The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York condemned the funeral of a transgender community leader that was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Thursday, calling the event an insult to the Catholic faith and saying it was unaware of the identity of the deceased — or her vocal atheism — when it agreed to host the service.
The funeral, which drew well over 1,000 people, celebrated the life of Cecilia Gentili, an activist and actress well known for her advocacy on behalf of sex workers, transgender people and people living with H.I.V. She was also a self-professed atheist, a topic around which she built a one-woman Off Broadway show.
The service on Thursday was an event that most likely had no precedent in Catholic history. The pews were packed with mourners, many of them transgender, who wore daring high-fashion outfits and cheered as eulogists led them in praying for transgender rights and access to gender-affirming health care.
One eulogy, a video clip of which was widely shared online Friday, remembered Ms. Gentili as “Saint Cecilia, the mother of all whores,” to the thunderous cheers of a nearly full cathedral.
Catholic liberals, including some parishioners at St. Patrick’s, said that regardless of how some mourners behaved, the church had done a good thing by hosting the funeral of a transgender person. But the response from conservatives was fiery.
CatholicVote, a conservative group, called the funeral “unbelievable and sick” and said it was “a mockery of the Christian faith.” The Rev. Nicholas Gregoris, a co-founder of the Priestly Society of Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman, called it “revolting,” a “blasphemous & sacrilegious fiasco” and “a deplorable desecration of America’s most famous Catholic Church.”
On Saturday, the archdiocese released a statement saying it shared the anger of conservative Catholics over what it called “the scandalous behavior” at Ms. Gentili’s funeral. The Rev. Enrique Salvo, the pastor of St. Patrick’s, said the church was not aware of Ms. Gentili’s background or beliefs when it agreed to host the service.
“The cathedral only knew that family and friends were requesting a funeral Mass for a Catholic, and had no idea our welcome and prayer would be degraded in such a sacrilegious and deceptive way,” the pastor said.
The funeral’s organizer, Ceyenne Doroshow, said on Thursday that Ms. Gentili’s family had kept her background “under wraps” because they feared the archdiocese would not host a funeral for a person it knew was transgender.
Ms. Doroshow said the family wanted Ms. Gentili’s funeral to be at St. Patrick’s because “it is an icon, just like her.”
On Saturday, the Gentili family was incensed by the church’s criticism and accused the archdiocese of “hypocrisy and anti-trans hatred” in a statement.
The family said the L.G.B.T.Q. community would continue to celebrate Ms. Gentili for how she “ministered, mothered and loved all people.”
“Her heart and hands reached those the sanctimonious church continues to belittle, oppress and chastise,” the family said. “The only deception present at St. Patrick’s Cathedral is that it claims to be a welcoming place for all.”
The day before the funeral, the archdiocese described the service as a routine event, even after it was informed by a reporter that Ms. Gentili was a transgender activist.
On Wednesday, a spokesman for the archdiocese, Joseph Zwilling, said that “a funeral is one of the corporal works of mercy,” a part of Catholic teaching the church has described as “a model for how we should treat all others, as if they were Christ in disguise.”
But on Saturday, Father Salvo said in the statement that the cathedral had held a special Mass of Reparation to atone for the funeral. Mr. Zwilling said the event happened that day.
“That such a scandal occurred at ‘America’s parish church’ makes it worse,” Father Salvo said, referring to the funeral. “That it took place as Lent was beginning, the annual 40-day struggle with the forces of sin and darkness, is a potent reminder of how much we need the prayer, reparation, repentance, grace and mercy to which this holy season invites us.”
“I used to go with my grandmother to the Baptist Church, and they didn’t want me there,” she said, adding: “I used to go to the Catholic Church, too, and both were such traumatic experiences for me as a queer person. So I came to identify as an atheist, but I know that so many trans people have been able to find a relationship with faith in spaces that include them.”
In March 2021, as stunned L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics grappled with a Vatican document approved by Pope Francis that ruled against blessing same-sex unions, one of his confidants, who is gay, says they spoke on the phone.
