Vatican Pushes Back on Guest List for White House Welcome to Pope

(photo: Register Files)

Pope Francis has provided vital political leverage for President Obama’s controversial decisions to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba and to negotiate the Iran nuclear deal.

The pope’s encyclical, Laudato Si, which calls for the faithful and all people of good well to show respect for both nature and the most vulnerable people in our midst, has also lifted the president’s climate-change boat. There are also strong papal stands on immigration issues and income inequality.

Obama will have a chance to show his appreciation when he greets Pope Francis at a Sept. 23 welcome ceremony organized by the White House. And guess who’s coming?

There’s Gene Robinson — the first openly gay man to be made an Episcopal bishop — who initially divorced his wife of 14 years, before, more recently, doing the same to his same-sex partner. There is Harry Knox, president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. There is Sister Jeannine Gramick, the one-time leader of New Ways Ministry, a group that seeks to change Catholic teaching on homosexual relations and has been sidelined by the Church. And there will be a slew of other dissident Catholics and LGBT activist groups. 

You can read today’s Catholic News Agency story that offers further political context for the powerful, well-financed movement to challenge Catholic teaching on marriage, homosexual relations and abortion.

The news about the White House invitees first surfaced last week, and it has reached Rome. Yesterday an unidentified "Vatican official" signaled the Holy See's displeasure with the tactic.

“The Vatican has taken offense at the Obama 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,” noted a Sept. 17 story in The Wall Street Journal.

“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.”

An estimated 15,000 people will be in attendance at the White House to welcome Pope Francis. No doubt, many other attendees will be there simply to affirm their respect for the Pope, the Catholic Church, and the deposit of truth the Vicar of Christ defends.

But whoever is involved with the White House event saw fit to alert the media to the presence of LGBT and dissident leaders. And the Vatican had every reason to fear Francis would become entangled in a string of photo ops that could leave the public confused.

It is clear where Obama’s sympathies lie: Even an event to welcome the Pope is fodder for identity politics.

“The presence of a number of LGBT Catholics and advocates at the White House reception sends a strong message that LGBT people are a great concern of this administration,” Frank DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, told the Washington Blade in a Sept. 16 post. “It also shows that the White House thinks Pope Francis is concerned about this community too.”

The Catholic League’s Bill Donohue made clear he wasn’t going to give the president a pass.

“It is so fitting that the least friendly administration to religion in history would invite a collection of pro-abortion nuns, Catholic gay activists, assorted dissidents and religious rebels to attend Pope Francis’ visit to the White House September 23,” charged Donohue, in a Sept. 16 statement.

“We doubt an invitation is on the way to the Little Sisters of the Poor, the nuns being targeted by the administration for remaining true to their Catholic faith and refusing to comply with the pro-abortion mandate,” added Donohue, while referencing another invitee, Sister Simone Campbell, one of the "nuns on the bus" who backed the president in his dispute with the U.S. bishops over abortion provisions in Obamacare. 

Yesterday,the issue of embarrassing the pope at his own welcome ceremony came up during a press conference with the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, who said he was unaware of the names of the invitees.

Earnest said the White House had reached out to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Archdiocese of Washington, but had also directed many other groups to invite guests to the welcome ceremony. Today, a story in Crux echoed this assertion.

This morning, the USCCB confirmed, in an email response to my query, that  additional attendees will include: Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the USCCB president, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, and “local ordinaries around the region and the US Cardinals.” 

Still, it would have been much more gracious for the leader of the free world to welcome the Pope without provoking a rebuke from the Vatican. Obama has every reason to cement a relatively new partnership, not risk a breach.

“As Obama pushes for an international consensus to battle global warming ahead of the United Nations conference on climate change this fall, White House aides cite the power of the pope’s passionate entreaties to Christians worldwide about caring for the creation,” the Los Angeles Times reported on Sept 17.

The president’s close ally, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who often uses her cradle faith to leverage her own political goals, told the newspaper: “The pope’s commitment to focusing on our climate crisis is, I think, an act of worship.”

But it now seems unlikely that Catholic dissidents and LGBT activists will score any photo ops that get political mileage.

Equally unlikely is the suggestion, in a Washington Post headline, that Obama sees the papal visit as "a chance to transcend politics."   Really? 

Who will have the last word?

If anyone can find a way to turn such an occasion into an opportunity for a more honest exchange -- even a deep encounter that transcends identity politics -- it will be Pope Francis.

“There’s one thing we know about this pope,” said House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), according to the LA Times. “He’s not afraid to say what he really thinks.” Boehner, of course,  is preparing himself for the pope’s address before Congress, and no one is quite sure what Francis' message will be: “I can tell you this,"said the Speaker, "I am not about to get myself into an argument with the pope.”