The Pope’s visit to the US: Mixed Messages for LGBTQ People

Pope Francis, escorted by President Barack Obama, greets Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, and Maj. Gen. Darryl Burke, the Air Force District of Washington commander, at Joint Base Andrews, Md., Sept. 22, 2015. This marked the first visit by the current pope to the United States.

Pope Francis’ well-publicized visit to America this past week sent mixed messages about LGBTQ people.

On the bright side, the Pope brought great personal warmth and a welcome focus on justice for the poor and protection of the environment. A native of Argentina, he spoke Spanish and obviously connected with many of America’s poor Latina/os. His speech to Congress was impressively intelligent, highlighting a diverse group of four Americans: Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, and two Catholics who were once censured for their prophetic views: Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. How refreshing to hear that after speaking to Congress, he turned down lunch invitations with politicians and instead dined with the homeless. A scripture reading during the Pope’s Mass at Madison Square Garden was done by openly gay comedian/journalist Mo Rocca. I also enjoyed the rare burst of positive religious coverage in the national news.

This is the same Pope who eased the Vatican’s anti-LGBT position when he took office three years ago by asking “Who am I to judge?” But the Papal visit did not always give LGBT Christians a reason to cheer.

The Pope’s most direct references to LGBT people came today in a speech to bishops gathered at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. Criticizing same-sex marriage, he urged them not to ignore “the unprecedented changes taking place in contemporary society, with their social, cultural — and now juridical — effects on family bonds…. Until recently, we lived in a social context where the similarities between the civil institution of marriage and the Christian sacrament were considerable and shared. The two were interrelated and mutually supportive. This is no longer the case.”

The Pope compared the changes in family life to consumerism and the switch from neighborhood stores to supermarkets. He urged the bishops not to respond with blame and condemnation, stating, “Gratitude and appreciation should prevail over concerns and complaints.”

The first sign of trouble came even before the Pope arrived, when news reports surfaced that the Pope’s advance team objected to having LGBT Christian leaders on the guest list for the White House Welcome Ceremony Sept. 23. They feared these unwanted guests would be photographed with the Pope, and the photos used as an endorsement of their activities. Dozens of LGBT church leaders were invited to the event, but the reports singled out Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church and Mateo Williamson, a transgender Catholic activist. They also targeted Sister Simone Campbell, founder of the “Nuns on the Bus” movement.

In the end the conservative effort to dis-invite LGBT church leaders failed, while the Vatican Press Office denied ever making such statements.

With all this fuss, I imagined the Welcome Ceremony in a room where everyone could see each other, similar to prayer breakfasts that I have attended. Silly me. It was on the White House lawn with literally a cast of thousands — 11,000 guests. As far as I can tell, none of the LGBT church leaders got anywhere near close enough for a photo with the Pope.

Fr. John McNeill’s pioneering book

On the same day that the Pope arrived, pioneering gay priest John McNeill died. For me it was a reminder of how the Vatican silenced him and expelled him from the Jesuit order for coming out and promoting LBGT rights. The timing of his death spared McNeill the pain of seeing the US media glorify the Pope while he slighted the suffering and needs of LGBT people.

The Pope gave uplifting and well-crafted speeches on universal values of justice, the dignity of all human life, and responsibility for the earth. But his broad generalizations were open to multiple interpretations and included some conservative code words that could easily be missed.

LGBT Catholic leaders were upset when he condemned “unjust discrimination” during his remarks at the White House.  It sounds good at first, but the phrase comes from a key Catholic teaching against homosexuality and has been used by US Catholic bishops to argue that there are just forms of discrimination against LGBT people.

“It is a term that has dangerous ramifications for LGBT people,” Dignity Executive Director Marianne Duddy-Burke told Buzzfeed News. She sat in the VIP section at the White House during the Pope’s remarks. “To any well-tuned LGBT ear, or anyone listening, it is support for a position many U.S. Catholic bishops have taken — which is against same-sex marriage, the right to fire married gay employees or transgender employees, the right to exclude LGBT people from adoption, and to deny LGBT people foster-care services.”

The Pope spoke repeatedly of “religious freedom,” which is fine except that this is the justification used by to defend anti-LGBT actions such as county clerk Kim Davis’ recent decision to break the law and deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples. What about the religious freedom of LGBT people of faith?

Many saw implied criticism of LGBT rights in Pope’s Sept. 25 speech to the United Nations when he said that “promoting social progress” risks becoming “an ideological colonization by the imposition of anomalous models and lifestyles which are alien to people’s identity and, in the end, irresponsible.”

In his address to the US Catholic bishops on Sept. 23, Pope Francis emphasized the need for dialogue. Indeed it would be an improvement over the Catholic hierarchy’s usual harsh, one-sided condemnations of LGBT people. As a veteran of several Protestant “dialogue committees” on religion and homosexuality at the US National Council of Churches, I have grown weary of dialogue. It is a frustrating process for both sides, with change occurring slowly if at all. But even I felt renewed by the eloquence of the Pope’s words:

“And yet we are promoters of the culture of encounter. . . Dialogue is our method, not as a shrewd strategy but out of fidelity to the One who never wears of visiting the marketplace, even at the eleventh hour, to propose his offer of love (Mt 20:1-16). . .

“The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society. I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly. . .”

Sunday, the Pope lead Mass at the Catholic church’s huge World Meeting of Families, where the only session on LGBT families (led by celibate gay Ron Belgau and his mother, Beverley) was moved at the last minute without explanation from a room seating 10,000 to one seating only 1,000.

In introductory remarks before the Pope’s arrived to speak at Independence Hall on Sept. 26, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter told the crowd of about 40,000: “In America, everyone has rights. Our lesbian, gay and bisexual citizens continue to fight for equality. Keep fighting for your rights. It’s a collective fight, and there are many others fighting with you.”

The New Ways Ministry Blog (called Bondings 2.0) is providing daily in-depth analysis of the Pope’s treatment of LGBT issues during his visit, which ended Sunday, Sept. 27.  And while the pontiff has scored numerous points from progressives and those advocating for human causes, his message to the multitude of LGBTQ people looking to him to throw the doors of the Catholic Church wide open to them still leaves a lot to hope for.


Post Script by Kittredge Cherry: The Pope is back in Rome, but the mixed messages continue. Pope Francis detracted from his own message of tolerance by meeting secretly on Sept. 22 with Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses. The Vatican confirmed the meeting Sept. 30. Why did meet in secret with a high-profile divisive Protestant government official opposed to same-sex marriage while ignoring calls to meet LGBT Catholics?


This piece originally appeared on Kittredge Cherry’s Jesus in Love blog.

Photo credit: “Pope and President,” photo is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, TSG Robert Cloys, taken or made as part of his official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain.


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Cherry-KittredgeKITTREDGE CHERRY is a lesbian Christian author who writes regularly about LGBT spirituality and the arts for the Jesus in Love Blog. She was ordained by Metropolitan Community Churches and served as its national ecumenical officer, advocating for LGBT rights at the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches. She holds degrees in religion, journalism and art history. Her most recent book is The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision.  (Read IMPACT’s review of her book here).