John M. Becker

Fr. Robert Nugent, Catholic LGBT Rights Hero, Dies

Filed By John M. Becker | January 02, 2014 5:45 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, The Movement
Tags: Catholic Church, Catholicism, Fr. Robert Nugent, Jeannine Gramick, New Ways Ministry, pro-LGBT Catholics, Robert Nugent

fr-robert-nugent.jpgFr. Robert Nugent, SDS -- a longtime advocate for gay and lesbian Catholics -- died yesterday in Milwaukee of complications from lung cancer.

The news was announced today on the website of New Ways Ministry, a gay-positive Catholic social justice organization dedicated to combating homophobia and promoting "the acceptance of LGBT people as full and equal members of church and society." Nugent co-founded the organization in 1977 along with Sr. Jeannine Gramick; Gramick was among those at Nugent's side when he died.

Francis DeBernardo, Executive Director of New Ways Ministry, writes on the group's website:

"When few priests would do more than whisper about homosexuality, Father Nugent was meeting with lesbian and gay people and encouraging them to claim their rightful place in the Catholic Church. During a time of intense homophobia in both church and society, he exhibited uncommon courage and foresight in welcoming and affirming the goodness of God's lesbian and gay children.

"But his ministry was more than a welcome. He had the wisdom to know that the real moral problem in the church was not the lives of lesbian and gay people, but the ignorance and fear out of which many church leaders and officials operated. An uncommon prophet, instead of railing against this ignorance and fear, he and Sister Jeannine set out to educate people about the reality and holiness of lesbian and gay lives. Instead of battling the institution, he attempted to build bridges of education and dialogue, helping to enlighten Catholic leaders who were sometimes reluctant to break free from their traditional ways. A loyal son of the Church, he attempted to help the institution live up to its most cherished ideals of human dignity, equality, and respect.

"In founding New Ways Ministry with Sister Jeannine, he helped establish an institutional resource for the Catholic Church on lesbian and gay issues. Their dream was for New Ways Ministry to be a resource and advocacy center to which pastoral leaders, lesbian and gay Catholics, and family members could turn. For decades the duo crisscrossed the nation providing support and guidance to those Catholics who were willing to open up to their more inclusive model of church. He bravely withstood the disapproval of many Church leaders, often experiencing the alienation and marginalization of the lesbian and gay people that he served.

"It is impossible to overestimate the impact and value of Father Nugent's lesbian and gay ministry. He educated a generation of pastoral leaders who began to put into practice the inclusive ideals that he taught. A tireless researcher and writer, he produced a number of important works on pastoral care that helped to shape the movement in Catholicism of gay-friendly parishes. In the mid-1990s, he served as a consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Marriage and Family Life as they produced their landmark pastoral document, Always Our Children. A sensitive counselor, he supported scores of gay priests and brothers as they worked at reconciling their spirituality with their sexuality."

Indeed, Fr. Nugent and Sr. Gramick's inclusive outreach efforts to LGBT Catholics were truly groundbreaking, and it earned them the ire of the church hierarchy: in 1984 the Archbishop of Washington informed them that they could no longer continue their ministry in the archdiocese. Both removed themselves from leadership positions in New Ways Ministry but continued writing, speaking, and lobbying both nationally and internationally.

joseph-ratzinger.jpgFour years later, the Vatican ordered an investigation into Nugent and Gramick. The resultant report, released in 1994, found the pair's writing, ministry, and beliefs about LGBT people to be "incompatible with the fullness of Christian morality" and recommended that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) - headed by certain German cardinal named Joseph Ratzinger (left), who later became Pope Benedict XVI -- publish some kind of statement in order to "counteract and repair the harmful confusion" that it claimed Nugent and Gramick were causing.

Over the next five years, CDF attempted many times to convince Sr. Jeannine and Fr. Robert to stop challenging the Catholic leadership on LGBT issues, but without success. As a result, in 1999 CDF censured Nugent and Gramick and forbade them from engaging in "any pastoral work involving homosexual persons." The following year, both were formally silenced by the Catholic church.

Gramick did not accept her silencing, but Nugent did, acting on advice from canon lawyers who said that a future pope could reverse the decision, but only if he cooperated.

Although Fr. Nugent stopped leading public workshops and retreats about LGBT issues, he continued ministering one-on-one and with small groups. He maintained his pro-equality beliefs until the end of his life.

The LGBT community has lost one of our heroes, one who stood up and spoke out against the Catholic Church's institutional homophobia when few others within that church would.

Well done, good and faithful servant.

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