Lesbians Meet Pope Francis
Republicans Call the Meeting an "Insult" to the Church
After spending six days in the U.S. in Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia, Pope Francis is back at the Vatican. But the reverberations are still being felt.
Polls show that most Americans, regardless of their religion or lack thereof, had a favorable response to the Pope’s visit. Certainly liberal Americans were pleased by his stances on immigration, climate change, the death penalty and weapons of mass destruction.
Pope Francis, leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics and the one in four Americans who are Catholic, has been changing the face of the Church since he was chosen in March 2013. That year, the LGBT magazine, The Advocate, made him their person of the year, so excited were LGBT people that there was finally a pope who might be speaking to and for us.
Then the attorney for Kentucky clerk Kim Davis announced late Sept. 28 that his client had met with the Pope during his U.S. visit.
Many have challenged the veracity of the claim that Davis met with the Pope for 15 minutes at the Vatican Embassy on Sept. 24 while he was in Washington. The Vatican has refused to confirm or deny the claim and no transcripts or photographs have been released, which is highly unusual for the Vatican. Davis’s attorney Mat Staver at the right-wing Liberty Counsel group, told Reuters the evening of Sept. 30 that the meeting did not address gay issues or the same-sex marriage controversy. "It was really a meeting between the Pope and Kim Davis and her husband Joe to encourage her," Staver told Reuters. "It was an amazing opportunity for her to meet the Pope, and for him to be able to stand beside another Christian and to encourage another person who exercised her faith and went to jail for it."
There was no mention of an interpreter at the alleged meeting. Pope Francis does not speak English and while he was in the U.S. spoke mostly in Spanish unless reading haltingly in English from a prepared translation. So he would have been limited in what he might have said to Davis.
Dozens of reporters had been camped out in front of the Vatican Embassy during the papal visit, but no one saw Davis and her husband. Staver was not there, but he is the only one talking to the media about the alleged meeting.
Staver would not say whether the Vatican or Davis’s representatives had initiated contact about a meeting.
"The pope is not an American citizen, and he is not a member of our government. He is entitled to meet with whoever he likes and have any opinion he wants to have," Joe Dunman, an attorney representing plaintiff couples suing Davis, said in a statement about the alleged meeting.
Whether or not a meeting between Pope Francis and Kim Davis actually took place or it is another fabrication by Staver like his now-debunked claim last week that a rally of 100,000 people was held in Peru in support of Davis, for many LGBT Catholics, myself included, the papal visit opened a door for lesbian and gay families.
One of those families was that of two Catholic lesbians, Margie Winters and her wife, Andrea Vettori. Winters made news at the end of June when she became yet another lesbian teacher to be fired from her job at a suburban Philadelphia Catholic school for being married to her lesbian partner. (Several lesbian teachers have been fired in the past year under similar circumstances.)
HRC (Human Rights Campaign), the largest LGBT civil rights organization in the U.S., acquired tickets to the papal reception from the White House for Winters and Vettori. The Sept. 23 reception was by invitation only and not open to the public. There were an estimated 25,000 people on the ellipsis of the White House lawn, so Winters and Vettori were very lucky to be at the indoor reception.
Winters told The Philadelphia Inquirer, "Obviously we won’t be talking to the pope, but we will be in the vicinity. But symbolically, it’s a great step forward."
It is indeed a step forward–and the amount of blowback over it signals just how major a step it is.
Republicans weren’t happy that President Obama was welcoming a lesbian couple into the inner sanctum of the White House’s papal reception. The conservative publication The Daily Caller said the invitation was "incendiary" and that President Obama was using the couple to force an agenda and "pressure the Catholic Church into accepting gay marriage."
Republican presidential candidate and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has been the primary champion of Kim Davis, [It’s Not Just Kim Davis] was so incensed he had to write an opinion column for the Daily Caller about it on Sept. 22, the day before the couple was to meet the pontiff. [http://dailycaller.com/2015/09/22/president-obama-insults-more-than-just-the-pope/#ixzz3mUvL79KB]
Huckabee and his fellow Republicans might be upset about who President Obama invited to meet the Pope, but as a Catholic and a lesbian, I was thrilled. Pope Francis hasn’t fixed the Church yet, but he’s made changes that leave me hopeful. And whether or not he met with Davis and said in halting English "Pray for me," as he said to everyone he met while he was in the U.S., having Winters and Vettori in his orbit was an equally important moment.
