“I grew up with all the fears and anxieties about homosexuality that most Irish Catholics do,” a priest by the name of Robert Nugent once said.
But Father Nugent was no ordinary priest.
Nugent -- who died at the age of 76 last month -- became a national figure and the target of a Vatican investigation. He worked closely with gays and lesbians who still wanted to remain members of the Catholic Church.
“By the time of his confrontation with the Holy See, Father Nugent had developed both a community of devoted followers and a collection of angry critics. His admirers revered him for what they regarded as his courageous efforts to open wider the doors of the church, while opponents charged that he had violated Catholic dogma,” Nugent’s obituary in The Washington Post noted.
You can probably imagine how this story ended.
“Responding to complaints from American conservative clergy, Vatican officials first warned Father Nugent against imparting ‘ambiguous’ information in his workshops. They then barred him in 1978 from performing sacramental duties like confession and communion,” The New York Times noted.
A Vatican investigation was initiated in 1988, and eventually one Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger got involved. You know him, he was the guy who was pope before the guy who appears on the cover of Rolling Stone was pope.
Ratzinger essentially barred Father Nugent from ministering to gays. Suggesting that he was questioning “the definitive and unchangeable nature of Catholic doctrine in this area,” Ratzinger said that Father Nugent had “caused confusion among the Catholic people.”
The current pope, of course, has been given much praise for seeming more tolerant.
“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Pope Francis said in July.
This statement is said to have given Father Nugent “great consolation.”
Apparently, none of this newfound, 21st century goodwill is going to trickle down to the various organizers of St. Patrick’s Day parades anytime soon.
From New York City to South Boston, parade organizers continue to cite their devout Catholicism as the reason they don’t want to let gays and lesbians participate in these annual celebrations of Irishness. Never mind that surely no questions about adultery or the death penalty -- also contrary to Catholic teaching -- are ever asked.
The bigger issue here, to me, is how Irish America is viewed in 2014 and will be viewed by future generations.
In writing about the possibility that new Boston Mayor (and Irish American) Martin Walsh might broker a deal to allow gays to march in South Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, Boston Herald columnist Peter Gelzinis wrote: “Entering the 21st century to open the closet doors just a crack and concede the obvious: gays are not insurgents. They are our brothers, sisters and neighbors who make up the South Boston of today.”
It is a shame that when Irish American children and grandchildren of the 21st century look back, they will have to wonder what in God’s name parade organizers were thinking?
At a time when the rest of the country was finally figuring out that gays and lesbians were simply people -- who were ready and willing to celebrate their Irishness -- parade organizers still were compelled to bar them from parades.
Back in October, U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Anne Anderson also invoked the new century, when she suggested the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick change their name to include, you know, women.
“That is something to be embraced but we should discuss how that might be applicable in the 21st century,” Anderson told The Irish Times.
It is time to start thinking about what people are going to say in 10 years, in 50 years, about the fact that gay marriage was legalized in numerous U.S. states, that TV and movies depicted gay life with depth and complexity, and that the pope himself said he was in no position to “judge” gay people.
And yet, a small but influential group of Irish Americans -- who play a key role in how we publicly embrace and celebrate our ethnic heritage -0 could not find a place for gays and lesbians under the broad umbrella of Irish America.
(Contact “Sidewalks” at tdeignan.blogspot.com)