his residence for their first face-to-face meeting. After they failed to reach common ground, Hickey urged bishops and religious orders to boycott the symposium but about 200 people still attended.

"I guess from there on," Nugent said, "it was kind of downhill."

'Immoral' or 'Evil'?


In 1984, Hickey ordered the pair to stop their activities in the Washington Archdiocese and the Vatican ordered them to disengage from New Ways Ministry. They formally resigned but continued their ministry in other dioceses: Nugent in New Jersey and Gramick in Brooklyn. They formed the Catholic Parents Network. They followed their 1983 book, "A Challenge to Love: Gay and Lesbian Catholics in the Church," with "Building Bridges: Gay and Lesbian Reality and the Catholic Church" in 1992 and "Voices of Hope: A Collection of Positive Catholic Writings on Gay and Lesbian Issues" in 1995.

Faced with Gramick and Nugent's continuing defiance, the Vatican in 1988 assigned Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit to conduct a formal inquiry into their writings. Six years later, Maida's commission recommended disciplinary action after finding "serious deficiencies in their writings" as well as "errors and ambiguities" that had caused "harmful confusion."

The matter was now in Rome's hands. After fours years of further investigation, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asked Gramick and Nugent, now back in Baltimore, for declarations of "their interior assent to the teaching of the Catholic Church on homosexuality and to acknowledge" errors in their writings.

Gramick "simply refused to express any assent whatsoever" to the teachings, the Congregation said. Nugent was more conciliatory, admitting some of his published views conflicted with church teachings. "I take full responsibility for any failure in my writings," he wrote. "I regret any harm that might have come and I ask pardon."

His personal assent was still unclear, however. The Congregation decided to give him one last chance, asking him in December to sign a "Profession of Faith."

But Nugent objected to its language and proposed changing "intrinsically evil" to "objectively immoral." Perhaps a greater indiscretion, however, was his suggestion that the doctrine in question was not infallible.

If the whole affair seems reducible to a petty argument over words, Nugent insists that words matter.

"My point is not what 'intrinsically evil' means but how people hear that. And gay and lesbian people have heard the church saying that they are 'intrinsically evil' and I keep saying, 'No, the church is not saying that. The church is saying your genital expression of your orientation is intrinsically evil. . . . When you talk about evil, it's a very harsh word and people tend to misunderstand it."

So how does he explain the difference between the two key phrases?

" 'Immoral' is something that falls short of the norm in any area of human life," Nugent said. "If heterosexuality is the norm for human sexuality, then any other sexual expression that is not heterosexual falls short of the norm. 'Intrinsically evil' is an act that can never be performed by a human being for any reason, like rape and torture."

Mixed Reactions


Reaction to the Vatican's clampdown was predictably divided. In a statement, Cardinal Hickey, noting he'd raised questions about the pair's "ambiguity" toward the church's teachings 18 years ago, defended Vatican procedures, saying they'd given "full respect for the rights" of Gramick and Nugent. Despite "numerous opportunities over the past 20 years to clarify their beliefs," he added, "unfortunately, they did not convey and advocate the clear teaching of the Catholic Church."

Like the Vatican, Hickey stressed the church wants continued outreach to homosexuals but added that a "truly compassionate ministry is one which is . . . reflecting the fullness of the Church's teaching."

Conservative Catholics crowed. "We've been on the Gramick-Nugent case almost as long as they've been around," Al Matt, editor of the Wanderer, a Catholic weekly in St. Paul, Minn., said in an interview.

"We've always taken the position that their attitude is absolutely contrary to Catholic teaching and they should have been put out of business a long time ago. Basically, they're saying that such homosexual acts can be accommodated or justified within the context of Catholic teaching and of course the church simply says no to that."

His paper referred to Gramick and Nugent as "well-known homosexualist agitators" who "arguably even more than notorious pedophile priests . . . have diminished the credibility of the Catholic Church in the United States."

On the other side of the fault line, there was dismay. Gramick and Nugent's religious orders, and national associations representing leaders of those orders, issued statements saying they were "saddened" by the Vatican's move and reiterating support for the pair's work.

The governing board of the liberal Catholic peace organization Pax Christi USA asked U.S. bishops to appeal to the Vatican for reconsideration. Its letter, praising the "pioneering work" of Nugent and Gramick, was hand-delivered to the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops by Bishop Walter Sullivan of Richmond. And Dignity/USA, which represents Catholic gays, lesbians and their families, said the priest and nun's "message of compassion and inclusion has fallen on deaf ears" at the Vatican.

Clouded Futures


Jeannine Gramick returned from Rome and went into seclusion to ponder her future. On July 24, she issued a statement that said in part:

"The severe judgment of the CDF brings me to a new moment in my life regarding this ministry. . . . I still feel called by God to lesbian and gay ministry. I also feel called to serve the People of God as a loyal member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in the Catholic Church. Thus, the censure from the Vatican presents a dilemma for me. . . . I ask for your prayers."

Calling the Vatican's process "fundamentally unfair" and affirming her assent to "all the core beliefs of our faith," Gramick added, "Those who minister today to the divorced and remarried are not expected to constantly proclaim the immorality of divorce and remarriage. . . . Military chaplains are not expected to constantly proclaim the immorality of war. The expectations of those in lesbian and gay ministry should be similar."

Addressing lesbian and gay Catholics and their families, Gramick said, "Don't leave the Church. It is your spiritual home."

Robert Nugent decided to give up public ministry to gays because to do otherwise, he believes, would leave him with a greater loss.

"I'd be a priest, but I'd be a priest without a parish, a priest without people. And I couldn't survive that way. I've been a priest for almost 35 years. I've been happy. It's been wonderful. It's not a job, it's not a profession, it's a way of life. And I wouldn't trade it for a minute. I think I'd be lost if I weren't a priest."

Besides, he added, "I think I can be more effective as a priest inside the church than as an ex-priest out of the church."

He plans to keep busy, though, writing a book about his experience, lecturing on ecumenism and, oh yes, on "freedom of conscience."

His fear of becoming persona non grata seems unfounded. On a recent Sunday, he drove to St. John Baptist Catholic Church in New Freedom, Pa., where he has worked part time for a decade. After each Mass, he spoke to the congregation and was given an ovation. And, as so often has happened over the years, a man approached Nugent, expressed support and explained why.

"My brother," said the man, "died of AIDS 10 years ago."

   

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top


Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar