Vatican bars Md. priest, nun from ministry to gays

Two known nationally for workshop, books

July 14, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

The Vatican has ordered a Baltimore-based nun and priest to end their nearly 30-year ministry to gays and lesbians because they refused to adhere to church teaching that homosexual acts are intrinsically evil.

In a document issued yesterday, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith informed Sister Jeannine Gramick, a School Sister of Notre Dame, and the Rev. Robert Nugent, a Salvatorian priest, that they are "permanently prohibited from any pastoral work involving homosexual persons." They were also barred from holding any office in their respective religious orders for the indefinite future.

Gramick and Nugent, who began ministering to gays and lesbians in Philadelphia in 1971, founded New Ways Ministry in Mount Rainier in Prince George's County in 1977. They ran afoul of Cardinal (then Archbishop) James A. Hickey of Washington and were ordered by the Vatican to end their association with New Ways Ministry in 1984.

"I first raised questions about the ambiguity with which Sr. Jeannine, Fr. Nugent and their organization addressed the Church's moral teaching on homosexual activity 18 years ago," Hickey said yesterday in a statement. "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."

But a leader in the Catholic gay community said he was "angry and dismayed" at the Vatican action. Charles L. Cox, executive director of Dignity, U.S.A., a group representing gay and lesbian Catholics that has itself come under fire in the past for not adhering strictly to Catholic teaching on homosexuality, said the action counteracts the welcoming stance toward homosexuals conveyed by the U.S. bishops in their pastoral message two years ago, "Always Our Children."

"I think [the Vatican] sends a very poor message," Cox said. "Once again the church says, `We love you, we want you to be a part of the church,' and then essentially prohibits people from ministering to gay and lesbian communities."

Gramick and Nugent were investigated by a Vatican commission headed by Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit from 1988 to 1994, and have been investigated since 1995 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican body that monitors and disciplines the church's theologians, and which has its roots in the Holy Office of the Inquisition of the 13th century.

Gramick and Nugent are the most prominent and controversial figures involved in the American Catholic Church's ministry to gays and lesbians. Each lives in Baltimore and they travel the country delivering workshops on homosexuality and spirituality. Nugent has assisted in several parishes in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, although he has never had a formal assignment here.

They co-wrote "Building Bridges: Gay and Lesbian Reality and the Catholic Church" in 1992 and edited "Voices of Hope: A Collection of Positive Catholic Writings on Gay and Lesbian Issues" in 1995.

It was these writings that provided the Vatican with much of its ammunition.

Ambiguities and errors

"The ambiguities and errors of the approach of Father Nugent and Sister Gramick have caused confusion among the Catholic people and have harmed the community," said the Vatican document, which was signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the congregation. It was approved by Pope John Paul II in May.

Catholic teaching states that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered" and that they are "contrary to natural law."

But the "Catechism of the Catholic Church," the basic statement of church belief, also states that the number of men and women with homosexual tendencies is "not negligible" and that they do not choose their orientation, although gays and lesbians are instructed to be celibate. "They must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided," the catechism says.

Yesterday's Vatican statement said that Gramick and Nugent contradicted church teaching in their ministry, writing and workshops by failing to say that the homosexual orientation is objectively disordered and that homosexual acts are intrinsically evil.

Neither Gramick nor Nugent was available for comment, but their religious orders issued statements on their behalf.

Religious orders respond

The American province of the Salvatorians, Nugent's order, said it "accepts but is saddened by the decision" of the Vatican.

"The mission of our Society calls Salvatorians to proclaim to all people the salvation which has appeared in Jesus Christ, so that all may come to know God and Jesus Christ and thereby have life in all its fullness," the order's statement said. "Our Society has supported Fr. Robert's ministry to one of many marginalized groups in our world as a valid expression of our mission."

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