There is growing tension at the Vatican and in Washington over next week's visit by Pope Francis to the White House, and it's not about the menu or the music planned for the ceremony. It's the guest list, and the pontiff's people are pissed.
The Vatican has reportedly "taken offense" at a decision by the Obama administration to invite former Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay man to hold that position; an activist nun, Sister Simone Campbell, who is executive director of Network, a self-described “Catholic social justice lobby”; and Mateo Williamson, a former co-head of the transgender caucus of DignityUSA, a group for LGBT Catholics that advocates for equality within the church.
A senior Vatican official tells the The Wall Street Journal the Holy See is worried that having those guests at the White House welcoming ceremony next Wednesday puts the pope at risk of having his photograph taken with those activists, and that, Vatican officials fear, could be misconstrued as the Francis's endorsement of them, the groups they lead, or their sexual and gender orientations.
"This is definitely out of the ordinary,” Michael Hichborn, president of the conservative Catholic group Lepanto Institute, told Fox News. “[President Obama is] trying to force the pope into a situation where it seems as if the church is giving license to homosexuality and socialism.”
Conservative Catholic critics like Hichborn and some American bishops say they fear the White House will use the pope’s visit to gloss over the administration's distinct differences in opinion on same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate.
“You don’t treat the head of the Roman Catholic Church as a political toy in order to push your own agenda," Hichborn told Fox News.
What's known is that the event is planned for Wednesday, the pope's first full day in the U.S., on the south lawn of the White House. But few other details have been released, and conservative websites have been stewing over reports of the gay, trans, liberal, and Episcopalian guests.
Although the White House didn’t respond to requests for comment on the guest list or the Vatican’s response, White House press secretary Josh Earnest warned reporters Thursday to not draw conclusions on specific guests “because there will be 15,000 other people there, too.” Earnest said he was not aware of individual names and at press time had not responded to a request by The Advocate for a complete guest list.
Williamson, who is a trans man, confimed he was attending as a guest of Vivian Taylor, a trans 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. He told the Journal 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.