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Gay Catholics find a new tone under Pope Francis, and from their own bishops

San Francisco's Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone speaks at the 2013 March for Marriage event in Washington, D.C.

ROME (RNS) On its 15 previous pilgrimages, the Catholic gay rights group New Ways Ministry drew maybe two-dozen people to visit holy sites in places like Assisi and Rome.

This year, the number of pilgrims unexpectedly doubled to 50.

Chalk it up to the so-called Francis Effect, where the pope’s open-arms acceptance is giving new hope to gay and lesbian Catholics who have felt alienated from their church for decades.

What’s been even more surprising is that both New Ways and a similar Catholic LGBT organization in Britain are finding support from the Catholic hierarchy in their efforts to meet the pontiff when they both visit the Vatican on Ash Wednesday (Feb. 18), the start of Lent, the period of penance and fasting preceding Easter.

Sister Jeannine Gramick, who was ordered by the Vatican not to speak about her work with gay and lesbian Catholics, is the subject of a new documentary, ``In Good Conscience: Sister Jeannine Gramick's Journey of Faith.'' Photo by Cynthia O'Murchu

Sister Jeannine Gramick, a co-founder of New Ways and a longtime advocate for LGBT inclusion in the church. Photo by Cynthia O’Murchu

For example, Archbishop Georg Ganswein, head of the papal household and the top aide to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, responded to New Ways’ request for a papal meet-and-greet by reserving tickets for the group at Francis’ weekly public audience in St. Peter’s Square. It’s not a private meeting — which is tough for anyone to get — but it’s not nothing.

The pope’s ambassador to Washington forwarded a similar request to Rome. Even San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone — point man for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ battle against gay marriage — had written a letter to the Vatican on their behalf.

San Francisco's Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone speaks at the 2013 March for Marriage event in Washington, D.C.

Creative Commons image by The American Life League

San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone speaks at the 2013 March for Marriage event in Washington, D.C.

Last December, Cordileone had a constructive meeting with Frank DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways, and Sister Jeannine Gramick, a co-founder of New Ways and a longtime advocate for LGBT inclusion in the church. But they were still surprised by the archbishop’s willingness to write a letter for them.

Moreover, British Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster sent a warm blessing to a group of LGBT Catholics from London who are joining up with New Ways in Rome. “Be assured of my prayers for each and every one of you,” Nichols wrote. “Have a wonderful pilgrimage. God bless you all.”

“I feel that the positive reaction that we have been getting from the hierarchy is due to the welcoming spirit of Pope Francis, who wants to welcome everyone,” said Gramick, speaking by phone from Assisi, the pilgrims’ last stop before heading to Rome.

“It’s very heartening to people who have felt alienated and rejected for so long, so we are feeling very hopeful.”

Gramick knows about rejection. In 1999, she was silenced by the Vatican for her “erroneous and dangerous” work with gay Catholics. She and the Catholic priest who co-founded New Ways Ministry in 1977 had “caused confusion among the Catholic people and have harmed the community of the church,” said the office headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would later be elected Benedict XVI.

The ministry’s work was called “doctrinally unacceptable.” A year later, Gramick was barred from even speaking of the 11-year probe of her work, an order she refused. As late as 2010, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops referred to New Ways as having “no approval or recognition from the Catholic Church.”

Now, the group is hoping the Vatican will include them among the list of official pilgrimage groups read aloud at the audience. They’d also love to get close enough to the pope to shake his hand and maybe pose for a picture as he passes through the crowds.

If those sound like small steps, LGBT Catholics say they would, in fact, represent a huge leap forward considering how they were treated under the papacies of Benedict and St. John Paul II.

Francis, on the other hand, has clearly shifted the tone of the conversation, even if substantial changes remain elusive.

The shift began with one of Francis’ signature lines, from an in-flight press conference a few months after his election in 2013, when he was asked about whether a gay man could be a priest. “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Francis famously said.

He even used the English word “gay,” something no pope had ever done, as most bishops prefer the more clinical term “homosexual.”

A few months later, Francis personally responded to an appeal from a gay Catholic group in Florence, telling them he enjoyed and appreciated their letter and assuring them of his blessing.

Then last month, it emerged Francis met with a transgender person from Spain who had written to the pope — with assistance from his bishop — after feeling rejected by his parish because of his sex-change operation. It was a moving moment for Diego Neria Lejarraga, and many LGBT Catholics.

