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Prophets’ troubles don’t mean they’re wrong

There is more grief than defiance in Jeannine Gramick’s heart as her conflict with the Vatican and her own order, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, inexorably unfolds toward a final confrontation and conclusion.

Whatever happens to Gramick, her troubles are similar to those that prophets have always had when they get ahead of the church as teaching institution. Catholic history shows that, over the long term, such troubles rarely mean the prophets were wrong.

In this case Gramick and Salvatorian Fr. Robert Nugent had a conscience-driven mission to create a ministry, New Ways Ministry, to lesbians and gays.

The two wanted to accompany, to console, to learn, to discuss broadly. In other words, Gramick and Nugent were doing what scholars and missionaries and founders of religious orders and compassionate people and humanitarians and saints do, asking, “What’s going on here, and what ought we to think about it, and what ought we to do about it?”

Like society, Catholics -- who know that Jesus came to help us with living and dying -- were newly faced with a particularly controverted aspect of life. The journey and the exploration needed some Christian compassion and common sense. Gramick and Nugent provided both. This was not a situation much aided by dogmatic rulings, such as the official teaching that “homosexuality is intrinsically disordered” -- rulings that failed to resonate with either gays or lesbians or their parents and friends.

That’s because many of those parents and friends, like this church and other churches, also have been wrestling with what homosexuality actually means. After all, the closet door has been open for only a generation.

Vatican officials, however, did not want to wrestle further with the issue. In 1984, Gramick and Nugent were ordered to pull out of New Ways Ministry. They agreed, but remain engaged in the work in the larger sense.

That was not enough. In July 1999, Rome ordered Nugent and Gramick to stop pastoral work with homosexuals, period. Again, both reluctantly agreed, though Gramick in particular vowed to discuss openly the injustice she felt had been committed.

Finally the two heard no from Rome again, through pressure on Gramick’s and Nugent’s religious congregations. Both were banned from writing or speaking about gay issues or even discussing the investigation and its conclusions.

This time it is Gramick, previously acquiescent (though under duress), who has said no. She will not comply. She has thrown the issue back into the lap of her order.

So where are we? For those not directly involved, there is some comfort in distance and historic detachment, in bringing it all into perspective.

Aided by Gramick and Nugent’s courageous work, a new situation has developed in recent years: Homosexuality has been brought out into the open. Western society, in some instances with furious argument, at other moments with tentative gestures to mollify unspoken anxieties or with hesitant degrees of acceptance, struggles to come to grips with this new era.

The Catholic church, wearing its highest teaching hat, wants to say that it already knows what homosexuality means. It’s been dealing with homosexuality for 2,000 years. It’s a disordered state, and that’s it.

Well, of course, that isn’t it. Humanity has been wrong on many issues for 2,000 years -- the role of women and slavery come immediately to mind. And the church, frequently, has been wrong when society has been wrong -- for the church is in the society, never ahead of it, and usually reaches backwards for guidance.

What we have with Gramick and Nugent, the Catholic church has seen before. Jeannine and Robert have lit a candle that cannot be blown out. It’s light can only be shaded, shuttered.

But everyone knows it is there. The work Gramick and Nugent have begun must be carried forward. Homosexuality is a subject that existed too long in the dark. The Catholic church has a responsibility to bring its best and brightest open minds to bear on the topic, to explore homosexuality in the light of new knowledge and not to condemn it on the basis of the old.

It will be a long wait. But long waits for church teaching to be clarified are also part of the Catholic tradition.

National Catholic Reporter, June 16, 2000