Juan Carlos Cruz, a sexual abuse survivor who had befriended the pope over years of conversations, says that Francis, who had just returned from Iraq, gave him the sense that the Vatican “machine” had gotten ahead of him in the ruling; it stated that God “cannot bless sin.”
But he says Francis “acknowledged that the buck stops with him. I got the impression that he wanted to fix it.”
The new rule allows priests to bless same-sex couples as long as the blessing is not connected to the ceremony of a same-sex union, to avoid confusion with the sacrament of marriage. While the declaration does not change church teaching that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered,” it is a concrete sign of acceptance for a portion of the faithful that the church has long castigated.
Now, as liberals celebrate and same-sex couples begin receiving public blessings, some are wondering why the pope delivered the groundbreaking rule now, more than a decade after he started his pontificate with a resoundingly inclusive message on gay issues. “Who am I to judge?” he famously said in 2013, when asked about a priest rumored to be gay.
People who have talked to him over the years and Vatican analysts say Francis’ thinking evolved through frequent private conversations with L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics and the priests and nuns who minister to them.
It was a long process, filled with fits and starts, but also the result of a gradual reorganization of the church by Francis, including the recent appointment to top jobs of like-minded churchmen who were amenable to the changes. The death last year of his conservative predecessor freed the pope’s hand, experts say, but they also believe that the overreach of Vatican antagonists — who sought to box Francis in — played a part, backfiring spectacularly.
“Like anyone, he learns from listening,” said Rev. James Martin, a prominent advocate for L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics, who has met frequently with Francis, a fellow Jesuit, and talked to him about the need to better recognize these members of the church.
Speaking this week, Father Martin would not divulge the content of those meetings over recent years, though he noted they had become “longer and longer.” During the most recent conversation in October, around the time of a major church assembly, he said that Francis “encouraged me, as he always does, to focus on the individual, to focus on the person, to focus on the pastoral needs.” The new document, he said, “is very much in line with that, that approach.”
Francis DeBernardo, the executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Maryland-based advocacy group for gay Catholics, said he also met with the pope in October and sensed a similar opening to a change. Among the others at the meeting, he said, was Sister Jeannine Gramick, an American nun who has ministered to L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics for a half century and was censured by Francis’ predecessors. Mr. DeBernardo said they met with Francis for 50 minutes and talked about blessings.
“Out of the blue, he said, ‘You know, what gets me most upset are priests who chastise people in the confessional, who reprimand them,’” Mr. DeBernardo recalled. It is that instinct, to emphasize pastoral welcoming over “giving litmus tests for orthodoxy,” that he sees as key to the new document.
The Vatican and the office responsible for the declaration did not reply to requests for comment about specific meetings or the decision-making process behind the document.
In his decade as pope, Francis has filled L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics with hope. He made a point to congratulate Sister Gramick and encourage her work. He met with and ministered to transgender Catholics himself and counseled gay couples on the upbringing of their children. He said homosexuality should not be criminalized and supported civil unions. And he recently made it clear that transgender people can be baptized, serve as godparents and be witnesses at church weddings.
But he also frequently confounded L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics with mixed messages, making it difficult to tell where Francis, for all his inclusive language, actually stood.
After the 2021 ruling against blessings, many of Francis’s liberal supporters note that he immediately sought to distance himself from it. They argue that it was rammed through without the pope’s understanding its full import or that he allowed it to go forward only under pressure from the doctrinal office, an explanation that top conservative cardinals mocked and that members of the office at the time said was simply not true.
Throughout, Francis kept talking to gay Catholics and their advocates, even as he had to weigh tensions on the left and the right that could affect the future of the church.
In Germany, where the church is liberal, priests have been blessing gay unions against Vatican orders, and bishops in Belgium have even published guidelines for blessings at same-sex ceremonies, something the new declaration prohibits. But in conservative African nations, where the church sees its future, opposition to gay rights and unions is fervent.
Already there have been some signs of revolt, with the conservative publication The Catholic Herald reporting that Archbishop Tomash Peta of Saint Mary in Astana, Kazakhstan, had sent a letter prohibiting his priests from performing blessings for same-sex couples, calling the declaration a “great deception.”
