Home / Commentary / The Rev. Bob Nugent, silenced for his work with gay Catholics, dies at 76
The Rev. Robert Nugent, a Catholic priest who was silenced by the Vatican for his work with gay and lesbian Catholics, died Wednesday (Jan. 1) after a three-month battle with brain cancer. He was 76. Photo courtesy of New Ways Ministry

The Rev. Bob Nugent, silenced for his work with gay Catholics, dies at 76

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The Rev. Robert Nugent, a Catholic priest who was silenced by the Vatican for his work with gay and lesbian Catholics, died Wednesday (Jan. 1) after a three-month battle with brain cancer. He was 76. Photo courtesy of New Ways Ministry
The Rev. Robert Nugent, a Catholic priest who was silenced by the Vatican for his work with gay and lesbian Catholics, died Wednesday (Jan. 1) after a three-month battle with brain cancer. He was 76. Photo courtesy of New Ways Ministry

WASHINGTON (RNS) The Rev. Robert Nugent, a Catholic priest who was silenced by the Vatican for his work with gay and lesbian Catholics, died Wednesday (Jan. 1) after a three-month battle with brain cancer. He was 76.

The Rev. Robert Nugent, a Catholic priest who was silenced by the Vatican for his work with gay and lesbian Catholics, died Wednesday (Jan. 1) after a three-month battle with brain cancer. He was 76. Photo courtesy of New Ways Ministry

In many ways, the scrutiny of Nugent’s activism symbolized the Vatican’s approach to all talk of homosexuality under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI — what one gay Catholic group called a “witch hunt” — compared to the more tolerant “who am I to judge?” tone set recently by Pope Francis.

Nugent, a member of the Salvatorians religious order, co-founded the Maryland-based New Ways Ministry in 1977 with Sister Jeannine Gramick to build bridges between the gay community and the Catholic Church. Their activities drew repeated condemnation from U.S. Catholic leaders in the 1980s.

Yet even as their work caught the attention of church officials in Rome, Nugent served as a consultant for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the bishops’ 1997 pastoral document on homosexuality, “Always Our Children.”

After the Vatican ruled that Gramick and Nugent’s work was “erroneous and dangerous,” in 1999, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) permanently banned Nugent and Gramick from working with the gay and lesbian community, saying their work had “caused confusion among the Catholic people and have harmed the community of the church.”

“The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is obliged to declare for the good of the Catholic faithful that the positions advanced by Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent regarding the intrinsic evil of homosexual acts and the objective disorder of the homosexual inclination are doctrinally unacceptable because they do not faithfully convey the clear and constant teaching of the Catholic Church in this area,” the decree said.

A year later, the Vatican issued a second decree barring Gramick and Nugent from speaking about the 11-year investigation into their work; Nugent agreed to comply, but Gramick did not, saying “I choose not to collaborate in my own oppression by restricting a basic human right. To me this is a matter of conscience.”

While Nugent largely complied with the order and stayed in the shadows, Gramick continued to work and speak publicly on behalf of gay rights and other progressive causes. She remains listed as a co-founder of New Ways Ministry and now serves as the executive co-director of the National Coalition of American Nuns, a small and liberal group of U.S. nuns.

Gramick was by Nugent’s side when he died Wednesday at a hospice wing at a Catholic retirement community in Milwaukee.

“His ministry was more than a welcome,” said Francis DeBernardo, the group’s executive director. “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.”

In 2010, New Ways Ministry again drew the ire of U.S. Catholic leaders for criticizing the hierarchy’s advocacy against same-sex marriage. “Like other groups that claim to be Catholic but deny central aspects of Church teaching, New Ways Ministry has no approval or recognition from the Catholic Church and that they cannot speak on behalf of the Catholic faithful in the United States,” said Chicago Cardinal Francis George, then president of the bishops’ conference.

 

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