Roman Catholic priest, Rev. Robert Nugent, founder of New Ways Ministry, a ministry which supported the LGBT community, died January 1 at age 76. An article on his life and achievements was posted yesterday in the New York Times.
Born on July 31, 1937 in Norristown, PA, he graduated from Philadelphia’s St. Charles Seminary and became a priest at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 1965.
Nugent counseled gay and lesbian Catholics and their families for over 30 years, until his service was halted in 1999 by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who six years later became Pope Benedict XVI. Nugent’s work was put to an end because it challenged strict notions of homosexuality, a topic which had little tolerance within the teachings of Catholicism.
New Ways Ministry, which was co-founded by Sister Jeannine Gramick in 1977, was an organization which declared its full acceptance of LGBT Catholics. Through counseling services and retreats, it helped gay members (and their families) gain acceptance even within a religion which categorizes sexual intercourse between two men as an “intrinsic evil,” the New York Times reported.
Nugent’s overt and vocal acceptance of the gay community pushed the boundaries of Catholicism, where most religious leaders viewed the topic as one which should remain silenced.
However, this was not the view point of Nugent and his colleague ministers, who openly discussed homosexuality, and met with other religious leaders in attempts to broaden their views as well.
After complaints were filed by conservative clergy, Nugent’s efforts to shift views on gay and lesbian Catholics was put to an end to by the Vatican. Officials started off by warning Nugent against spreading “ambiguous” information during his seminars, and in 1978 banned him from facilitating confessions and communions.
New Ways Ministry, which lacked official recognition by the church, was put under investigation by the Vatican in 1988.
After Nugent and Gramick were asked to step down from their leadership positions at New Ways Ministry in the mid-80s, Francis DeBernardo became the executive director. DeBernardo explained that Nugent avoided direct commentary on homosexual intercourse (which the Bible categorized as “intrinsic evil”) but rather focused his discussions on acceptance.
“People don’t choose to be gay or lesbian,” he said to an interviewer in 1997. “They must be recognized for who they are.”
In 1999 Nugent and Gramich were banned from participation within the church, and Cardinal Ratzinger called their teachings “erroneous and dangerous,” adding that Nugent and Gramick’s challenging of “the definitive and unchangeable nature of Catholic doctrine in this area” had “caused confusion among the Catholic people.”
In July 2013, Pope Francis gained the respect of many gay and lesbian community members when he stated, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
This statement brought Nugent “great consolation,” said Gramick.
Although Nugent was prohibited from providing ministry services to LGBT Catholics, he was admitted as a pastor by St. John the Baptist Church in New Freedom, Pa., in 2000, where he continued on for twelve years.
In an article published in 1999 by the Society of the Divine Savior, Nugent expressed that he did not regret having spoken out in support of the gay and lesbian community, that it had “been well worth the risks taken.”
Nugent was reported to have died of lung cancer in Milwaukee. Gramick visited regularly at the church hospice and filled their time together by reading Nugent letters he received from people he had counseled in the years past—many of which came from parents who had gay or lesbian children.
“He changed people’s lives,” said Sister Gramick.