But as Francis has aged, and ailed, he seems to be in more of a hurry to finish remaking his church.
In January last year, he fired the doctrine office’s No. 2 official, Archbishop Giacomo Morandi, who was widely considered responsible for the 2021 document, sending him to a small Italian town. (Archbishop Morandi did not return a request for comment.) In July, the pope then reorganized the office, appointing a close adviser and fellow Argentine, Víctor Manuel Fernández, as its chief.
“Finally after 10 years of pontificate, Francis was able to appoint a cardinal that responds to his vision of the church,” said Mr. Politi.
Sandro Magister, another longtime Vatican expert who thinks that Francis’ unilateral decisions are undercutting his professed belief in a church governed by consensus, agreed that Cardinal Fernández was key, as was the death of the pope’s predecessor, Benedict XVI.
“After Benedict died, Francis has started to dare,” he said. Had Benedict remained alive, he added, Francis would never have made Cardinal Fernández watchdog of the church’s doctrine, a position Benedict held for more than 20 years.
Early in his tenure, Cardinal Fernández, loathed by conservatives, indicated that the question of gay blessings was likely to be examined again. It didn’t take long for conservatives to test him, and Francis.
Over the summer, Cardinal Raymond Burke — an American and the de facto leader of the opposition to the pope — and other conservatives sent a letter to Francis asking for a definitive answer on the blessings. The 2021 document seemed to give them a precedent, and an advantage.
Cardinal Fernández responded by publishing Francis’ private response. While the pope clearly upheld the church position that marriage could exist only between a man and a woman, he said that priests should exercise “pastoral charity” when it came to requests for blessings, a seeming reversal of the “cannot bless sin” ruling.
Francis seemed to have opened the door a crack. Then, this week, Cardinal Fernández burst through it.
In his introduction to the new rule, he cited the pope’s response to Cardinal Burke as a critical factor in the ruling. It provided, he wrote, “important clarifications for this reflection and represents a decisive element.”
In other words, the conservatives kept pushing for an answer, and they got one.
“Let us remain vigilant,” Pope Francis said Thursday in his traditional Christmas greetings to members of the Curia, the bureaucracy that runs the Vatican, “against rigid ideological positions that often, under the guise of good intentions, separate us from reality and prevent us from moving forward.”
The Catholic Church, in its doctrine, still rejects same-sex marriage and condemns any sexual relations between gay or lesbian partners as “intrinsically disordered.” Yet Pope Francis, during his nearly 11-year papacy, has done far more than any previous pope to make the church a more welcoming place for LGBTQ+ people.
It became clear early in Francis’ papacy that he was going to articulate a gentler, more tolerant approach. The initial high-profile moment came in 2013 — during the first broadcast news conference of his papacy — with his memorable “Who am I to judge” comment when he was asked about a purportedly gay priest.
Signals of this approach had come earlier. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he had favored granting legal protections to same-sex couples as an alternative to endorsing gay marriage, which Catholic doctrine forbids. The Vatican confirmed in 2020 that this was indeed the pope’s belief.
Some recent highlights:
In January 2023, Francis assailed the laws on the books in many countries that criminalize homosexuality and called for their elimination
In 2008, under Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican had declined to sign onto a U.N. declaration calling for an end to such laws.
Francis acknowledged that Catholic bishops in some regions support laws that criminalize homosexuality or discriminate against LGBTQ people. But he attributed such attitudes to cultural backgrounds, and said bishops need to recognize the dignity of everyone.
Another reversal came in late 2023, when the the Vatican made public a statement saying it’s permissible, under certain circumstances, for transgender people to be baptized as Catholics and serve as godparents.
The document was signed by Francis and Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, who heads the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.
If it did not cause scandal or “disorientation” among other Catholics, a transgender person “may receive baptism under the same conditions as other faithful,” the document said.
Similarly, the document said trans adults — even if they had undergone gender-transition surgery — could serve as godfathers or godmothers under certain conditions.
The new pronouncement reversed the absolute bans on transgender people serving as godparents issued by the Vatican doctrine office in 2015. Among the beneficiaries: a community of transgender women — many of them Latin American migrants who worked in Rome as prostitutes — who made monthly visits to Francis’ weekly general audiences and were given VIP seats.
