Vatican Disputes White House Guest List for Papal Visit

Invitations to transgender activists, first openly gay U.S. Episcopal bishop and activist nun to White House event prompt pushback

Retired Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, who is gay, was invited to a White House welcoming event for the pope.ENLARGE
Retired Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, who is gay, was invited to a White House welcoming event for the pope. PHOTO: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

On the eve of Pope Francis’s arrival in the U.S., the Vatican has taken offense at theObama administration’s decision to invite to the pope’s welcome ceremony transgender activists, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop and an activist nun who leads a group criticized by the Vatican for its silence on abortion and euthanasia.

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Dignity Washington, a group of LBGT Catholics in Washington, D.C., are excited about Pope Francis’ visit on September 22nd and are hoping his message of non-judgement continues as they seek acceptance from the church.

According to a senior Vatican official, the Holy See worries that any photos of the pope with these guests at the White House welcoming ceremony next Wednesday could be interpreted as an endorsement of their activities.

The tension exemplifies concerns among conservative Catholics, including many bishops, that the White House will use the pope’s visit to play down its differences with church leaders on such contentious issues as same-sex marriage and the contraception mandate in the health care law.

The White House didn’t respond to requests for comment on the Vatican’s reaction to the ceremony’s guest list. White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Thursday he was unaware of the names of individuals on the guest list, but cautioned against drawing any conclusions on specific guests “because there will be 15,000 other people there too.”

In the last few days, several people have acknowledged or made public their receipt of invitations to the event, which will be held on the White House’s South Lawn on the morning of Pope Francis’ first full day in the U.S.

Workers build scaffolding at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., to prepare for Pope Francis’ visit next week.ENLARGE
Workers build scaffolding at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., to prepare for Pope Francis’ visit next week. PHOTO: CHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY IMAGES

Among the expected guests is Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a self-described “Catholic social justice lobby” in Washington.

A spokesman for Network, Joe Ward, said in an email message that the organization was unaware of any tension with the Vatican over the invitation to Sister Campbell.

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In 2012, the Vatican’s doctrinal office cited ties to Network as one of its reasons for ordering an overhaul of the Leadership Council of Women Religious, an umbrella group that claims about 1,500 leaders of religious orders, representing 80% of U.S. nuns. That decision drew wide protests in the U.S. The overhaul ended in April, having effected few substantive changes.

The Vatican had cited Network in connection to the LCWR’s failure to promote Catholic Church teaching against abortion and euthanasia.

In 2010, Sister Campbell drafted a “nuns’ letter” signed by 60 heads of religious orders and umbrella groups urging Congress to pass the health care bill even though it contained provisions that the U.S. bishops said would provide for abortion funding and require private insurers, including Catholic institutions, to provide contraceptives in violation of Catholic teaching.

In 2012, Sister Campbell led the first “Nuns on the Bus” tour to protest proposed cuts in federal funding for social services.

According to the Network website, other members of the Nuns on the Bus will join Sister Campbell at the White House on Wednesday, and Sister Campbell will attend Pope Francis’ address to Congress the next day as the guest of U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer.

Bishop Gene Robinson, who has also been invited to the pope’s welcoming ceremony, is a former Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire and the first openly gay Episcopal bishop in the U.S. He is also an ex-spouse in a same-sex marriage. He didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Another guest, Mateo Williamson, is a former co-head of the transgender caucus of Dignity USA, a group for LGBT Catholics. He said the Vatican’s disapproval of his presence at the ceremony “speaks to the necessity for continued dialogue” between transgender Catholics and the church hierarchy.

“This is really not so much of a political statement as it is the reality that there are so many LGBT Catholics and family members of LGBT people who would really benefit from this message coming from the White House,” he said.

Mr. Williamson, who is transgender, said he would be attending the ceremony as a guest of Vivian Taylor, a transgender woman who was invited by the White House and who formerly served as executive director of Integrity USA, an LBGT advocacy group in the Episcopal Church.

The presence of these figures is especially irritating, the Vatican official said, because it isn’t yet clear if the White House has invited any representatives of the U.S. anti-abortion movement, traditionally a high-priority cause for the U.S. bishops.

The White House is seeking to play down its differences with Catholic Church leaders during Pope Francis’ visit, and to emphasize areas in which President Obama’s agenda aligns with the pope’s.

Two such areas include combatting climate change, which the pope called for in his May encyclical on the environment, and the recent rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba, in which the pope played a key role behind the scenes.

Pope Francis is likely to speak several times during his U.S. visit about environmental protection and to call for lifting the economic embargo against Cuba.

Some U.S. bishops hope the pope will also address their concerns about what they consider threats to religious liberty, specifically in regard to the contraception mandate and the implications of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision to recognize a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

For instance, some church leaders fear that anti-discrimination laws could force Catholic schools and institutions to hire and extend benefits to spouses in same-sex marriages, despite church teaching that marriage is exclusively the union of a man and a woman.

The pope will give a speech dedicated to religious liberty at Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park on Sept. 26, his second-to-last day in the U.S.

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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