Father Robert Nugent, SDS, died last week at the age of 76. Father Nugent had been the founder—along with Sister Jeannine Gramick—of New Ways Ministries, one of the first and most effective ministries to Gay, Lesbian, and transgendered Catholics. New Ways Ministries set its agenda for opening a dialogue between the LGBT community and the Church so that the hierarchy could have a better understanding of the complex issues and questions facing Catholics with same-sex attraction, but in doing so did not “lay down the law” in terms as black and white as some thought should be. (This was, of course, before the “Who am I to judge” approach of our current Pope.) in their open approach, Father Nugent and Sister Jeannine attracted the particular ire of the late Cardinal James Hickey, then Archbishop of Washington. His Eminence could be, and most often was, totally irrational at the mention of either name—Father Nugent or Sister Jeannine—or at any reference to New Ways Ministries.
As an example of his irrationality when it came to New Ways Ministries, in 1998—shortly after the homophobic murder of Matthew Shepherd—several Catholic organizations published an advertisement in The New York Times calling for an end to hate crimes against LGBT persons. Pax Christi USA was one of these organizations. New Ways Ministry was another. Many priests and religious signed the advertisement. Among them were Father Bruce Bavinger SJ—pastor of St Aloysius Gonzaga Church in Washington DC—and Father Larry Madden SJ, pastor of Holy Trinity in Georgetown. Cardinal Hickey called their Jesuit provincial and insisted that the provincial make both priests swear an oath that they would never again support any statement sponsored by New Ways Ministry. Now remember, New Ways Ministry was only one of several sponsors of this advertisement which only called for an end to hate crimes. Reputable Catholic groups had co-sponsored this petition and the list of signees included many leading Catholics. The advertisement in no way undermined the moral teaching of the Church on sexuality issues. That did not matter to Cardinal Hickey—any association, no matter how remote, with New Ways Ministry was enough to get you on His Eminence’s fecal roster.
In 1999 Cardinal Hickey used his influence to persuade then Cardinal Ratzinger at the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith to issue a “Notification Regarding Sister Jeannine Gramick SSND and Father Robert Nugent SDS” which made it clear that New Ways Ministry was not—at least as it had been reported by Cardinal Hickey to the CDF—consistent with the Church’s moral teaching. This began a persecution of Father Nugent and Sister Grammick. Sister Jeannine’s Order, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, were pressured into dismissing her. Fortunately a more stalwart group, the Sisters of Loretto, took her as a transfer. Father Nugent was forced into abandoning any ministry whatsoever to persons with same-sex attraction. So much for searching out the sheep that was lost.
I will not say that Cardinal Hickey was a bad man or even a bad priest. Granted, his priests found him cold and distant but he actually was just a strong introvert with very poor interpersonal skills. He was a “company man” who could not understand the Church’s mission of proclaiming the Gospel except in the model of maintaining the ecclesiastical institutions and their power. To his great credit, he recognized the unique gifts of Capuchin friar Sean O’Malley and advanced O’Malley’s career. Nevertheless, he can be considered as one of the darker blots on the roster of men chosen to shepherd the Church in the United States. If it were only the unjust ways in which he acted against Nugent and Gramick, his autocratic ways could perhaps be attributed to a personal antipathy, but his treatment of fellow Cardinal, Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, reveals a most despicable side, a pathology of fear, that impelled the Cardinal to dogmatically fortify his opinions rather than to advance the cause of the Gospel. When Cardinal Bernardin established the Catholic Common Ground Initiative in 1996 Cardinal Hickey and Cardinal Law—another and darker blot on the history of the Church in the United States—then Archbishop of Boston, publicly attacked Cardinal Bernardin and united their voices and power to do their best to sink his project of opening dialogue with disaffected communities within the Church to discover how the Church in the United States could avoid the polarization and culture wars that were threatening to eat away its vitality. Hickey and Law made it absolutely clear that in their scheme of things there is no room for dialogue. Their way or the highway. They ignited the very firestorm Cardinal Bernardin was trying to avoid from engulfing American Catholicism. We were privileged to watch he fate of Cardinal Law who, like Lucifer, has fallen like a star from the heavens. Cardinal Hickey went to his grave—actually his mausoleum in the rear of Saint Matthew’s Cathedral—in October 2004, just short of four years after his retirement from the See of Washington at the age of 80.
While Sean O’Malley is a testimony to the better angels of Cardinal Hickey’s nature, there was—as I pointed out—another side to the man and to that side, another protégé. His Eminence had a most peculiar relationship with Father William Lori. I have written elsewhere about Lori—now Archbishop of Baltimore—but perhaps the most telling is the final paragraph of my August 18, 2012 entry on the late Monsignor Ralph Beiting, one of the most outstanding Christians I have met in my lifetime. Father Beiting, a priest of the diocese of Covington, was for his entire life an outstanding servant of the poorest Americans in Appalachia. Lori had begun his studies for the priesthood in that same Diocese but as a student, transferred to Washington “because there is no upward mobility in Covington.” He found that upward mobility in the favor of Cardinal Hickey who appointed Lori as his secretary and kept him close by his side. Lori, for his part, fawned over the Cardinal in ways that others who were present found nauseating. It paid off. Hickey had Lori named one of his auxiliary bishops and before his death was able to secure for him the Diocese of Bridgeport.
Archbishop Lori, by all accounts, was expected to get a Cardinal’s hat in this upcoming consistory. Baltimore is the oldest See in the Church of the United States In the last fifty years, each Archbishop of Baltimore but one were named Cardinals. Moreover, Lori’s enjoys the patronage of Carl Anderson, Supreme Grand Poobah of the Knights of Columbus and generous dispenser of funds to the Vatican and to various conservative causes. Anderson used his influence to have Lori promoted to Baltimore. Pope Francis may pay for his decision not to give Lori his coveted hat, but he has sent a significant signal that there are new rules to the game. I hope for Archbishop Lori’s sake, that he can learn to play by those rules and be the sort of bishop Francis is calling for. While I have never liked Archbishop Lori, I would like to see Baltimore to have a wise and good Shepherd at its head. And, for that matter, I would like to see each bishop, including Archbishop Lori, be the sort of Bishop Pope Francis seems to want for our Church.