The World Meeting of Families, the central religious event of Pope Francis' first visit to the United States, is intended to convey a message of love and joy as it seeks to promote church teaching on marriage. Yet four weeks away from its opening in Philadelphia, friction is mounting as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Roman Catholics lobby for a broader role in the event and organizers move to limit them.
The tensions surrounding the gathering will pose a real-world test of the pope's approach that emphasizes compassion and welcome while upholding Catholic doctrine that marriage is only between a man and a woman.
The only speakers specifically addressing LGBT issues at the Sept. 22-27 conference are a celibate gay man and his mother. Gays and lesbians can attend the meeting as individuals, but groups supporting gay marriage were denied exhibit space and other official options for presenting their views.
"We don't want to provide a platform at the meeting for people to lobby for positions contrary to the life of our church," said Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, the meeting's host.
Francis DeBernardo of New Ways Ministry, an advocacy group for LGBT Catholics, said Chaput and other U.S. bishops "are putting their heads in the sand."
"They see LGBT issues as a problem to contain rather than to explore," DeBernardo said. "The entire Catholic community in the U.S. is having a discussion on this now. Why can't the World Meeting of Families?"
To counter the official message, New Ways Ministry and several allied groups have scheduled various programs — including a workshop on gender identity — to coincide with the Meeting of Families. The initial plan called for the programs to be held at a Catholic church in Philadelphia, but the LGBT groups said the church's pastor rescinded the invitation at the urging of Chaput's office. The LGBT groups said the events will be relocated to a nearby Methodist church.
Another area of contention is the status of openly gay employees at Catholic institutions in the U.S. Dozens of people have reported losing their jobs at such workplaces since 2010 over their same-sex relationships or support for gay marriage and gay rights, including Margie Winters, a married gay teacher dismissed in June by a Catholic school in Philadelphia.
The World Meeting of Families is a triennial Vatican-backed event, held seven times previously starting in 1994 with the goal of strengthening marriage and families. The Philadelphia meeting will be the first in the United States.
The U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Kenneth Hackett, noting in an interview with The Associated Press that gay marriage is now "the law of our land," said: "How the pope will deal with that, I think it might be one of the issues of nontraditional marriage that he speaks about or he alludes to."
He cited Francis' views on "marriage situations where people are under stress" — because of divorce, or violence in the family, or where single parents are raising children. "So if we look at what he has said in so many previous occasions about extending the generosity and mercy of the church to these different situations, that's where I think he'll come down," Hackett said.
More than two years into his papacy, Francis has disappointed some conservative American Catholics by not speaking about church teaching on marriage as frequently as his predecessors. Instead, he has emphasized compassion over defending the church on divisive social issues as he tries to bring back Catholics who have left the fold.
In 2013, he seemed to extend that attitude to gays when he responded to a question about a purportedly gay priest by saying, "If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?" However, Francis has also affirmed that same-sex relationships and marriages are contrary to church teaching.
Still, nearly 4 in 10 Catholics surveyed by the Public Religion Research Institute and Religion News Service mistakenly believe Francis supports allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally. The survey of 1,331 U.S. adults, released Tuesday, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.
While in Philadelphia, the pope is scheduled to visit an outdoor Festival of Families on Sept. 26 and celebrate Mass the next day at the conclusion of the Meeting of Families.
Among the more than 15,000 Catholics registered for the meeting are 22 people representing LGBT families on behalf of a coalition called Equally Blessed. Though no official speakers will convey their viewpoints, they hope to engage in conversations with other attendees.
Among them is Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of the LGBT Catholic group Dignity USA. She'll attend with her wife and two daughters.
"We want to be a visible presence, with the message that LGBT families are part of the church," said Duddy-Burke. "I would expect most people who are coming have LGBT family members ... Most of them are going to recognize that what the church teaches is harmful."
The Equally Blessed contingent also includes Delfin Bautista, a transgender activist who runs the LGBT Center at Ohio University, and Bautista's husband, Jason Hernandez, and Bautista's 64-year-old mother, Rebeca del Cristo. Formerly disapproving of homosexuality, she's now active in gay-rights causes and wears a rainbow pin to Mass in Miami.
Bautista, who was sent as a youth to reparative therapy that aims to change sexual orientation, hopes the family can sway attitudes at the Philadelphia meeting simply by telling their story.
"We are just as Catholic and just as much a family as any other family," Bautista said.
Among the conservative Catholic groups that have been allocated exhibit space at the meeting is Courage International, which describes its core mission as trying to help people with same-sex attractions lead chaste lives.
Courage has come under criticism from gay-rights activists for supporting the option of reparative therapy for gays and lesbians. The Rev. Philip Bochanski, the group's associate director, said Courage does not advocate such therapy but respects the right of individuals to pursue it if they feel it's appropriate
Of the more than 70 speeches and presentations on the official Meeting of Families schedule, only one explicitly addresses gay and lesbian issues. It's a joint presentation by a celibate gay Catholic, Ron Belgau, and his mother, Beverly Belgau, addressing how Catholic families can respond when a family member comes out as gay.
Ron Belgau, who teaches at St. Louis University while pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy, is co-founder of a blog called Spiritual Friendship that seeks to promote celibacy as an admirable option for gay Christians.
Belgau said he believes a majority of U.S. Catholics now support same-sex marriage, which became legal in all 50 states under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June.
He doesn't expect the church to change its teaching, but suggests there might be ways to make gay couples feel more welcome — comparable to engagement in the church by many Catholics who use birth control or have been divorced.
"I've always thought the Catholic Church should be as welcoming as it can be to people, even if they're not fully following the church's teaching," Belgau said.
Another speaker will be Douglas Farrow, a professor of Christian thought at McGill University in Montreal. He has written extensively about what he perceives as the harmful consequences of legalizing same-sex marriage, and says the Catholic Church needs to remain firm, but not antagonistic, in promoting its vision of heterosexual marriage.
"Of course there is room for improvement in the way the church responds to its people," Farrow said. "The church in America needs to be more thoroughly comfortable in its own theological skin ... in order to be more comfortable in these conversations that are so fraught about what marriage is."
Ken Gavin, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, expressed hope that differences on LGBT issues would not spark animosity.
"It is very much possible to show Christian charity and love for all even if you disagree with their point of view," he said in an email.