Priest remains loyal despite ministry ban

Cleric accepts ruling, is critical of process

July 31, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

The Rev. Robert Nugent sits at the dining room table in his rowhouse near Camden Yards, surrounded by cards and letters he has received since the Vatican gave him and a Baltimore nun a lifetime ban from ministering to gay and lesbian Roman Catholics.

The silver-haired cleric whom everybody calls "Father Bob," who describes himself as "a typical Irish Catholic priest," who loves to perform the pastoral tasks of celebrating Mass and performing marriages, struggles to describe his emotions.

"It's not anger. It's not depression," he said. "It's more a feeling of helplessness. I'm the victim of a process that needs looking at."

Nugent, a Salvatorian priest, and Sister Jeannine Gramick, a School Sister of Notre Dame, were summoned to Rome three weeks ago and informed that they must immediately cease their ministry to gay and lesbian Catholics they first began nearly 30 years ago in Philadelphia. The reason: They did not express clearly enough the Roman Catholic church's teaching on homosexuality.

The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith concluded after a four-year investigation that Nugent and Gramick failed to explicitly state that a homosexual orientation is "disordered" and that homosexual acts are "intrinsically evil."

As a priest and a loyal Catholic, Nugent said he had no problem with the concept of the church's teaching, a position that he did not share with Gramick, his partner in ministry.

"We don't agree on everything. We have disagreements among ourselves as to approaches, as is plain to anyone who knows us," Nugent, 62, said. "I think I went a little farther than she did in accepting the teaching of the church."

In fact, defying the Vatican was the furthest thing from his mind. He had decided, when the investigation began, that he would accept whatever decision came from Rome.

"I think people who know me know I was too much of a priest [to resign]," he said. "I see myself as moderate. That's the irony of this whole thing. Some gay Catholics have criticized us for not criticizing the church."

Nugent and Gramick, who have written two books and crisscrossed the country delivering workshops to gay and lesbian Catholics and their families, have been under investigation by church officials in one form or another since the early 1980s. The investigation that resulted in the ministry ban was started in 1988 by a commission headed by Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit and was transferred to the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1995.

The Vatican congregation asked Nugent and Gramick to clarify their teaching, and unsatisfied with their responses, asked them to submit a profession of faith in which they expressed their "interior assent" to the church's teaching on homosexuality.

Gramick refused. "What began as an inquiry about my public statements and writings on homosexuality became, in the end, an interrogation about my inner personal beliefs on the subject," she wrote last week.

"To intrude, uninvited, into the sanctuary of another's conscience is both disrespectful and wrong," she wrote.

Nugent, however, submitted the profession. The Vatican congregation wasn't satisfied, and it drew up its own statement for Nugent to sign, which he agreed to do. He just couldn't stomach the language, which used the terminology of "evil" and "disorder." Nugent instead substituted the phrase "objectively immoral" to describe homosexual acts.

"I simply couldn't do it in the language they wanted me to do it in," he said. "I spent 25 years of my life trying to teach [gays and lesbians] that the church would try to receive them with integrity, sensitivity and compassion."

Nugent assumed that because he was cooperating with the Vatican congregation, and Gramick was not, that the end result would be different. When he was summoned to Rome on July 9 to receive the Vatican's ruling, he found he had been mistaken.

"When it turned out the punishments were identical, I began to think that even had I signed the original document they gave to me, the result would have been the same," Nugent said. "It lends credence to the idea that they wanted to stop the ministry from the beginning."

Though Nugent said he will accept the Vatican's ruling, Gramick is pondering what she'll do. At the order of her religious superior, she has ceased all ministry for a month to resolve what she calls "a dilemma": she still feels called to minister to gays and lesbians, but also wants to remain with the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

She cannot do both.

"She's really caught. She's taking it much harder," Nugent said. "I think she takes it personally. She's offended at the abuse of power, the injustice."

As to the future, Nugent said he will continue to assist at St. John the Baptist Church in New Freedom, Pa.

He is thinking of putting together a workshop on the documents of Vatican II, the church council of the early 1960s that modernized Catholic theology, liturgy and church life.

But he believes he continues to be considered a disloyal son of the church, which he feels is unfair. He was scheduled to assist at a parish in a diocese in the South this summer, but the bishop, upon hearing of Nugent's trouble with the Vatican, canceled the assignment. He declined to name the bishop.

"If I had been disobedient, I could see why a bishop would disinvite me. But I've been obedient," he said. "Obviously there's a stigma attached. I've become persona non grata."

Pub Date: 7/31/99

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