Pope Francis meets with U.S. LGBT group previously denounced by Vatican

Pope Francis Pope Francis waves to pilgrims in St. Peter's Square during his Angelus address on Oct. 15, 2023. | Credit: Vatican Media

Pope Francis met Tuesday at his residence with leadership from the U.S. LGBT organization New Ways Ministry, which was previously denounced by both the U.S. bishops’ conference and the Vatican’s doctrinal office for causing confusion on sexual morality among the Catholic faithful.

It’s unclear what the topic of the meeting was, but the organization said in an Oct. 17 statement that it lasted 50 minutes and its controversial co-founder, Sister of Loretto Jeannine Gramick, thanked the Holy Father for “his openness to blessing same-sex unions, as well as for his opposition to the criminalization of LGBTQ+ people in civil society.”

None of the Holy Father’s comments in the meeting were reported in the organization’s statement. CNA asked the organization what was discussed in the meeting but did not receive a response before publication.

New Ways Ministry was founded in 1977 in the Archdiocese of Washington by Gramick and Father Robert Nugent, who were both “permanently prohibited from any pastoral work involving homosexual persons” after an investigation into their work, the Vatican’s doctrinal office ruled in a 1999 notification.

No authority to bless

Gramick’s words of gratitude to the pope on his alleged “openness” to same-sex blessings refers to a response that the Holy Father gave to five cardinals in July of this year after they requested answers to a set of questions known as “dubia.” 

Several mainstream media outlets were fast to report that Pope Francis was “open” to giving blessings to same-sex couples after the publication of the response in October but were too quick to the trigger, as the Holy Father had already affirmed in 2021 that the Church has no authority to do so.

Additionally, theologians who spoke with the National Catholic Register last week said the pope’s focus was not on same-sex unions but instead on same-sex-attracted persons who may be in some kind of same-sex relationship.

Vatican investigation

Gramick and Nugent began running workshops in Washington, D.C., for “Catholic pastoral workers and others interested in gay and lesbian issues,” the organization’s website said. But they also co-wrote and edited books together, which became the subjects of the Vatican investigation.

The Vatican’s 1998 investigation heavily focused on their book “Building Bridges: Gay and Lesbian Reality and the Catholic Church,” which “summarized their activities and thinking,” the notification said.

The Holy See ultimately concluded that there were “serious deficiencies in their writings and pastoral activities, which were incompatible with the fullness of Christian morality,” the notification said. 

Their case was referred to the then-Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which queried them on their positions on sexual morality.

In their responses, “Sister Gramick and Father Nugent demonstrated a clear conceptual understanding of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality but refrained from professing any adherence to that teaching,” the notification said. 

That notification, signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, said that their positions “regarding the intrinsic evil of homosexual acts and the objective disorder of the homosexual inclination are doctrinally unacceptable because they do not faithfully convey the clear and constant teaching of the Catholic Church in this area.”

In 2010, under the leadership of the late Cardinal Francis George, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement emphasizing that New Ways Ministry “has no approval or recognition from the Catholic Church and that they cannot speak on behalf of the Catholic faithful in the United States.”

Corresponding letters

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Tuesday’s meeting comes following a few years of correspondence between Gramick, the organization, and the Holy Father, according to New Ways Ministry’s statement.

In April 2021, the organization’s executive director, Francis DeBernardo, wrote to Pope Francis explaining the organization’s mission, the statement said.

On May 3, 2021, Pope Francis responded to a letter from DeBernardo and said that he read the letter, which helped him to better understand the organization’s history, according to the National Catholic Reporter.

“It helped me a lot to know the full story you tell me,” the Holy Father wrote. “Sometimes we receive partial information about people and organizations, and this doesn’t help. Your letter, as it narrates with objectivity its history, gives me light to better understand certain situations.”

In a June 2021 letter to DeBernardo, the Holy Father thanked him for his “heart, open to your neighbor” and wrote of Gramick that “I know how much she has suffered,” according to the National Catholic Reporter.

“She is a valiant woman who makes her decisions in prayer,” the letter said.

The correspondence has continued since then, “always receiving cordial and affirming handwritten notes in return,” the organization’s statement said. 

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“This meeting is remarkable because it reflects the steady acceptance of Catholic officials to LGBTQ+ issues and ministry,” the statement continued.

New Ways Ministry has not only gained an audience with Pope Francis but also with Xavière Missionary Sister Nathalie Becquart, undersecretary at the Synod of Bishops, who gave a lecture to the organization in 2022 titled “Synodality: A Path of Reconciliation.”

The decision to offer the “Father Robert Nugent Memorial Lecture,” given in honor of the priest, who died in 2014, was denounced by Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect emeritus of the Apostolic Signatura, in comments to the National Catholic Register as “simply wrong.”

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