In 1976, Bishop Francis J. Mugavero of Brooklyn, New York, wrote a pastoral letter, “Sexuality: God’s Gift,” which was one of the first Roman Catholic statements to contain a compassionate and encouraging message to gay and lesbian people. Gay and lesbian people deserved to be treated equally in society and the Christian community, he noted, and then he addressed them directly, stating, “. . . we pledge our willingness. . . to try to find new ways to communicate the truth of Christ because we believe it will make you free.”
That passage and that term, “new ways,” caught the attention and the hearts of a priest and nun team who were doing ministry with the gay and lesbian community. Father Robert Nugent, SDS, and Sister Jeannine Gramick, SSND, adopted that phrase for the title of the workshops they were giving in Washington, DC, to Catholic pastoral workers and others interested in gay and lesbian issues. These “New Ways Workshops” were sponsored by the Quixote Center, a Maryland-based Catholic social justice group. One year later, in 1977, these “New Ways Workshops” blossomed into a separate non-profit organization, New Ways Ministry, devoted to Catholic gay and lesbian concerns.
Like its name and its co-founders, the vision and philosophy of this group was solidly Catholic.
Gramick and Nugent’s work was based firmly in the burgeoning positive messages that the Church in the late 1970s was offering to gay and lesbian people: messages of justice, acceptance, dialogue, and reconciliation. Their work as “bridge-builders” found them reaching out, in one direction, to gay and lesbian people, and, in the other direction, to people working within the Church and Church structures.
Primarily educational in mission, New Ways Ministry quickly established itself in the U.S. Catholic community as a national resource center and clearinghouse for information and materials on the topic of homosexuality as it impacts religious issues. In addition, they lobbied for civil rights and called the Church to reach out compassionately for the inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the community of the faithful. The co-founders were among the few Roman Catholic religious leaders who publicly opposed Anita Bryant’s anti-gay initiatives in the 1970s.
As with many individuals and groups which have supported gay and lesbian people, the co-founders of New Ways Ministry were criticized by the Archbishop of Washington, DC, who lobbied the Vatican for their removal.
In 1984, the Vatican required that they separate themselves from New Ways Ministry. They continue ministry to gay and lesbian Catholics with the knowledge of the Vatican under the auspices of their religious orders.
And New Ways Ministry continues, as well. For forty years now, the ministry of education, justice, and reconciliation has flourished and grown. Through various forums, we have tried to get the word out to the Catholic community that welcoming, accepting, and loving their LGBT members is an imperative for Gospel living.
Through national symposia, New Ways Ministry has brought the best of Catholic intellectual thought and research to Catholics in parishes. Speakers at our major events have included: John Boswell, Daniel Maguire, Sister Theresa Kane, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Reverend Charles Curran, Virginia Apuzzo, Richard Isay, MD, Sister Margaret Farley, RSM, Daniel Helminiak, and Bishops Thomas Gumbleton, William Hughes, Kenneth Untener, Matthew Clark, Joseph Imesch, and Patrick Cooney.
In 1992, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit surprised U.S. Catholics at a New Ways Ministry Symposium by telling the personal story that one of his brothers, Dan, is gay. He touched the crowd of 500 people gathered in Chicago by talking frankly and movingly about his own struggle to understand and accept his brother. Gumbleton’s life was radically affected by that talk. He has since become the “point bishop” for this issue, criss-crossing the nation, talking to Catholic groups about gay and lesbian issues.
In 1995, New Ways Ministry recognized the gifts of this courageous Church leader by presenting him with a “Bridge Building Award.” The award was given at a public reception during the fall meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, DC. Over 200 people including nine bishops packed the reception room, probably the largest gathering of gay/lesbian people and their allies ever to attend the bishops’ gathering.
In 1997, our twentieth anniversary year was a banner year for the ministry. In March, we sponsored the Fourth National Symposium, entitled “The Church Teaching/Teaching the Church: A National Dialogue on Lesbian/Gay Issues and Catholicism.” Over 650 Catholic leaders and pastoral ministers gathered in Pittsburgh for a weekend-long in-depth and extensive discussion of topics ranging from same-sex marriage, family relationships, civil rights, homophobia, heterosexism, pastoral care, and lesbian nuns.
At that meeting, Bishop Gumbleton made another historic statement: he called on all gay and lesbian Church workers–“including priests and bishops”–to come out of the closet and acknowledge their sexual orientation. Little by little, awareness of gay and lesbian Church personnel is becoming a reality in Catholicism.
Always Our Children
October 1997 saw the publication “Always Our Children,” a historic pastoral statement from the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Marriage and Family Life. This document, directed to parents and pastoral ministers, is one of the strongest affirmations of the goodness of lesbian and gay people in the Catholic Church. “In you, God’s love is revealed,” the bishops say to gay and lesbian people at the close of this document which calls Catholic parents and leaders to initiate dialogue, outreach, and affirmation of the gay and lesbian members of their families and parishes.
New Ways Ministry played a key role in the development of this letter. In 1993, the organization petitioned the bishops to include on their agenda a statement supportive of gay and lesbian people. New Ways was told that only a bishop could make such a petition. When Bishop Gumbleton learned of this response, he stepped in and requested such a statement, enlisting 16 other bishops to support such an initiative. As the document was drafted our co-founder, Fr. Nugent, and a board member, Mary Kilbride, served as readers of early drafts.
On the grassroots scale, New Ways staff spends a significant portion of time providing day-long workshops for church personnel across the country. Entitled “Building Bridges: Gay and Lesbian Christians and the Church,” these programs offer positive information on Church pronouncements, Scripture interpretation, lesbian/gay spirituality, and pastoral outreach. Many gay and lesbian people and their family members, as well, attend these programs. The structure of the workshop allows for story-telling and dialogue, so many walls of ignorance and fear are broken down, and bridges are built right in the course of the workshop.
Additionally, we have acted as consultants to Catholic parishes and faith communities who want to be more welcoming to the gay and lesbian community. We often given talks to such groups and help them devise a pastoral plan to both reach out and look inward. Our quarterly newsletter, Bondings, has been carrying a list of gay-friendly Catholic parishes around the country. The list is updated with each issue and now contains over 80 parishes.
Opportunities for spiritual development and growth for gay and lesbian Catholics have also been an important item on New Ways Ministry’s agenda. We have sponsored weekend retreats across the country designed specifically for gay and lesbian people, their parents, and also lesbian nuns. In the local DC area, we have offered book and video discussion groups on sexuality and spirituality.
New Ways Ministry’s mission of publishing and providing educational resources continues today. We distribute Voices of Hope, an anthology of positive Catholic statements about gay and lesbian issues, and Building Bridges: Gay and Lesbian Reality and the Catholic Church, a collection of essays by our co-founders. We also offer an audio cassette, entitled My Brother Dan, which features a talk by Bishop Gumbleton to Catholic parents of gay and lesbian children. Most recently, we have made available a two-cassette tape of a theological debate on homosexuality and Catholicism which we sponsored at Georgetown University in December 1997.
Our newsletter Bondings chronicles important developments in the relationship of the Catholic Church and its gay and lesbian members. We also publish Womanjourney Weavings, a newsletter by and for lesbian nuns.