When President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet Pope Francis at the White House Wednesday, which kinds of Catholics should be there to witness the historic event?
That’s the debate brewing online after news that the White House invited several gay and lesbian Catholics, as well as LGBT activists, to the event.
Thomas D. Williams, a Catholic commentator, called the invitations a “stunning show of political indecorum" in a column at Breitbart.
Writing at American Thinker, Rick Moran described the administration’s actions as “inexplicably boorish" and asked, “Pope Francis has shown himself to be tolerant, but isn’t this a slap in the face to so publicly challenge Catholic doctrine?"
And Bill Donohue, head of the Catholic League, wrote that Obama’s invitations are an “attempt to exploit a papal visit to promote an agenda that is offensive to faithful Catholics."
But Aaron Ledesma, a 23-year-old gay Catholic living in Virginia, laughed as he said that he invited himself, logging on to the White House website and expressing his desire to see the the president and the pope in person. He said he was shocked when he got a reply.
“Do I think that President Obama or his administration went out of his way to invite LGBT people? Absolutely not," Ledesma, who graduated last year from Marquette University, told Crux. “When you have a figure like Pope Francis, or the leader of any other nation, visiting the United States, you have to show them what our nation looks like."
About a dozen invitations went to LGBT activists out of roughly 15,000 people that White House spokesman Josh Earnest said are expected to greet Pope Francis on the South Lawn.
A White House official said Thursday the event will resemble other ceremonies that welcome heads of state, and that after the reception, the president and the pope will meet one on one in the Oval Office. At the same time, the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, will meet with representatives from the president’s administration.
From the White House, Francis will travel to the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle, where he will address US bishops. Part of that route — past the Ellipse and the National Mall — will be a public motorcade. (Read the full itinerary of the papal visit.)
Despite the controversy online, the Rev. Thomas Rosica, a priest who works with the Vatican’s press office, wrote on Twitter Friday that the Holy See does not comment on invitations during state visits.
Pope Francis has repeatedly reiterated the Church’s opposition to same-sex marriage, and he has dismissed what he calls “gender ideology," but he nonetheless has called on Catholics to be more welcoming to gays and lesbians.
The most famous quote of his pontificate remains, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"
Late last year, the pope said in an interview that the Church must find ways to welcome families with gays and lesbians.
Francis arrives in the United States just a few months after the majority-Catholic US Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, a cause championed by both Obama and Joe Biden, the nation’s first Catholic vice president.
But US Church leaders haven’t given up the fight.
The pope’s primary reason for his visit is the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, and the host, Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput, said that while gays and lesbians were welcome to attend, event organizers would not “provide a platform at the meeting for people to lobby for positions contrary to the life of our Church."
The meeting will have a workshop about gay Catholic life, however, which includes a talk given by a celibate gay man, Ron Belgau.
A group of openly gay Catholics attending the gathering had planned to use a local Catholic parish as a base camp during the week, until the offer was revoked. Instead, they’ll set up shop at a nearby Methodist church and hold workshops about LGBT issues that week.
Sister Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of the LGBT Catholic group New Ways Ministry, said she will attend both the White House ceremony as well as the canonization Mass of Junipero Serra at the Catholic University of America.
Though Sister Gramick’s group has clashed repeatedly with US bishops, she and others attended a papal audience earlier this year where about 50 members of the Maryland-based group received what she called “VIP treatment."
Sister Gramick told Crux the fact that a handful of openly gay Catholics will be at the White House ceremony means the makeup of the crowd will be fairly similar to a congregation at a Catholic Mass any given Sunday in the United States.
“It won’t be different from what you find in an average Catholic parish in the sense that you find people with all different points of view," she said. “Some people would agree with the bishops on these issues, but most … will disagree."
A recent Pew poll found that although Catholics are split on the issue of same-sex marriage, two-thirds say that gay and lesbian couples are suitable to raise children.
Other LGBT activists invited to the White House ceremony include retired Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay prelate in that denomination, and Nicholas Coppola, who says he was removed from volunteer positions at his New York parish after marrying his partner in 2012.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, White House officials said tickets for the South Lawn ceremony were distributed widely to outside organizations in order to reach a large cross section of the United States, including the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Archdiocese of Washington, Catholic Relief Services, and the national Catholic Charities network.
Leaders from other Christian churches, as well as Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist representatives were also invited, as well as people who have no particular faith, but who admire Pope Francis.
While acknowledging that the United States and the Holy See have disagreed on issues in the past, and would continue to do so, presidential advisers say that Obama and Pope Francis will discuss a range of issues that the two leaders share a common vision — such as the environment and immigration — but would not seek a papal endorsement for specific policies.
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, said that Pope Francis “sets his own agenda and speaks his own mind and has his own pastoral mission," and that the White House would “be very sensitive to not suggest that the pope’s visit and his words are inserted into our own domestic politics."
For his part, Ledesma, who chronicled his efforts to be invited to the ceremony at The Gay Catholic, said he looks forward simply to witnessing history, not scoring political points.
“Both of them have been so supportive of who I am," he said, “and I want to be there to witness them come together because their support has meant so much to me."