RIP: Bishop Otis Charles and Rev. Robert Nugent

The Rev. Robert Nugent, a Catholic priest and co-founder of New Ways Ministry, died on January 1 at age 76. The Washington Post carried Kevin Eckstrom’s Religion News Service obituary of Nugent, which notes that Nugent had been silenced by the Vatican for his work with LGBT Catholics.

In many ways, the scrutiny of Nugent’s activism symbolized the Vatican’s approach to all talk of homosexuality under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI — what one gay Catholic group called a “witch hunt” — compared with the more tolerant “who am I to judge?” tone set recently by Pope Francis.

Nugent, a member of the Salvatorians religious order, co-founded the Maryland-based New Ways Ministry in 1977 with Sister Jeannine Gramick to build bridges between the gay community and the Catholic Church. Their activities drew repeated condemnation from U.S. Catholic leaders in the 1980s.

“His ministry was more than a welcome,” said Francis DeBernardo, the group’s executive director. “He had the wisdom to know that the real moral problem in the church was not the lives of lesbian and gay people, but the ignorance and fear out of which many church leaders and officials operated.”

Nugent operated within church structures as well as outside them.

Nugent served as a consultant for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on its 1997 pastoral document on homosexuality, “Always Our Children.”

But two years later, after the Vatican ruled that Gramick and Nugent’s work was “erroneous and dangerous,” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) permanently banned Nugent and Gramick from working with the gay and lesbian community, saying their pro-gay work had “caused confusion among the Catholic people and have harmed the community of the church.”

The pair were cited for refusing to accept church teaching on the “intrinsic evil of homosexual acts,” and Nugent was condemned for questioning “the definitive and unchangeable nature of Catholic doctrine in this area.”

Eckstrom reports that Nugent largely obeyed a 2000 silencing order from the Vatican, which Gramick openly defied. Gramick was at Nugent’s side when he died in a Milwaukee-area hospice after a three-month battle with cancer. New Ways Ministry’s tribute to Nugent is available here.

Retired Episcopal Bishop Otis Charles, the first Christian bishop to come out as gay, died on December 26 at age 87.  Bob Egelko of the San Francisco Chronicle profiles Charles:

In more than six decades as an Episcopal priest and bishop, the Rev. Otis Charles was an advocate for the underdog, including those left out of the church hierarchy such as women, lesbians and gays.

In 1993, he publicly made the gay rights cause his own, and in the process became the first Christian bishop to come out as gay.

“I was ashamed of myself for remaining silent when the church was involved in an acrimonious debate about the whole question of gay people in the life of the church. I couldn’t live with that any longer,” the Rev. Charles told The Chronicle in a 2004 interview after a wedding ceremony with his partner in a San Francisco church, a marriage that California didn’t recognize. They married again in 2008 when same-sex marriage was legal in the state.

Charles was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1951. He was an anti-war activist and served as president of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusettss.  Egelko reports that Charles came out in 1993 shortly after announcing his retirement, divorced his wife of 42 years, and moved to San Francisco. He ran a gay ministry there and at age 76 he met Felipe Sanchez-Paris, who he later married. Sanchez-Paris died in July.  Charles is survived by five children, ten grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. A memorial service is scheduled at 2 p.m. Jan. 11 at St. Gregory of Nysaa Episcopal Church, 500 DeHaro St., in San Francisco.

Peter Montgomery, an associate editor for Religion Dispatches, is a Senior Fellow at People For the American Way Foundation where he was on staff for 15 years. Before that he was associate director of grassroots lobbying for Common Cause and wrote for Common Cause Magazine, an award-winning journal featuring investigative reporting about the federal government.

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