A Roman Catholic priest and a nun who founded a pioneering ministry to gay men and lesbians and who have long challenged their church's teaching on homosexuality were ordered by the Vatican on Tuesday to permanently halt all work involving homosexuals.
Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent, who founded the Maryland-based New Ways Ministry in 1977, were also barred indefinitely from holding any office in their religious orders.
The disciplinary action by the powerful Vatican office headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger--the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith--capped a 15-year investigation and was personally endorsed by Pope John Paul II.
There was no immediate comment from Gramick and Nugent, who were returning to the United States from Rome, where they had been summoned to appear. The heads of their respective religious orders formally informed them of the Vatican's decision, known as a notification, which was dated May 31 and signed by Ratzinger.
The church teaches that a homosexual orientation in and of itself is not sinful but is "objectively disordered" and that homosexual acts are "intrinsically evil."
Some compared the Vatican order to earlier moves to rein in errant theologians, which he added has not been uncommon in recent years. "They are telling them they cannot be involved in this ministry anymore, either writing or speaking about it," said Father Thomas Reese, a leading expert on the church in the United States and editor of the Jesuit magazine America. "They've been silenced like academic theologians."
Gramick and Nugent, the Vatican said, repeatedly refused to unequivocally affirm church teaching and to admit that their own views, including those published in several books they wrote, were "erroneous and dangerous." In addition, the Vatican said Nugent called into question the "definitive and unchangeable nature" of Catholic doctrine in this area.
"The church's teaching on homosexuality has remained constant, consistent and clear," Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in announcing the decision Tuesday. He said the church had no choice but to discipline the two "in order to counteract and repair the harmful confusion caused by the errors and ambiguities in their publications and activities."
The disciplinary actions drew protests from Catholics who see themselves as reformers, among them Sister Maureen Fiedler of Catholics Speak Out, a suburban Washington-based organization that advocates the ordination of women, a married priesthood and gay and lesbian rights.
"I see it as an outrageous violation of human rights in the church, yet again," she said. "The kind of message the Vatican has put out about homosexual persons and phrases like 'intrinsically evil' frankly is a part of the anti-gay rhetoric that ultimately undergirds violence."
Father Thomas Rausch, chairman of the theology department at Loyola-Marymount University in Los Angeles, said the decision "will be another disappointment for the gay and lesbian community."
Reese said it was hard to tell what exactly the church objected to in the ministry and writings of Gramick and Nugent. "There is no supporting evidence to prove its case against the two of them," he said.
Still, Reese gave the Vatican credit for not moving precipitously. He noted that the Vatican took at least 15 years to review the case, which was first brought to its attention by Cardinal James Hickey of Washington in 1984.
Fiorenza added that the nation's bishops are aware of how "pastorally and humanly sensitive" Gramick and Nugent's ministry has been. He also said that as long ago as 1988 Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit found "some positive aspects" to their ministry.
Fiorenza emphasized that the two were being barred from reaching out to gay men and lesbians because of what the Vatican found to be deficiencies in their ministry and "not because it was a ministry to homosexuals as such."
Fiorenza said the church condemns "violent malice in speech or in action" against homosexuals. He added, "The teaching of the church cannot be used to justify bigotry in any form."
But the Vatican said that even as Nugent and Gramick offered pastoral care and outreach to homosexuals, they had done so without conveying the church's complete teaching.
"Father Nugent and Sister Gramick have often stated that they seek, in keeping with the church's teaching, to treat homosexual persons 'with respect, compassion and sensitivity,' " the formal notification said.
"However, the promotion of errors and ambiguities is not consistent with a Christian attitude of true respect and compassion: Persons who are struggling with homosexuality no less than any others have the right to receive the authentic teaching of the church from those who minister to them.
He added that it would be up to Gramick and Nugent's religious orders, in dialogue with the Vatican, as to when the ban on their holding office might be lifted. Gramick is a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, and Nugent is a priest in the Salvatorian order.