Glad-handing is a common political occurrence in Washington, D.C., but the official guest list for Pope Francis' visit to the White House is causing the Vatican serious concern.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Vatican officials are concerned that photos featuring the pope greeting several prominent gay rights advocates and Roman Catholics who support same-sex marriage during his White House visit could be misinterpreted as the pontiff endorsing non-traditional views on the family and human sexuality.
According to the White House, retired (and now divorced) homosexual Episcopal Bishop V. Gene Robinson will be a guest, as will Nicholas Coppola, a former Roman Catholic who started a Change.org petition calling for the church to be more inclusive of gays and lesbians after he was put out of his church parish in New York.
“I think, frankly, the Pope sets his own agenda and speaks his own mind and has his own pastoral mission. And we would not expect in any way the Pope to influence – we would not in any way want to create any expectation that the Pope is going to be a voice in U.S. domestic political issues.”
- Ben Rhodes, Communications Director
Frank DeBernardo, executive director of the dissenting Catholic activist group New Ways Ministry, and Sister Jeannine Gramick, S.L., the organization's co-founder, will also attend. New Ways Ministry has been shunned by both the Vatican and the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops for its views on LGBT issues.
GLAAD, the largest gay rights lobby nationwide, is encouraging the media to speak with disaffected Catholics who believe LGBTs should be included in Catholic life. It also sent a letter to Pope Francis in advance of the visit, encouraging the leader of Catholics worldwide to open the church's doors to homosexuals.
"Currently, our Church's teaching and pastoral practices surrounding LGBT people are causing an enormous pastoral crisis,as well as upholding systemic, institutionalized discrimination against LGBT people and our families. In the U.S. and around the world, we are experiencing alienation from the Church, higher rates of poverty and violence, and discrimination in employment, housing, educational opportunities, and access to health care," the letter said.
"LGBT youth are particularly vulnerable, with nearly half of the LGBT young people in the U.S. considered to be at-risk. Lacking support at home, at school, or from faith communities, LGBT youth suffer bullying, experience depression, self-mutilate, attempt suicide, use drugs, become homeless or enter foster care at rates far higher than non-LGBT youth. This is a crisis that the church can help to address through effective pastoral care and programs that provides love and support for these youth."
GLAAD also issued a media guide for journalists who wish to interview the pontiff and write about homosexual issues.
During a press conference Sept. 17, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest was asked if the guest list – which also includes a transgender woman and several abortion rights advocates – was meant to "send a message or make a statement."
Earnest said he believed it best not to draw conclusions "about one or two or maybe even three people who may be on the guest list, because there will be 15,000 other people there, too."
During a subsequent press call about the papal visit, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, was asked by a reporter if Pope Francis would be weighing in on domestic policy issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion. Rhodes issued a veiled warning for the reporters who might be tempted to draw a connection between the pope's words and American politics.
"I think, frankly, the Pope sets his own agenda and speaks his own mind and has his own pastoral mission. And we would not expect in any way the Pope to influence – we would not in any way want to create any expectation that the Pope is going to be a voice in U.S. domestic political issues," Rhodes said.
"I think the Pope in many ways operates at a different plane of being a spiritual and moral leader. So I think we'd be very sensitive to not suggest that the Pope's visit and his words are inserted into our own domestic politics. He'll make his own determinations and I'm sure he'll speak his mind. And he's demonstrated himself to be a very candid and principled voice on a whole host of issues."
However, some gay rights advocates seem to think the papal visit is their opportunity to interject their views into the life of the church.
The Catholic News Agency reported that DeBernardo, of New Ways Ministry, told the Washington Blade – a newspaper for the LGBT community – Sept. 16 he thought the presence of LGBT Catholics and activists "sends a strong message that LGBT people are a great concern of this administration."
The news agency also said Mateo Williamson, a past transgender caucus co-chair with the dissenting group Dignity USA, will attend the White House ceremony.
According to the Blade, members of other gay rights groups will line the streets as Pope Francis passes in his motorcade.
Daniel Barutta, president of the Dignity Washington, an LGBT "Catholic" group, said his organization will be stationed outside the headquarters of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) with a banner that reads:
"Pope Francis: The Spirit is Speaking through Us – LGBT Catholics – Dignity Washington."
The newspaper also reported that HRC spokesperson Elizabeth Halloran said dozens of HRC employees will line the street since the organization is only blocks from the Cathedral of Saint Matthews, where Pope Francis will speak.
"We will be part of the crowd welcoming the Pope, and urging him to fully embrace the LGBT faithful," Halloran said.
Ernesto Zelayandia, an HRC global fellow, also wrote on the organization's website that the pontiff should lift the church's prohibition on gay marriage and stop discriminating against the LGBT community worldwide:
"It is important for the Catholic Church to stand on the right side of history and for Pope Francis to affirm that LGBT rights are human rights. He should praise the progress made by those countries that have recognized their LGBT citizens as equals and he should send an unambiguous message that punitive laws and violence against LGBT people have dangerous outcomes that devalue the dignity and humanity of all humans. Pope Francis should employ the message of love, upon which the Catholic Church was founded.