National Catholic Reporter ®

March 15, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 29

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New Ways Ministry Conference: a moderate,
pastoral outreach to gay and lesbian Catholics

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 and scandal.” 

     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 this.”

     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, wrong.

     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.

     Not so.

     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.

     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:

  • 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
     Sexual orientation is not on the list.

     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 relevant.

     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 volumes.

     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 active consideration.

     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 and Gumbleton. 

     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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