“This man loves the whole world,” he told CNN, referring to Francis. “I think there’s not — in his head, in his way of thinking, discrimination against anyone. I’m speaking about him, not the institution.”

Francis also encouraged discussions of the church’s outreach to gay and lesbian Catholics at last October’s summit of top cardinals and bishops on family life — discussions that produced some remarkable, even unprecedented, praise from church leaders to the faith and witness of LGBT Catholics.

At the same time, Francis has frequently reiterated the church’s teaching that marriage is only between a man and a woman, and he has ripped what he calls the “ideological colonization of the family” by the West, language that refers in part to efforts to promote gay marriage and other issues in developing countries. He has also blasted “gender theory,” which for many is a suspect buzzword of secular culture.

Still, the New Ways leaders and many gay Catholics see real reasons for hope, and not just for themselves.

Since the start of his papacy, Francis has sought to shift the hierarchy’s focus away from what he said is an “obsession” with sexual issues and toward a greater concern for the poor and all those rejected by the church and society, a social justice priority that many gay Catholics also share.

In addition, LGBT Catholics see the shift toward open discussion of a range of topics as good for the church, and themselves.

“While LGBT Catholics hope for changes, they are realistic enough to know that Francis may not make those changes,” said DeBernardo. “But he is doing things that will help their spiritual lives.”

DeBernardo said many gay Catholics are not looking for approval from the church as much an acknowledgment of their existence and a willingness to “treat them as human beings.”

A photo-op or shout-out at Wednesday’s audience might be one such acknowledgement. “We take the long view,” Gramick said, “and every step is progress.”


About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • There are, of course, not ‘gay’ Catholics. There are Catholics for whom sexual perversion is an issue, individuals with Catholic baptisms who have confounded the Catholic faith with contemporary psychobabble, and sinister characters who understand that if you want to undermine an institutions, you burrow around within it. Clergymen who are serious about their vocation concern themselves with the first group (who are likely to be the least exhibitionistic of the lot) in their ministry and are careful to keep the last at bay.

  • Gay Catholics should not be deceived by such rhetoric.

    It is obvious Pope Francis talks a great game about changes in Church policy but doesn’t actually do anything on the subject. They should expect the same level of ostracism, prejudice and discrimination from Catholic Church officials they have always dealt with,.

  • That’s not true, Larry. Granted, it DOES look, at least superficially, like Francis “doesn’t actually do anything” (as you say), to aid the gay marriage activists. The Catholic Catechism isn’t being publicly re-written to approve homosexual marriage.

    But that’s not what Catholic pro-gay activists really want anyway. They don’t care what Francis says or writes. They don’t care about Popes, they don’t care about Cardinals, they don’t even care about Catholicism for that matter.

    (Catholicism isn’t even their primary religion, because **LGBT** is what they worship. No joke!!)

    Oh no no, Larry. All THEY want from Francis, is for Francis to do what he has already done. Simple as that. They just want him to use his giant media pulpit to speed-up the process of GOVERMENT legalizing gay marriage. They know that they can “win it from there”, no matter what any Catholic official says or does.

    That’s all they want from Pope Francis, and he is happily, totally, givin’ it up for them. The world’s first Gay-Marriage Pope, that’s for sure. The Catholic Church (and Protestant churches too!) are facing a time of disaster.

  • @Larry,

    One thing is always on the agenda of LGBT’s, and that is to seduce and debauch as many other people as they can. This issue of sexual predators has been in and at the Church since Jude and Peter confronted it.

    LGBT’s do not want just a place at the table, they want to own the table, the house it’s in and all the pretty young new converts they can get their hands on. History has a way of being altered by the loudest voices. And no one screams the loudest than the gay rights movement. And now it has finally come for the Church.

  • @Doc,

    As predicted. This great falling away, lead by gay activists is the natural progression of this licentious world (the world and its ways) in which we find ourselves surrounded by.

    The catholic Church knows well how to sell indulgences. And the LGBT demand looks to bring a massive amount of money and power into the coffers.

    This is certainly the second most dangerous movement directed at Christians. Jihad warriors on one side and Rainbow Warriors on the other, What used to be labeled as paranoia is now total reality.

    It is time for The Church to move back to homes and to the catacombs and leave the Church buildings to become the new bath houses of the 21st century.

