New Ways Ministry has always walked a tightrope,
not opposing the official teaching that homosexual orientation is “intrinsically
disordered,” but offering consolation to Catholics who obviously chafe
under that teaching.
|I write this column on a plane
back to Rome from Louisville, Kentucky, where I spoke at the March 8-10
national gathering of New Ways Ministry. The group was created in 1977
to support pastoral ministry for gay and lesbian Catholics.
(The name of the organization,
I learned from a publication celebrating its 25th anniversary,
is drawn from a 1976 pastoral letter by Bishop Francis J. Mugavero, then
of Brooklyn, who called for the church to find “new ways” of reaching out
to gays and lesbians).
New Ways Ministry has
always walked a tightrope, not opposing the official teaching that homosexual
orientation is “intrinsically disordered,” but offering consolation to
Catholics who obviously chafe under that teaching. This tension, between
respecting the church and challenging it, was certainly in the air in Louisville.
The conference brought
together a galaxy of Catholic progressives, who came to support pastoral
outreach to the gay and lesbian community. Two bishops were in attendance,
retired Bishop Leroy Matthiesen of Amarillo, Texas, and Auxiliary Bishop
Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit. Other VIPs included Gregory Baum, a superb
theologian who was a peritus at Vatican II, and who recently retired
from McGill University in Montreal; Mary Luke Tobin, one of only two American
women to have been official observers at Vatican II, and a pioneer of reforms
in religious life; Eugene Kennedy, a psychologist, spiritual writer, and
keen observer of church affairs; Edwina Gately, an English writer and retreat
leader who lives in Erie, Pa.; and John McNeill, a former Jesuit whose
1976 book The Church and the Homosexual broke the ice on discussion
of homosexuality inside Catholicism.
At one point, Tobin and
McNeill were called up on stage to receive kudos. As Tobin returned to
her place, I stole the chance to introduce myself, since I am a longtime
fan. She insisted on telling me that she enjoys “The Word from Rome,” which
someone prints out for her each week. It’s an endorsement I am especially
proud to record.
One of the two co-founders
of the group, Sr. Jeannine Gramick, drew perhaps the most sustained ovation
when she was introduced to lead a prayer. All weekend long a film crew
followed her around, trying to finish a documentary on her life, work,
and battles with Rome. (As conflicts over her ministry came to a head,
Grammick left her original community, the School Sisters of Notre Dame,
and has been received by the Sisters of Loretto — Tobin’s order).
The other founder, Salvatorian
Fr. Robert Nugent, was not in Louisville. Unlike Gramick he has opted to
obey disciplinary measures imposed by the Vatican, including withdrawal
from ministry to homosexuals.
The event hit turbulence
before it began, in the form of a couple of Vatican shots across the bow.
Superiors of religious orders with members slated to give talks were asked
by the Congregation for Religious to ensure that the presentations adhered
to church teaching. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote
to Archbishop Thomas Kelly of Louisville, asking him to tell New Ways it
did not have permission to celebrate a Mass, because it would cause “confusion
Kelly, a Dominican with
a reputation for pastoral sensitivity, handled the matter graciously. He
wrote to New Ways, suggesting (not ordering) that they scrub the Mass,
and inviting them to come to his nearby Cathedral of the Assumption for
the Eucharist instead. In the end, organizers decided to go ahead with
the Mass, which was celebrated by Matthiesen. The three-day conference
unfolded without further protest. (A full report is in this week’s print
edition of NCR).
One global observation,
while my impressions are still fresh.
It was clear that many
of the 591 people at the conference resent the church’s position on homosexuality.
Some went so far as to call it “spiritual violence,” and labeled attempts
to enforce it a form of “abuse.” Yet overall, I did not meet many angry
people. Quite the contrary; I have rarely attended a meeting where the
crowd was more warm and enthusiastic. There was great spiritual energy,
and great faith.
It is worth noting that
the participants, both gay and straight, came from the very heart of the
church. Twenty-five percent were women religious, 11 percent priests, and
one percent each deacons and brothers. Twenty percent are currently involved
in parish ministry. Many are parents of gay children.
I came away feeling that
these people are a precious resource, for whom I hope space in the church
will always be found.
* * *
I spoke on “The Vatican
and Homosexuality,” and the topic drew big crowds, motivated in part by
comments earlier in the week from Vatican press chief Joaquin Navarro-Valls.
In an interview with the New York Times, Navarro had suggested that
the ordination of a homosexual to the priesthood might be invalid.
Since those comments
sparked such consternation, I’ll reproduce here the analysis I offered
in Louisville. My general advice was, “don’t make too big a deal out of
First of all, Navarro
is not, as journalistic shorthand has it, “the pope’s spokesman.” Traditionally
the only figure in the Roman curia entitled to speak authoritatively as
to the mind of the pope is the Secretary of State. Informally, everyone
knows that if you really want to know what John Paul II thinks,
you ask Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, his Polish personal secretary.
Navarro is instead the
head of the Vatican press office, which means he gets paid to answer questions
from reporters. He is a papal “insider,” in the sense that John Paul obviously
understands the media and gives Navarro considerable access, but that doesn’t
mean his every word carries a papal benediction. Sometimes Navarro clears
something he intends to say with State, or with the papal household, but
usually he speaks for himself. Most of the time his comments are reliable,
but every once in a while he gets something obviously, and spectacularly,
Last May, for example,
when the soap opera surrounding Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo first broke,
Navarro told reporters that by marrying Maria Sung, the Zambian prelate
had “put himself outside the Catholic church.” Though Navarro did not use
the word “excommunication,” it was what he meant.
