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Gramick, Nugent summoned to Rome

NCR Staff

Sr. Jeannine Gramick and Fr. Robert Nugent, pastoral ministers under Vatican interdict for their controversial work with gays and lesbians, were called to Rome in late May to receive further directives from Vatican officials related to a 10-month-old ban on their life’s work.

In a statement issued May 25, the provincial of Nugent’s religious order, Society of the Divine Savior, said the purpose of the meetings had been to discuss “variances” between the Vatican’s intent in issuing the ban and the interpretations of its scope.

According to the provincial, Salvatorian Fr. Michel Shay, superiors of Nugent’s and Gramick’s congregations had been notified by the Vatican’s office for religious communities that terms of the ban required further clarification.

The pair were called to Rome separately but simultaneously. The meetings were held May 23 and 24 at respective headquarters of their congregations. Gramick is a School Sister of Notre Dame.

Notice of the meetings, scheduled for May 23 but extending into the following day, was short -- just a few days, according to Shay.

After the ban was issued last July, both Nugent and Gramick agreed to comply with its terms by refraining from pastoral initiatives. However, neither understood it to bar them from talking about their work or about their experience of a Vatican investigation, ongoing for some 20 years.

Since the ban was issued in July 1999, Gramick has vigorously voiced her disagreement with it, arguing that neither she nor Nugent had ever defied church teaching in their public roles.

The interdict, described as permanent, terminated the Vatican probe and stemmed from Gramick and Nugent’s failure to satisfy a Vatican demand that they declare not only their words and actions, but also their consciences to be in full agreement with official church doctrine in the precise language laid out by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The pair, who founded New Ways Ministry, an outreach to gays and lesbians based in Mount Ranier, Md., have also been barred from holding leadership roles in their respective religious congregations.

In early April, Gramick delivered a talk in Lincoln, Neb., defying a prohibition from Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz against speaking in his diocese, but it is unclear whether that controversy led to the renewed efforts by church leaders to bring the ministers under their thumbs.

Bruskewitz had prohibited Gramick from speaking anywhere in the Lincoln diocese, telling her in a letter that he regarded any defense of her position as a violation of the Vatican ban. Her talk was sponsored by Call to Action, a renewal-minded church organization that Bruskewitz regards as heretical. He has excommunicated its members in Lincoln.

In her talk, Gramick offered a strong defense of the role of personal conscience in relation to official church teaching. “No one has the right to intrude on your conscience,” she said, “ … to invade that sacred space between you and God.”

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, said in response to Shay’s statement about variant interpretations, “I think it’s going to be interesting to hear what the variances are, because I know the notification was very narrow in its specification” of what was allowed and not allowed. “They were not allowed to do programs for gays and lesbians, but they were allowed to write and publish with the permission of their religious superiors, and their freedom to speak was never disturbed.”

Shay, Nugent’s provincial, issued a strong statement in support of Nugent and his work following the recent meeting in Rome. Shay said Nugent had “respected in good faith” the Vatican directives.

“Fr. Nugent’s past ministry to homosexual persons is a valid sign of our province’s desire to minister to hurting and alienated people,” he said.

Gramick, contacted by telephone in Rome May 25, said she was unable to comment in any way. Her congregation was expected to issue a statement after NCR went to press.

Gramick said in September, in her official response to the interdict, that she intended to work within church structures to have the ban reversed. She said she was unable to “acquiesce” in a decision she considered “unjust and harmful to lesbian and gay Catholics” and hoped to find a way to reconcile the directive with what she regards as an integral part of her vocation: ministering to lesbians and gays.

National Catholic Reporter, June 2, 2000