    The attack on the Church from satanic forces . . . thiis is really happening.

  • Give me a break Ken. Their “agenda” is to not be attacked under the color of law and to be treated like human beings.

    Christians like yourself always look for excuses in the Bible to opt out of treating others in a “Christian” manner. To attack, demean, discriminate and in some cases kill or imprison people under the excuse of divine command. This kind of bad behavior only makes it easier for people to ignore the unnecessary deference society gives to people of professed faith. Keep it up, you make new atheists every day with such attitudes.

    We both know the Church has no intention on reversing its policy of open discrimination against gays where they can get away with it. So my issue is with making pretenses otherwise for the general public.

  • Like you know what gay activists want? Seriously your only communication with anyone who “bats for that team” is hurling epithets and invective at them. Its not like you ever talk to such people like they were human beings.

    Its pretty easy to tell what such people want. Its to not be discriminated against by the church at every available opportunity and to be treated like any other member of the flock. But I doubt any such action will be taken by the Catholic church.

    One thing we both agree on, surprisingly, is that people should not waste their time remaining in faiths and sects which openly declare them as less than people Faiths and sects which actively work to discriminate against them.

  • Like you know what gay activists want?

    We kinda figured that out from reading newspapers the last 40-odd years and observing their behavior in public and organizational settings.

  • “What used to be labeled as paranoia is now total reality.”

    Naaaaah. It’s still paranoia, with a healthy dose of self-serving imaginary morality.

    If a certain class of so-called Christian didn’t try to define being a Christian as being anti-gay, they would be incredibly surprised to find 1) that the world doesn’;t revolve around them, and 2) that we couldn’t possibly care any less about them than we already don’t.

  • “One thing is always on the agenda of LGBT’s, and that is to seduce and debauch as many other people as they can. This issue of sexual predators has been in and at the Church since Jude and Peter confronted it. ”

    I’m glad to hear you’re not an ignorant bigot and never heard of Corinthians 6. .

  • Yes, you are correct, Larry. Pope Francis has reached out to gay groups, but his intent is not what is being proclaimed by CNN. It is merely to extend a welcoming hand, so that a true conversion back to Christ can begin. If you read the full text of Francis it is in the context of confessing sins, and being part of a gay lobby. Francis: “But if a person, lay or priest or Sister, has committed a sin and then has converted, the Lord forgives, and when the Lord forgives, the Lord forgets … If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge him?” He then goes on to reference the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs, 2357 – 2359. Our news media gets pretty carried away with the gay stuff, and try to push the envelope. However, they cannot seem to grasp that the Catholic Church does not have the authority to authorize gay marriage, or the gay lifestyle. It is outside of the Plan of Salvation, so the Church is bound by our Lord’s teaching, and must abide by it.

  • “Like you know what gay activists want?”

    Yes Larry, I do know what the gay activists of my hometown and state want, because (unlike you, hmm?) I have spent a few years listening to them, attending their public forums, and sometimes talking with them face-to-face.

    I know what their positions and talking points are, because I have asked them in person, not merely by reading books and magazines.

    I could ask how much face time YOU have put in, but I don’t really care. The real issue here is that the gay marriage Cultists have found a powerful friend in Pope Francis. This has never happened with any other Pope in world history.

    Because of Francis, the gay marriage crusade has ALREADY been speeded up, not just politically and legally, but also within Christianity itself, both Catholic and Protestant.

    Things are visibly changing, Larry. You and I are watching history — BAD history — unfold before our very eyes. Nevertheless, win or lose, Christians must take a real stand on this issue, Christians must start agreeing with their own Bibles.

  • But you gotta admit Ben, Ken is calling it right. Thats for sure.

    The “pretty & young” “new-convert” thing IS a very real aspect of the gay community, especially on the gay guys’ side. It’s no joke. At all.

    It may not be talked about much — at least not in religious forums like this one — but I think you would agree that this aspect is very real.

  • Somehow I don’t see you involved in any kind of polite civil discussion with such people. Especially given your open hostility and frequent employment of slurs and demeaning language. Your credibility is next to nil.

    “I could ask how much face time YOU have put in”

    You mean actually talking to people as civil human beings on the subject? Plenty. I even dare to know gay couples who are married personally. Including members of my family.

