“Homosexuality and the American Catholic Church: Reconfiguring the Silence, 1971-1999” examines how during the latter decades of the 20th century gay and lesbian Catholic voices and reconciling ministries emerged from a specific and confusing social, cultural, and religious climate. My investigation documents an important chapter in the religious history of the LGBT community in the U.S., one in which the agency and resourcefulness of gay and lesbian Catholics stands in sharp contrast to common narratives of their victimization by the tradition’s deep homophobia. Using data collected from archives, correspondence, interviews, theological and lay Catholic journals, and newspaper reports, I construct a cultural history of a gay-affirmative Catholic ministry: New Ways Ministry (NWM). This study documents the “golden age” of gay Catholic reform, offering an important case study of how gays, lesbians, and religious actively and creatively engaged with their religious tradition.
In documenting the expansion and work of a particular, tenacious community of Catholics committed to reconciling the institutional church with the people that constitute the church, my project also discloses the personal, social, and theological resources that buttressed the community’s ability to withstand the pressure directed at them. Together the co-directors of NWM, Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent, navigated levels of the institutional church hierarchy, creating a language of reconciliation and setting a specific platform for LGBT issues within the church for nearly three decades. By focusing on education and civil rights issues more than the theological development of Catholic sexual ethics, NWM invited priests, theologians, bishops, religious women and men to join an assimilationist, liberal model for social reform. Avoiding radical protest and staking out a pragmatic moderate position between gay Catholics and the magisterium, this community of Catholics saw much hope for inventive political action and effective change in the church. This study explores the possibilities and limits of their work for reconciliation in the decades following the Second Vatican Council while demonstrating how sexuality (and to an extent gender) were reconstituted in the process. This project challenges American religious historical narratives that have overlooked conversations of sexuality, gender, same-sex love, and queer desire as important factors to the cultural history of 20th century American Catholicism and encourages historians of LGBT culture to reassess the role of religious movements in queer history.