Even before the recent priest sex scandals, the Catholic Church was eliminating outreaches to the gay and lesbian community. While Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls earlier this month was calling the ordination of gay priests "invalid," the Vatican had already forbidden a Catholic gay and lesbian conference from celebrating mass as a group.
For the past three years, the Vatican has banned a Maryland priest and nun from ministering to gays and lesbians because they refuse to condemn homosexuality outright. "The Vatican has been fixated on sexuality," says Sister Jeannine Gramick, who along with the Rev. Robert Nugent has been under strict orders from the Vatican since 1999 to no longer give workshops to gays and lesbians or their parents, a ministry she began in 1971. "Here are judgments being made about sexuality and homosexuality by allegedly celibate men who do not have a first-hand experience of sexuality. They are not in touch with people's experiences."
Sister Gramick and Nugent were investigated for 11 years by the Vatican for their ministry in the Maryland suburbs before they were ordered to discontinue it. The Vatican called their teachings "ambiguous" and criticized them for not stressing that homosexual acts are always sinful.
Sister Gramick told church officials that homosexuality was a matter of conscience and, while she made people aware of the church's teaching on the matter, she also encouraged them to study what science and psychology and other faiths had to say about homosexuality.
After the Vatican's verdict, Sister Gramick traveled the country speaking out about the investigation and how she was ordered to stop her ministry and told to keep quiet. Vatican officials received thousands of letters in support of Sister Gramick and Nugent, and church leaders in Rome pressured the sister and priest's religious orders to stop them from speaking out.
Their orders' superiors drew up a list of "obediences" that the two were to follow: They were not allowed to speak about the Vatican investigation, nor criticize the Vatican, nor ask people to write to the Vatican on their behalf. Sister Gramick responded by saying that such a ban on speaking violated her civil rights. She then joined another order, the Sisters of Loretto, known for their progressive stance on social justice, including gay and lesbian outreach.
Because male religious orders are much more controlled by church hierarchy, there was no equivalent order for Nugent to transfer to that would allow him to continue talking about his Vatican investigation. So Nugent followed his obediences and went to work at a Baltimore parish. He still counsels gays and lesbians privately in one-on-one counseling sessions, but he and Sister Gramick are prohibited from holding workshops for gays and lesbians or their parents.
"I miss my ministry," Nugent said. "It's been a very difficult two years. The ultimate punishment would be not to allow me to function as a priest in the public area of the church. I don't want to be a renegade priest."
Meanwhile, Nugent uses his priestly pulpit to talk about social justice. And he waits. He believes if he is patient enough, another pope will come into power and his order can petition to have his gay and lesbian ministry reinstated.
Both Sister Gramick and Nugent worry that instead of making it easier for gay priests to be more open about their sexuality, the church will place even greater pressure on seminaries not to let in gay men. "Young men entering the seminary or priesthood will be scrutinized very closely," Nugent says. "It's much healthier for young men to say: 'Yes, I'm gay, but I feel good about myself and I feel called to celibacy.'"
Angered by the Vatican's statement calling the ordinations of gay priests "invalid," Sister Gramick charges that the church is trying to lay blame on a group of people already stigmatized.
"The real scandal is not gay priests or homosexuality or pastoral outreach to gay and lesbian people," said Sister Gramick. "The real scandal is the secrecy and the coverups of people in authority and trying to lay blame on gay priests. The people in the pews, by and large, know gay priests and love them."