Nugent emerged as one of the first Catholic priests in the United States to speak out publicly for full acceptance of gays and lesbians within the church and to seek to open a dialogue with church leaders about church doctrine on homosexuality, according to Francis DeBernardo, executive director of the Mount Rainier, Md.,-based New Ways Ministry.
“When few priests would do more than whisper about homosexuality, Father Nugent was meeting with lesbian and gay people and encouraging them to claim their rightful place in the Catholic Church,” DeBernardo said in a statement. “During a time of intense homophobia in both church and society, he exhibited uncommon courage and foresight in welcoming and affirming the goodness of God’s lesbian and gay children.”
In 1999, more than 20 years after Nugent and Sister Jeannine Gramick founded New Ways Ministry and served as its lead organizers, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, issued an order on behalf of the Vatican prohibiting Nugent and Gramick from engaging in “any pastoral work involving homosexual persons.”
Ratzinger issued the order in his role at the time as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a church body that, among other things, investigates alleged breaches of church doctrine and enforces church rules related to clergy. The order came 15 years after then Cardinal James Hickey of the Archdiocese of Washington first started to raise questions about New Ways Ministry’s positions on homosexuality in 1984.
Hickey’s concerns led to a formal investigation into the actions of Nugent and Gramick launched in 1988 by Cardinal Adam Maida of the Archdiocese of Detroit, who was named head of a Vatican commission formed to examine Nugent and Gramick’s alleged breaches of church teachings.
“The ambiguities and errors of the approach of Father Nugent and Sister Gramick have caused confusion among the Catholic people and have harmed the community of the church,” Ratzinger wrote in a May 31, 1999, statement. “For these reasons, Sister Jeannine Gramick, SSND, and Father Robert Nugent, SDS, are permanently prohibited from any pastoral work involving homosexual persons and are ineligible, for an undetermined period, for any office in their respective religious institutes.”
DeBernardo said that from the time the order was handed down through 2000, Nugent and Gramick traveled throughout the country urging Catholic leaders and lay people to contact the Vatican to have the order overturned.
When that effort failed, and after deep reflection, Nugent agreed to abide by the order while Gramick declined to do so, DeBernardo said.
According to DeBernardo, Nugent returned as a parish priest in New Freedom, Penn., where he had spent most of his time since being forced to leave New Ways Ministry.
“A loyal son of the Church, he attempted to help the institution live up to its most cherished ideals of human dignity, equality and respect,” said DeBernardo.
Nugent was born and raised in Norristown, Penn., where he graduated from local Catholic elementary and high schools and entered St. Charles Seminary in Philadelphia, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1961, according to information provided by the Society of the Divine Savior, also known as the Salvatorians, the religious order to which Nugent was a member during most of his priesthood.
Nugent was ordained as a priest in 1965 after completing four years of theological studies at the Philadelphia-based St. Charles Seminary.
Prior to his collaboration with Gramick in founding New Ways Ministry, he served as a priest in parishes in Philadelphia and Levittown, Penn., and worked as a graduate assistant at Villanova University, where he received a master’s of science degree in library science. He received a master’s degree in Sacred Theology in 1983 at the Yale Divinity School.
DeBernardo and Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of the LGBT Catholic group Dignity USA, said Nugent’s more than 20 years as a leader of New Ways Ministry continues to have an impact on LGBT Catholics and Catholic clergy despite his absence from direct work on LGBT issues in recent years.
“Dignity USA gave Bob a lifetime achievement award in 2001 to recognize just how important he was as a ground-breaking figure in lesbian and gay ministry throughout the 70s and 80s,” Duddy-Burke said. “I continue to meet people who say Bob’s writings, workshops, and personal ministry were the thing that gave them hope as they were coming out in the 70s and the 80s,” she said.
“It is impossible to overestimate the impact and value of Father Nugent’s lesbian and gay ministry,” DeBernardo said. “He educated a generation of pastoral leaders who began to put into practice the inclusive ideals that he taught. A tireless researcher and writer, he produced a number of important works on pastoral care that helped to shape the movement in Catholicism of gay-friendly parishes.”
Added DeBernardo, “A sensitive counselor, he supported scores of gay priests and brothers as they worked at reconciling their spirituality with their sexuality.”
A spokesperson for the Salvatorians said arrangements were being made for a funeral for Nugent in New Freedom, Penn. DeBernardo said a memorial service for Nugent would be held in the D.C. area within the next several weeks.