Under the 1917 Code
of Canon Law, a priest who married incurred an automatic excommunication.
But when the code was reformed in 1983, the list of 37 offenses that triggered
excommunication was reduced to six, and clerical marriage was among the
cuts. Hence Navarro’s statement was 18 years too late.
The proof is that on
July 17, 2001, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith threatened
Milingo with excommunication if he did not do four things, a threat that
certainly would have been redundant if he were already excommunicated.
An amusing example of
a slip-up came in February 1996, when Navarro briefed reporters covering
the pope’s trip to Guatemala about a meeting with indigenous human rights
activist Rigoberta Menchu. He even offered concrete details such as the
color of the dress Menchu had allegedly worn. Later, however, an aide had
to tell the baffled reporters to forget everything Navarro had just said.
The meeting, it turns out, never happened and nobody had bothered to tell
Navarro also got it wrong
in the present case. I consulted with one of the church’s best canonists,
and he informs me there are six criteria for a valid ordination:
Sexual orientation is not
on the list.
A validly ordained bishop
The bishop must intend to ordain
The proper prayers must be said
The bishop must lay hands on the candidate
The candidate must not be compelled to receive ordination
The candidate must be a “capable person,” meaning
a baptized male
Also in that New York
Times interview, Navarro offered an analogy between marriage and ordination.
Someone who is homosexual but who marries a member of the opposite sex
may not have had the proper disposition, and hence the marriage could be
annulled, Navarro argued, and the same reasoning could apply to ordination.
But a moment’s reflection is enough to realize this is a poor analogy.
According to Catholic sacramental theology, in marriage it is the two partners
who are the ministers of the sacrament. In holy orders, it is the bishop
who is the minister, and hence it is his subjective disposition that is
I realize it’s frustrating,
especially for Anglo-Saxons, that no one from the Vatican publicly corrects
mistakes like this. In ecclesiastical Rome, however, the way such gaffes
are handled is that everyone pretends they never happened. No curial prelate
came to Navarro’s defense when his comments drew fire; that silence speaks
This is not to say that
debate over homosexuality in the priesthood is not bubbling inside the
Vatican. Some months ago the Congregation for Catholic Education was considering
a document on seminaries, which was said to have included a ban on the
admission of gays. There was wide negative reaction, including from some
U.S. bishops. The provision was put on hold, but in light of the current
sexual abuse crisis in the American church, it is apparently back under
This Vatican discussion
is part of broader debate within Catholicism over how to respond to the
sex abuse mess, with the differing currents accurately captured in the
same Times piece that contained Navarro’s comments. Liberals tend
to stress better psycho-sexual formation, and hint that mandatory celibacy
is part of the problem. Conservatives, noting that many cases involve an
older priest with younger men, argue that the “gay culture” in seminaries
and priestly life must be rooted out.
In that sense, I suspect
the coming months will be difficult for gay priests. But at least they
can rest assured that the validity of their ordinations is not in doubt.
* * *
For me, the highlight
of the New Ways conference was a lunchtime plenary session with Matthiesen
Both bishops have been
willing to rush in where other prelates fear to tread. Matthiesen came
to prominence in the early 1980s by urging Catholics in his Amarillo diocese
to refuse to work at a Pantex plant involved in the production of nuclear
weapons; Gumbleton is a peace activist who has, among other things, traveled
to Iraq in defiance of U.S. sanctions.
Matthiesen told a story
about a meeting of the U.S. bishops when Pio Laghi, the papal nuncio at
the time, cracked a joke about the notoriously feisty character of the
American church. “When you touch the Body of Christ in Italy, nothing happens,”
he quoted Laghi as saying. “You touch the Body of Christ in the United
States, and all hell breaks loose.”
“I took that,” Matthiesen
deadpanned, “as an invitation to continue raising hell.”
Matthiesen made reference
to a 1972 document of the U.S. bishops on education entitled “To Teach
As Jesus Did,” and suggested that the time has come for a new document,
“To Live as Jesus Did.” If gospel images of Christ are our touchstone,
he argued, the church will surely find its way towards a more loving embrace
of all its members.
Gumbleton recounted how
some years ago, the U.S. bishops put up a united front when the Vatican
wanted to overhaul American norms for granting annulments. Why, he wondered,
were the bishops so engaged on that issue?
Answering his own question,
Gumbleton said he suspects part of the answer is that many bishops have
family or friends in second marriages, and hence have a personal sensitivity
to the problem. Thus he urged the New Ways crowd to seek contact with the
bishops, to write them, to invite them to events and to ask for dialogue.
“If you know someone,
if you sit down and talk with them, then you can’t hate them,” he said.
A long queue formed to
ask questions, and as I listened to both men dole out compassion and sound
advice, I marveled at how Matthiesen and Gumbleton are sometimes regarded
as wild-eyed radicals. Their responses struck me as moderate, and eminently
Catholic. Neither came off as an ideologue; both seemed led to their convictions
by a sincere, in some ways quite simple, attempt to apply the gospel. (I
don’t mean to impugn the sincerity of those who draw different conclusions,
or to suggest that only these stands can be supported from scripture. I
simply want to suggest that Gumbleton and Matthiesen understand themselves
not as “leftists” but as pastors, and even more basically, as Christians).
I felt myself in the
presence of two superb shepherds.
Ad multos annos!
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
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