    It is a somewhat different tone in my neck of the woods. Bible thumping bigots are a very small minority. Lapsed Catholicism being the most common Christian sect. Marriage equality is already the law in both the state I live in (by judgment) and the one I work in (by legislative means). Its already a done deal here.

    I sincerely doubt any such “face time” you have done is more than simply insulting people and acting in a belligerent manner. You simply do not paint the portrait of someone who can actually

  • Why would I agree with something that is blatantly untrue at worst, and at best no more true for gay men than it is for heterosexual men?

    Why would I agree with something founded in anti-gay theology and anti-gay ideology, spouted by a man who has demonstrated both repeatedly?

    Why would I agree with something spouted by a person just educated enough to argue persuasively, but with no real regard for facts, logic, and experience?

    Why would I agree with something vomited out by a black man, who ought to recognize bigotry and hate when he sees it, but prefers to believe in his own superiority as a Christian, a moral person, and a human being?

    When your 3/5 of an opinion starts resembling those of a kind, caring, compassionate human being, unpoisoned by bigotry, hate, conservative religious belief, and ideology…

    I’ll be sure to consider it.

  • Well Larry, you’re not the model of “civil discussion” yourself. You are all hostile and “talk-down” to Bible-believing Christianity and Christians (of any denomination), and you know it.

    So make no misake: Me attaining some “credibility” with you, is seriously not my goal. Instead, it’s YOU who needs to establish some “credibility” with ME, if you don’t mind. Yeah!

    I’ve noticed that Christians who try to meet you halfway still get your negative criticism if they say the slightest opposition to the Gay Marriage Crusade.

    But me? Well you know me. I’m NOT even trying to meet you halfway on this topic. I’m not looking for your “seal of civility” (nor do I consider you qualified to give it!) on this topic. I bring the BBQ sauce and dare you to turn up the heat.

    Now hear this: I DO respect both straights and gays as God-created people who both carry the image of God within them, and that’s how I have been able to do real dialogue with both straights and gays for years. By the way, I also respect YOU on that same basis.

    (But “respect a person” don’t mean “sugarcoat the mess.” H*** no!!).

    Look, the “Legalize Gay Marriage Cult” cult is going to win the national game soon, we both agree. But I view that event as a huge tragic EVIL, while you see it as A-Okay-&-Twice-On-Sunday.

    So our conversations will always be a bit intense, Larry. (Unless one of us converts to the other side, of course. And me, I AIN’T doing it !!!)

  • I don’t misrepresent your POV as badly either.

    You can’t even criticize someone for talking down to others without doing the same!

    “Bible-believing Christianity” as opposed to Christian sects you don’t agree with. Then, they are phonies to you.

    The attempt at meeting half-way is merely saying the same nonsense but in a different tone. There is no such thing as half-way on a civil liberties issue. Either you have an opinion or you are staying out of the way of it.

    “Now hear this: I DO respect both straights and gays as God-created people who both carry the image of God within them”

    But obviously some are more in the image than others. You use your religious belief to justify treating others as less than people. No alleged declaration of faith changes that. You deliberately insult and attack others under the pretense of support of your faith. You can’t even pretend to abide by such a statement in the same paragraph.

    The only thing we agree on is your version of Christianity is hostile to gays.

  • Actually, the Pope has nothing to do with govt approving gay equality. The Pope and the church are powerless when it comes to that. The Pope’s so called “acceptance” is a response that the western world is not approving of anti-gay bigotry any longer. The seats are emptying fast and Francis is trying to stop it

  • The pope has his own peculiar style, but in the end, Church Teachings will remain intact. They have to, because they are from God, who promised that the Gates of Hell would not prevail against the Church (Matthew 16:18).

  • You’re right, there are no gay Catholics or straight Catholics, there are only children of God, all of whom are loved by Jesus and God and, apparently, the pope. And, frankly, that’s good enough for me. That’s the group I try and be with.

  • Matthew 23:9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven…… you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality,10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.1 Corinthians 6:9-11………I believe its the power of God that a being becomes a new creation in Christ…not power from a pope ,president,or pastor straight gay or in between, although they might help lead you away from the truth …Do not judge lest you be judged , Daniel = God is my Judge if this is true we should think of Homosexuality as The ABOMINATION OF DESOLATION which BRINGS NOTHING BUT Shame and Contempt 2 each his own