President Obama with Pope Francis
One of the changes Catholics and others have seen since Francis has been pope is a more humane attitude towards lesbians and gay men. In June 2013, Pope Francis was on a plane from Brazil saying to reporters, "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"
Francis spoke in Italian but used the English word "gay," which had never before been used by a pope. Only the word "homosexual" had been used. Pope Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, was tyrannical on the subject of homosexuality, both as pope and as the author of Vatican writings for his predecessor, John Paul II. In 2005, Benedict wrote that "homosexuality shows a strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil." He called being gay an "objective disorder." Benedict was adamant that men with "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" should not become priests.
But while Pope Francis was in Philadelphia for two days for the World Meeting of Families, the final stop on his U.S. tour, he was succinct: Families are "diverse" and "do we speak to each other with love and tenderness? That’s a good way of measuring our love."
And when the Pope said Mass at Madison Square Garden in New York, the first reading was by Mo Rocca, openly gay comedian and actor from "The Daily Show."
Surely that was significant? Rocca read in Spanish and tweeted about his excitement at being in the presence of the Pope.
It was at the end of the school year Winters was fired from her job as Director of Religious Education at Mercy Waldron Academy in Merion, a suburb ten minutes outside of Philadelphia. Winters had taught at the school since 2007.
Winters was fired for being a lesbian married to her spouse, Vettori. The two women were married in Boston in 2007, a fact known to Mercy Waldron when Winters was hired. She was told not to discuss her marriage with students or faculty and she complied with that request. But at the end of the school year, two parents wrote a letter to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia demanding that she be fired and she was.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, through a spokesman, has repeatedly asserted that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia played no role in Winters’ firing. The Sisters of Mercy run the Mercy Waldron Academy. Both Winters and Vettori have worked with the Sisters of Mercy for years.
Of the invitation to the papal reception, Winters said, "We continue to say it’s the spirit at work. It’s the people who have been supporting us, moving this issue forward and in front of people."
In his introduction to Pope Francis at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, a speech that was broadcast nationally, Mayor Michael Nutter, an African-American Catholic and a strong proponent of LGBT rights, made a strong case for lesbian and gay families. He also cited the Pope’s own words about "who am I to judge."
Nutter had previously implored Pope Francis in a statement, writing, "We encourage ending the systematic and institutionalized discrimination against LGBT people through the message of love, hope, and acceptance. For the many LGBT individuals who seek the Lord and have good will, we ask that you end judgment of these individuals by those within the Church through teaching and pastoral practice currently in place."
Many may be disappointed that someone who was not part of the U.S. council of bishops who arranged all of Pope Francis’s other events while he was in the U.S. allegedly arranged a meeting for Pope Francis with Kim Davis (although he seemed not to know who she was when asked about her by ABC senior correspondent Terry Moran on the plane home to Rome). Yet at the same time we can be glad that Pope Francis has opened a door for LGBT Catholics. For while he had every opportunity to speak out against lesbian and gay families while he was in the U.S., especially in Philadelphia when the entire subject of his visit was families, he chose not to do that. Instead Margie Winters and Andrea Vettori were at the White House and Mo Rocca was reading at the Mass.
Pope Francis has also chosen not to speak directly about Kim Davis or her stance against lesbian and gay couples. In his response to Moran on the plane, the Pope said only that conscientious objectors have a right to those objections. But his answer was broad–covering conscientious objectors to war as well as someone like Davis.
And so LGBT Catholics are left as we were prior to his visit here: in limbo, waiting for what comes next and hoping the door that Pope Francis first opened does not get slammed shut.
Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer and the author and editor of nearly 30 books. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the 2013 SPJ Award for Enterprise Reporting in May 2014. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and A Room of Her Own, a columnist and contributing editor for Curve magazine and Lambda Literary Review and a columnist for San Francisco Bay Area Reporter. Her reporting and commentary have appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Baltimore Sun, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Nation, Ms Magazine and Slate. Her book, From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for cultural & historical fiction. Her new novel, Ordinary Mayhem, won the IPPY Award for fiction on May 1, 2015. Her book Erasure: Silencing Lesbians will be published in 2016. @VABVOX