Did a gay rights group actually get “VIP treatment” at the Vatican?—UPDATED

Did a gay rights group actually get “VIP treatment” at the Vatican?—UPDATED February 18, 2015


Here’s the report from Reuters: 

A prominent American Catholic gay rights group was given VIP treatment for the first time at an audience with Pope Francis on Wednesday, a move members saw as a sign of change in the Roman Catholic Church.

“This is a sign of movement that’s due to the Francis effect,” said Sister Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of New Ways Ministry, which ministers to homosexual Catholics and promotes gay rights in the 1.2 billion-member Church.

Gramick and executive director Francis DeBernardo led a pilgrimage of 50 homosexual Catholics to the audience in St. Peter’s Square.

They told Reuters in an interview afterwards that when the group came to Rome on Catholic pilgrimages during the papacies of Francis’s predecessors John Paul and Benedict, “they just ignored us”.

This time, a U.S. bishop and a top Vatican official backed their request and they sat in a front section with dignitaries and special Catholic groups. As the pope passed, they sang “All Are Welcome,” a hymn symbolizing their desire for a more inclusive Church.

A list of participants released by the Vatican listed “a group of lay people accompanied by a sister” but did not mention that they were a gay rights organization.

“What this says is that there is movement in our Church, movement to welcome people from the outside closer to the inside,” Gramick said in St. Peter’s Square.

Okay. Some questions:

  • The Vatican only publicly identified this as “a group of lay people accompanied by a sister.” Did they know it was New Ways Ministry—an organization that Cardinal Francis George criticized five years ago, saying “”Like other groups that claim to be Catholic but deny central aspects of church teaching, New Ways Ministry has no approval or recognition from the Catholic Church and … cannot speak on behalf of the Catholic faithful in the United States.” Did the Vatican know which “group of lay people” it was dealing with?
  • Who is the U.S. bishop involved with this? He goes unnamed.
  • Who is the “top Vatican official”? He, also, is unnamed.
  • Getting a good seat for a General Audience is not exactly “VIP treatment.” Any pilgrimage group can do it. And again, getting a better-than-average seat is no guarantee that the Vatican knew just who was getting the seats.
  • Is this report even credible? The only source for this story is New Ways Ministry—which, of course, has an agenda to push. There is no confirmation, comment or additional context from the Vatican or an independent source.

We really need to know more about this.

Right now, color me skeptical.

UPDATE: An alert reader pointed me to a story that helps answer my questions. Religion News Service a few days ago had this item: 

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.

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.

UPDATE II: But wait. There’s more. From Catholic News Agency:

Vatican sources have cast doubt on reports of VIP treatment for New Ways Ministry, an American LGBT activist group that rejects Catholic teaching, at Pope Francis’ most recent general audience.

A source in the Prefecture for the Pontifical Household told CNA that “no requests are rejected” for the general audience seating in the so-called “reparto speciale,” which has a capacity of about 500 people.

While media reports said the group sat in a front section with dignitaries and special Catholic groups, this portrayal is questionable. The “reparto speciale” section of St. Peter’s Square is not considered part of VIP treatment. The seats are available on a “first come, first served basis,” and no chairs are specially reserved for a group of pilgrims.

Another Vatican source underscored that the press office knew nothing about the presence of the group at the general audience. He pointed out that “the group was treated as any other group of faithful in the square.”

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