Robert Nugent who died Jan. 1 was a scholar and writer, He was also an old fashioned priest with a new fangled congregation. His pioneering support for lesbian and gay, later bisexual and transgender Catholics opened a new chapter in church history. I daresay he heard and accepted more stories of sexual experimentation than the average priest. And I know that he handled it all with grace and care. He was a priest’s priest.
Two examples of his pastoral insight stay with me. The first was when Bob came for dinner shortly after my partner and I bought our home twenty-seven years ago. His house-warming gift was a brass doorplate that said “Hunt-Neu.” This was long before same-sex marriage was in our imaginations. My first thought was that it made us sound like a law firm. But I realized quickly that the lovely sign was his way of blessing our union. And so it has been in the ensuing decades.
The second was my call to Bob when I was asked to be a godmother. Rules required that prospective godparents present a note indicating that they are Catholics in good standing in a local parish. Bob knew full well that I worship in a women-church base community. But he was happy to provide me with the requisite paperwork attesting to my membership as a “practical Catholic” in a parish where he had access to such forms. I gave the baptizing priest a photocopy, saving the original for another occasion when I might need it. The priest observed that such forms can be hard to get. If he only knew! The important thing is that the baby is now a marvelous, caring, giving young adult so something worked.
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History will record that Bob Nugent, with his longtime colleague Jeannine Gramick, co-founded New Ways Ministry that continues to push the Roman Catholic Church toward equality and justice for same-sex loving people. It will also show that he was silenced with some other distinguished theologians, and for reasons known only to God, accepted the sanctions of an institution mired in its own homohatred. But let the record also show that he was a priest who ministered with people that others despised. In so doing, he gave the Roman Catholic Church a better name than it sometimes deserved.