Pope Francis Gives LGBT Catholic Group VIP Seats, But Not A Warm Welcome

Pope Francis has been a divisive figure among conservative and liberal Catholics, mostly because both groups try to claim the pope as their own. The pope's push-and-pull can be most clearly seen on the issue of gay rights, where Francis has been both welcoming to gay Catholics while also appealing to those who are staunchly opposed to same-sex marriage. This week, Francis again showed his wishy-washy views on the issue, inviting a gay rights group to the Vatican but failing to publicize their stance.

On Wednesday, members from New Ways Ministry, a U.S.-based gay rights organization that works with gay Catholics and supports same-sex marriage, attended the pope's weekly general audience in Rome. The group has had a long, controversial history with the Catholic Church since it was co-founded back in the 1970s by Sister Jeannine Gramick and Fr. Robert Nugent, and is not formally recognized as a Catholic organization by the Vatican.

But after years of being threatened with censure, dismissal from her order, and excommunication, Sister Jeannine made the pilgrimage to the Vatican this week with her fellow New Ways colleagues. The group was reportedly given VIP seating, showing that Francis is truly welcoming of gay Catholics and their allies.

Except maybe not. According to the Associated Press, the Vatican didn't address New Ways by its title or anything relating to gay rights. The group was listed as "group of lay people accompanied by a Sister of Loretto." So much for getting New Ways' pro-LGBT message across.

Franco Origlia/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The Vatican also left the group off its list of pilgrims, failing to publicly announce the special groups attending the pope's weekly address. While ignoring to recognize the group whom you invited seems like rude manners — and speaks to the broader problem of inclusion in the Catholic Church — Sister Jeanine was happy just to be there. "To me, this is an example of the kind of willingness he has to welcome those on the fringes of the church back to the center of the church," the fearless religious sister told the AP on Wednesday.

Sister Jeannine sent a letter to the Vatican in December, explaining her reason for the trip and asking for a personal meeting with Francis:

I am one of your multi-billion+ fans! On my computer is a round decal with your picture and the words, ‘This Pope gives me hope!’ On my car is a bumper sticker that says, ‘I ♥ Pope Francis.’ . . .

In February, I will be leading a pilgrimage to Rome, Assisi, and Florence for 50 Catholics, who are lesbian/gay or are parents, family members or friends of lesbian/gay Catholics. They are so very heartened by your words of mercy and welcome. They believe, as you say, that receiving the Body and Blood of Christ is spiritual nourishment that we need to grow in our love-relationship with God, not a prize to be awarded those who are worthy.

Franco Origlia/Getty Images News/Getty Images

New Ways was a long-time foe of Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who first targeted Sister Jeannine and Father Nugent during the 1980s, when he was still known as Cardinal Ratzinger. In 1999, after investigating New Ways for more than a decade, Ratzinger wrote in a notification from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:

[F]or the good of the Catholic faithful that the positions advanced by Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent regarding the intrinsic evil of homosexual acts and the objective disorder of the homosexual inclination are doctrinally unacceptable because they do not faithfully convey the clear and constant teaching of the Catholic Church in this area.

Times have changed, slightly, in the Catholic Church under Francis, and the members of New Ways hope Francis' compassion will push the church forward to full acceptance of gay Catholics and their same-sex relationships. While Sister Jeannine and her fellow pilgrims did not get their private meeting with Francis on Wednesday, they're hopeful that this may be the start of a beautiful relationship — at least, one that's a little more amicable than their relationship with Francis' former boss.

Images: Getty Images (2)