Pope Francis has huge popularity with rank-and-file Catholics who have hungered for a figure to transcend an age of scandal. But the advancing story line of Francis’s papacy is this: how far can a pope go in making reforms against an embedded culture of cardinals and bishops, averse to change?
“Gay clergy many times feel that their gifts as ministers flow from the experience of a homosexual orientation,” is how Father Robert Nugent explained his advocacy for gay Catholics, when I first interviewed him in 1987.
Nugent founded New Ways Ministry with Sister Jeannine Gramick to reconcile gays with a church whose moral teachings ostracized them — and a church with a huge, restive closet of gay priests. In 1999 a Vatican investigation of the priest and nun culminated when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger censured them, ordering them into silence.
Gramick kept speaking out. Nugent, with a masters of divinity from Yale, was more wounded and retreated into the quiet life of a parish priest. He wrote essays including a particularly moving one in Commonweal on the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin, whom the Vatican silenced in the 1960s for his writings on evolution. Nugent died Jan. 1, at 76, with Gramick by his side.
How pleased he would have been at seeing his key metaphor — “gifts” —echoed in the Oct. 13 draft report by the Vatican Synod on the Family: “Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a further space in our communities?”
Media scrutiny of the initial report authored by Archbishop Bruno Forte seized on Francis’ famous remark on gays, “Who am I to judge?”
Nugent would not have been surprised to see Forte’s draft catalyze hard-line conservative bishops: A revised draft, translated from Italian to English, watered domwn “welcoming” to “providing for.”
Every nuance counts when human love is subject to review. Bishops who do not “welcome” gays can “provide” what? Lessons that they heed ancient scripture that condemns same-sex love? Bearing the cross of sexual orientation over which they have no choice?
The Italian version is official, but a final document will emerge from next fall’s sequel synod, subject to Francis’ final word.
How does a teaching church align itself with one of the core human rights issues of the age in which it teaches? A larger question looms: does a reform-driven pope have the power to change doctrinal language?