Pope Francis has received heaps of adoration for a comment he made in 2013: "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" he said.
Context is important. Francis was speaking specifically about gay celibate priests, and he was only echoing the existing position of the Catholic Church, which condemns "homosexual acts" but says "homosexual inclination" is not in itself immoral. Still, his expression of gentle tolerance felt radical given the Church's history with LGBT issues, and it stood in stark contrast to Pope Benedict XVI's notorious description of homosexuality as an "intrinsic moral evil." Many considered the mere fact that Pope Francis had uttered the word "gay" to be revolutionary.
His comments came around the same time that the marriage equality movement in the United States was reaching its tipping point, and many American LGBT Catholics began to hope that the Church might finally recognize the dignity of gay Catholic lives. After all, this is a pope who's also called the Church "obsessed" with abortion and contraception, referred to unbridled capitalism as "the dung of the devil" and acknowledged humans' involvement in climate change. Gay Catholic families who feel they could use mercy from the church have welcomed the shift away from dogma and toward the pastoral compassion exhibited by Pope Francis.
Enter the World Meeting of Families, an international Catholic conference held every three years since 1994, with a mission to celebrate Catholic family life. This year's World Meeting is special because it will be held in the United States for the first time, and because Pope Francis is personally attending. After visits to New York City and Washington, D.C., the pope will spend two days in Philadelphia, where he will conclude the World Meeting by hosting an open-air mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. More than a million people are expected to attend the week's festivities, all planned around the theme of "Love is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive."
Gay Catholics from around the country are planning to travel to Philadelphia in hopes of being a part of a historic turn toward LGBT acceptance.
But in recent weeks, that hope has gone sour. With the meeting less than a month away, gay Catholic have been all but blackballed from the event. The ongoing clash underscores the stark divide between the pope's message of mercy and the cruel way gay Catholics are treated by the U.S. Church — in this case, by way of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Charles J. Chaput.
The tension began when Deb Word, former president of Fortunate Families, a support group for Catholic parents of gay and transgender children, emailed Chaput about hosting an outreach table at the World Meeting, and asked him to include a speaker in the program who could address the grave dangers faced by LGBT kids who are rejected by their Catholic parents.
"Our goal for these kids has been to prevent suicide," she wrote to Chaput."One [child] attempted in our home, devastated at his [parents'] response...another took his life a year after staying with us. We were devastated that we hadn't been able to do more to prevent his death at 19. Our bar was set very low- keep the kids breathing!"
Gay teens are 8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide, and 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression compared with peers from families that reported no or low levels of family rejection.
In response, Archbishop Chaput told Word she was "a light in the darkness of our world." He also wrote that the agenda for the World Meeting was already set, but he would pass her message along to event organizers in case the lineup was still flexible.
Nine months later, in May, Word was notified that Fortunate Families could not host an outreach table at the event. A World Meeting organizer explained in an email that Fortunate Families' request had been denied because the group urges parents to "show full acceptance of both the person and the entirety of every aspect of the person's gay or transgender lifestyle."
"We sent back another note saying, 'Wait…[we] didn't say accept every behavior. We said you have to accept these kids lovingly,'" Word tells Rolling Stone.
Still, Word, her fellow board members and allies in the LGBT Catholic coalition Equally Blessed still planned to attend the World Meeting. They'd been working for months organizing a makeshift hospitality center to welcome the dozen LGBT Catholic families who plan to travel to Philadelphia to see the pope from as far away as El Salvador. They planned to host discussions and workshops as a "supplemental conversation" to the official conference, including a workshop on exploring gender identity from Catholic perspectives hosted by coalition member New Ways Ministry.
They made arrangements to gather at St. John the Evangelist, a church in Center City that features on its facade a sign saying "All Welcome."
Last week, after almost a year of planning, the organizers were told they would not be able to use the church space after all.
In a statement, Equally Blessed wrote that the group's members are "saddened, frustrated, and deeply disappointed" about the sudden decision. The move is "contrary to Pope Francis' 'Who am I to judge?' [remarks] and the belief most Catholics have that our Church must embrace LGBT people and families."
The showdown is unfolding against the backdrop of a local controversy over the fate of Margie Winters, a lesbian who was recently fired from a suburban Catholic school for being married to a woman. When Winters and her supporters knocked on the door of the archdiocese to deliver a petition signed by 23,000 supporters, they were locked out. Archbishop Chaput said he was "very grateful" that Winters was fired.
Despite the rejection, Deb Word and the rest of the Equally Blessed coalition still plan to spread the message of inclusivity and LGBT acceptance at the World Meeting of Families, and they've secured a new spot for their programming, at the Arch Street United Methodist Church.
"We will try to make [it] known that if anyone wants to talk, we'll be happy to talk to them one-on-one – nothing in your face, no 'lobbying,' as the archbishop calls it," says Word. "Instead, consider it witnessing. We believe [most Catholics have a gay] family member or friend they love, and might be interested in where they can get more resources."