September 23, 2015 at 2:07 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Pope calls for ‘tolerant and inclusive’ society
Pope Francis II appears with President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama (Blade photo by Michael Key).

Pope Francis II appears with President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Pope Francis II called for a “tolerant and inclusive” society on Wednesday during remarks on his first-ever trip to the United States.

On a cool autumn morning, Francis called for an inclusive society and rejected discrimination as he addressed an estimated 11,000 attendees at a welcoming ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House.

“Together with their fellow citizens, American Catholics are committed to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive, to safeguarding the rights of individuals and communities, and to rejecting every form of unjust discrimination,” Francis said.

But Francis tempered his call for inclusion by noting Catholics are concerned the efforts to build an orderly society “respect their deepest concerns and the right to religious liberty.”

“That freedom reminds one of America’s most precious possessions,” Francis added. “And, as my brothers, the United States Bishops, have reminded us, all are called to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.”

Although Francis never explicitly mentioned LGBT issues in his address, his call for inclusion is consistent with his reputation for espousing more moderate views on LGBT rights. Although the Catholic Church remains opposed to same-sex marriage, Francis in a widely publicized interview said of gay priests, “Who am I to judge?”

The pope addressed other issues more explicitly. As immigration remains a hot topic in American politics and Republican presidential candidates have embraced extreme positions on the issue, Francis began his speech by noting his own immigration status in his country.

“As a son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families,” Francis said.

Francis also during his speech discussed efforts to address climate change and the opening of relations between the United States and Cuba.

In a speech welcoming Francis, President Obama touted the positive impact of the Catholic Church around the world as well as his unique qualities as pope.

“You remind us that in the eyes of God our measure as individuals, and our measure as a society, is not determined by wealth or power or station or celebrity, but by how well we hew to scripture’s call to lift up the poor and the marginalized to stand up for justice and against inequality, and to ensure that every human being is able to live in dignity because we are all made in the image of God,” Obama said.

In the meeting that followed between Obama and Francis in the Oval Office, the president presented the pope with a dove sculpture that incorporates an original armature bar from the Statue of Liberty and a key from the Maryland home of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born American to be declared a saint.

The South Lawn was packed with the 11,000 attendees who waved miniature American flags and flags of Vatican City. Many of the male attendees were dressed in suits and ties as women were in their Sunday best for the occasion.

Some of the high-profile LGBT attendees included Rev. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop; gay Catholic blogger Aaron Ledesma; and Margie Winter, a Philadelphia-area teacher fired from a Catholic school in 2007 over her same-sex marriage.

Although the Obama administration was criticized for inviting LGBT activists to the ceremony by an anonymous Vatican official in a Wall Street Journal article (a report later disputed by Vatican adviser Father Thomas Rosica) and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, the White House has shrugged off the criticism.

After the ceremony, Ledesma told the Blade “it was an honor” to take part in the ceremony along with other members of the LGBT community.

“Pope Francis’ speech was powerful,” Ledesma said. “He talked about respecting all individuals and the marginalized. He said we are called to show compassion and fight against injustice and discrimination. He’s leading with inclusion. Pope Francis is the Pope of Inclusion.”

Robinson said he welcomed the pope’s remarks on marginalized people, but maintained the Catholic Church has “a long way to go of putting LGBT people into that category.”

“I certainly didn’t expect him to speak about that at all, but it’s hard to imagine this pope, given his understanding and views about other things, not making that journey,” Robinson said.

Among the things Francis could do, Robinson said, is making sure LGBT Dignity chapters are invited to meet in Catholic parishes where they have been banned, national care of LGBT people — and potentially an evolution on same-sex marriage.

“I think there are forces against him making these kinds of changes, and so it’ll take a while, and hopefully he will have a while,” Robinson said.


Onlookers waive flags as Pope Francis II visits the White House. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Onlookers waive flags as Pope Francis II visits the White House. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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