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Response of Courage to the Nugent-Gramick Matter

by Fr. John Harvey, OSFS


This is a history of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's investigation into the teachings on homosexuality of Fr. Robert Nugent and Sr. Jeannine Gramick. Nugent and Gramick have consistently refused to accept the teaching of the Church which states that all homosexual acts are intrinsically evil, and that the inclination towards such acts, while not wrong in itself, is objectively disordered.

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Courage International, July 30, 1999

On July 13, it was made known that the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) had notified Sr. Jeannine Gramick, SSND, and Fr. Robert Nugent, SDS, that "they are permanently prohibited from any pastoral work involving homosexual persons." (Notification CDF, July 13, 1999. All other quotes are from this document unless otherwise specified.)

This was perceived by most of the secular media as too severe and unduly rigorous. One is hardly surprised by the reaction of secular media, but one could have hoped for a better response from the Leadership of Catholic Women Religious (LCWR) who vehemently opposed the decision of the CDF in the name of all its members. That leaders of Dignity and New Ways Ministry would decry this decision is not unexpected, given their premises; however, the Church has a right to expect from all Catholics, an assent of Faith to a statement of the CDF, approved by John Paul II.

The CDF decision came after eighteen years of dialogue between Church authorities in the United States and in the Vatican, on the one side, and Fr. Nugent and Sr. Gramick on the other. Between 1981 and 1984 the then Archbishop James Hickey, of Washington, D.C., asked them to clarify misleading and ambiguous statements in their writings; not satisfied with their responses, he forbade them to continue their activities in the Archdiocese of Washington. At the same time the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and for Societies of Apostolic Life "ordered them to separate themselves totally and completely from 'New Ways Ministry'."

Though removing themselves from leadership positions, Nugent and Gramick nevertheless continued to "promote ambiguous positions on homosexuality and explicitly criticized documents of the Church's Magisterium on this issue.'" This caused Rome in 1988 to establish a Commission "under the Presidency of Adam Cardinal Maida to study and evaluate their public statements and activities and to determine whether these were faithful to Catholic teaching on homosexuality."

In 1995, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and for Societies of Apostolic Life handed over the entire case to the CDF, which then invited Nugent and Gramick "to respond unequivocally to certain questions regarding their position on the morality of homosexual acts and on the homosexual inclination." Thus, the CDF hoped that Nugent and Gramick would correct the errors in their writings, while affirming Catholic teaching on homosexuality.

For the next three years, the CDF would take steps toward resolution of the conflict, including asking each author "to respond to the contestatio personally and independently from the other, to allow them the greatest freedom in expressing their individual positions."

On May 6 and May 20, 1998, the Members of the Congregation "carefully evaluated the responses." They unanimously agreed that the responses of the two, "while containing certain positive elements, were unacceptable. In each case Fr. Nugent and Sr. Gramick had sought to justify the publication of their books and neither had expressed personal adherence to the Church's teaching on homosexuality in sufficiently unequivocal terms."

Yet again the Congregation took another step by asking each to formulate a public declaration in which each expressed one's "personal interior assent to the teaching of the Catholic Church on homosexuality and to acknowledge that the two above-mentioned books (Building Bridges and Voices of Hope) contained errors."

"Sr. Gramick . . . simply refused to express any assent whatsoever to the teaching of the Church on homosexuality. Fr. Nugent was more responsive, but not unequivocal in his statement of interior assent to the teaching of the Church." This led the CDF to give Fr. Nugent another chance to express unequivocal assent. But this attempt by the Congregation did not succeed. Not only did Fr. Nugent refuse to sign the declaration which he had received, but he also formulated an alternative text, "which modified the Congregation's declaration on certain important points. For example, he would not state "that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and he added a section which calls into question the definitive and unchangeable nature of Catholic doctrine in this area."

The refusal of both Fr. Nugent and Sr. Gramick to accept the teaching of the Church, namely that all homogenital acts are "intrinsically evil," i.e., evil by their very nature, or under no circumstance good, and that the inclination to such acts, while not sinful in itself, is nonetheless, an "objective disorder" led the CDF to permanently prohibit them "from any pastoral work involving homosexual persons." Its decision was approved by Pope John Paul II on May 14, 1999.

On July 14, Fr. Nugent responded to the CDF decision. In the beginning of his response he claims that his ministry has always been based "on authentic teachings of the Church and traditional theological and pastoral principles." Yet, as is seen from his responses to the CDF, he refuses to affirm a teaching found in both the CDF statement of 1975, "Certain Problems of Sexual Ethics" (Personae Humanae, Dec. 29, 1975), section 9, and in the Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, Oct. 1, 1986, section 3 (PCHP).

