The Vatican is pushing back against the list of dignitaries who will receive Pope Francis when he visits the White House next week, taking umbrage with the selection of several progressive religious leaders among the planned welcome party — including a transgender activists and an openly gay Episcopal bishop.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday evening that the Vatican is rattled by the slate of religious leaders scheduled to be at the White House when the pope arrives next Wednesday. According to the WSJ’s unnamed “senior Vatican official,” the Holy See bristled at the idea of the pope shaking hands with Mateo Williamson, former co-head of the Catholic LGBT organization Dignity USA; Aaron Ledesma, an openly gay Catholic blogger; and Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly-gay bishop elected in the Episcopal church, among others. The official reportedly said that photos of Francis with these and other attendees “could be interpreted as an endorsement of their activities.”
Robinson, who is also a senior fellow with ThinkProgress’ parent organization the Center for American Progress, said he was surprised by the controversy.
“I seem to have a higher opinion of Pope Francis than some in his Curia,” Robinson told ThinkProgress. “I think that the Holy Father will be able to handle quite well one gay bishop and one feisty nun in the midst of 10,000 other well-wishers.”
The Vatican’s hesitancy is unusual, as Francis has repeatedly shown a willingness to meet with a wide range of people — including many whom he disagrees with. Francis made headlines in 2013 when he answered a question about gay priests by saying “Who am I to judge?” reportedly told a Spanish transgender man in January that “the church loves you and accepts you as you are,” and had lunch with gay and transgender inmates in March.
Still, Francis has not moved to change Church teaching on LGBT issues, and the Catholic catechism officially refers to homosexual behavior as “objectively disordered.” The Vatican also recently ruled that transgender persons cannot be godparents.
The Vatican’s concerns for the meet-and-greet may extend beyond LGBT issues, however. The list list of guests also includes Sister Simone Campbell, a Catholic nun who spoke at the 2012 Democratic National Convention and achieved fame for her various “Nuns on the Bus” campaigns, which traveled the country to criticize Republican congressman Paul Ryan’s budget, advocate for immigration reform, and decry the presence in dark money in politics. NETWORK, her organization, continues to be active on several policy issues as a “Catholic social justice lobby.”
While Francis would likely support these initiatives, Campbell was criticized by Church officials for drafting a letter in 2010 signed by thousands of nuns that endorsed the Affordable Care Act, even though the health care bill was opposed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. For this and other reasons, she was the subject of a Vatican investigation, initiated under Francis’ predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, along with the rest of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the umbrella group the encompasses 80 percent of American nuns. The Holy See abruptly halted that investigation in May, but tensions between U.S. nuns and Vatican officials remain — though it’s worth noting that nuns are actually more popular than bishops and even parish priests in the U.S.,
Joe Ward, a NETWORK official, told ThinkProgress that he was not “aware of any tensions with the Vatican.”
The controversy exposes the increasingly leftward tilt of American Christianity, where millions of people of faith endorse progressive positions. Although the Christian Right, which generally opposes same-sex marriage and abortion, has long enjoyed the spotlight in the United States, a swelling percentage of U.S. Christians support LGBT rights. Over the past few years, groups such as the United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church (USA), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Episcopal Church have all moved to ordain LGBT people and embrace marriage equality as denominations.
In addition, huge portions of religious Americans support LGBT rights, regardless of whether or not their leadership agrees. A recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that — with the exception of white evangelical Protestants, black Protestants, and Mormons — majorities of almost every major Christian group now back the freedom to marry.
More importantly for the pope, recent polls from Pew and PRRI show that U.S. Catholics are also more progressive than average Americans on most major issues, with sizable majorities of lay-Catholics endorsing same-sex marriage, LGBT non-discrimination policies, and making abortion legal in most cases — even if the Church hierarchy opposes them. They also overwhelmingly share Francis’ support for immigrants and action on climate change.