Section 9 of the 1975 statement reads: "Sexual relations between persons of the same sex are necessarily and essentially disordered according to the objective moral order." In section 3 of PCHP, the reader is referred back to section 9 of the 1975 statement. "These (individual homosexual actions) were described as deprived of their essential and indispensable finality, as being 'intrinsically disordered,' and able in no case to be approved of." In the same section we have authentic teaching concerning the inclination to homosexual actions: "Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder."

While Nugent holds that the most serious charge against him "has been a perception by some of 'ambiguity'," we have the decision of the CDF that he refused to affirm the basic teachings concerning the intrinsic evil of homosexual acts and the inclination to such as an objective disorder.

Fr. Nugent questioned the competency of the members of the Maida Commission, appointed by the Vatican. I regard all of the members as thoroughly competent concerning the teaching of the Church on human sexuality and homosexuality. Adam Cardinal Maida was most fair and very patient in handling a very sensitive question.

Throughout the dialogues between Nugent and Gramick and the CDF, Nugent and Gramick are requested to avoid ambiguous expressions and to state clearly their interior assent to the teaching of the Church. But in the judgment of the CDF, they did not do so. The CDF insisted that they use the precise theological term "intrinsically evil" with reference to homosexual acts; however, Nugent changed the wording of the Profession of Faith submitted to him by the CDF on the score that the terms "intrinsically evil" and "objective disorder" were too technical and insensitive for pastoral guidance of persons with same-sex attractions, claiming that the emendations which he made in the Profession of Faith preserved the integral teaching of the Church as contained in the original Profession of Faith.

But the difficulty with his emendations is that "intrinsically evil" is a very exact term used in ecclesiastical documents to mean an action which is by its very nature evil, and under no circumstances can be morally good. The term suggested by Nugent to replace "intrinsically evil" is "objectively immoral," but this term does not have the same meaning as "intrinsically evil." For example, "objectively immoral" may be used to describe an act of theft. Unjustly, one takes from another a thing to which he has no right; under certain circumstances, however, one may justify the taking of possessions of another, such as the situation where a mother steals some bread from a wealthy person to feed her children. In extreme situations, the right to food takes priority over the right to property. Thus the physical act of taking property from another is not evil by its very nature, but becomes evil under the circumstance of injustice.

As for Nugent's claim that terms like "intrinsically evil" and "objective disorder" are pastorally insensitive, I respond this is not so if they are clearly explained. Again, documents from Roman Congregations must use exact language dealing with the issue at hand to the persons for whom they are meant. There is nothing insensitive about this; moreover, by attempting to substitute "objectively immoral" for "intrinsically evil," Nugent allows the inference to be drawn that under certain circumstances homogenital acts are not intrinsically evil, as in the case of a poor mother stealing bread for her starving children from a wealthy person. The Sacred Congregation knew better, rejecting this substitution.

The CDF, moreover, has the right to request a priest involved in the care of souls to give interior assent to the clear and authentic teaching of the Church. Certainly this would include the teaching that all homogenital activity is "intrinsically evil."

Having challenged Fr. Nugent on these issues, I want to add that I respect him as a priest religious, and I rejoice that he accepted the decision of the CDF and intends "to implement it accordingly." He is certainly in the prayers of Courage. On July 23, 1999, Sr. Jeannine Gramick responded to the decision of the CDF that she refrain from any future ministry to persons with homosexual inclinations. Having cancelled ministerial commitments for one month in order "to discern where God is calling me in the future," she asked for prayers, and we will pray that she accepts the decision of the CDF.

Sr. Gramick refers to the process of investigation as "fundamentally unfair." She believes that the CDF had no business requesting her to give interior assent to the teaching that homogenital acts are "intrinsically evil" and that the inclination was an "objective disorder."

On the contrary, the CDF sees an important link between interior belief and public statements by anyone in the ministry of the Church. If one does not believe the Church's teaching to be true, how can one present it in a persuasive way? Again, the teaching of the Church on homosexuality is part of her teaching on human sexuality in general, and on marriage, and these truths are a fundamental part of the Church's doctrine on marriage.

It is difficult, moreover, to understand how one can claim to respect authority and at the same time describe the CDF's request for a declaration of assent as "both disrespectful and wrong."

Unfortunately, many supporters of Fr. Nugent and Sr. Gramick have allowed their anger to overcome their reason, with the result that they vehemently oppose the decision of the CDF. They need to study the record of the investigation as the CDF has recorded it faithfully. It is a matter in which we place our trust in the competence and integrity of the CDF and in the judgment of our Holy Father, John Paul II, who approved its decision.

Fr. John Harvey, OSFS, is founder and director of Courage International, a support group for men and women with same-sex attractions who wish to live chastely according to the teachings of the Church.

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