The pope’s outreach to trans people contrasts with the stance of some conservative Catholic prelates. In the United States, several dioceses have targeted trans Catholics with restrictions and refusals to recognize their gender identity. Yet at the same time, a growing number of U.S. parishes have welcomed trans people.
The pope’s mixed record on LGBTQ+ issues was epitomized by the Vatican’s 2023 synod bringing together hundreds of bishops and lay people from around the world to confer on the future of the church. The advance agenda specified that LGBTQ+ issues would be discussed; one of Francis’ hand-picked delegates was the Rev. James Martin, a U.S.-based Jesuit priest who is one of the most prominent advocates of greater LGBTQ+ inclusion in the church.
Yet when the final summary of the three-week synod was released, there was not a single mention of LGBTQ+ people, reflecting the influence of Catholic conservatives who oppose Francis’ overtures to that community.
On Monday, the Vatican released a document in which Francis formally approved allowing priests to bless same-sex couples, stipulating that people seeking God’s love and mercy shouldn’t be subject to “an exhaustive moral analysis” to receive it.
The document elaborates on a letter Francis sent to two conservative cardinals that was published in October. In that preliminary response, Francis suggested such blessings could be offered under some circumstances if they didn’t confuse the ritual with the sacrament of marriage.
The new document repeats that condition and elaborates on it, reaffirming that marriage is a lifelong sacrament between a man and a woman. And it stresses that blessings in question must be non-liturgical in nature and should not be conferred at the same time as a civil union, using set rituals or even with the clothing and gestures that belong in a wedding.
Even with these conditions, it’s a marked change from 2021, when the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said flat-out that the church couldn’t bless the unions of two men or two women because “God cannot bless sin.”
The first Catholic bishop in Germany has called on his priests and pastoral staff to hold blessing ceremonies for same-sex and remarried couples. The West German Diocese of Speyer announced on Friday that these were “blessing celebrations for people who love each other.” Against… pic.twitter.com/Ct40oJFlfc
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaimed, “Judge not, lest you be judged.”
Early in his papacy, Pope Francis told journalists: ” “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
Citing those words, while expressing hope for future Synod on Synodality developments, a German bishop has officially asked his clergy to start performing rites blessing Catholics in same-sex relationships. He also included couples with secular divorces, as opposed to church annulments, who are then married outside the church.
“Both with regard to believers whose marriages have broken down and who have remarried, and especially with regard to same-sex oriented people, it is urgently time – especially against the background of a long history of deep hurt – for a different perspective,” wrote Bishop Karl-Heinz Wiesemann of the Diocese of Speyer (.pdf here), in a translation from the German posted by the Catholic Conclave weblog.<
The goal, he added, is "a pastoral attitude … as many of you have been practicing for a long time. That's why I campaigned for a reassessment of homosexuality in church teaching in the Synodal Path and also voted for the possibility of blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples. I stand by that."
The bishop stressed that new rites will not be "celebrating a sacrament, but rather about a blessing." This change in diocesan policy means that "no one who carries out such blessings has to fear sanctions."
Performing these blessings will require "empathy and discretion," wrote Wiesemann.
"It may be that the domestic setting (possibly also with the blessing of the shared apartment) is more suitable. … A blessing ceremony can also take place in the church," noted the bishop. "The celebration must differ in words and symbols from a church wedding and, as an act of blessing, should expressly reinforce the love, commitment and mutual responsibility that exists in the couple's relationship."
At the end of recent Vatican meetings, Synod on Synodality participants released a 40-page report that didn't mention changes on hot-button topics such as married priests, the ordination of women as deacons and a range of LGBTQ+ issues.
However, Bishop George Bätzing, president of the German bishops, noted signs of possible shifts in future synod sessions — even on "gender identity or sexual orientation" disputes that "raise new questions."
The head of Germany’s bishops, Bishop Georg Bätzing, said Sunday that the Synod on Synodality’s final text “is a big step for the universal Church” and that the wish of the synod to revise Catholic sexual ethics is an “enormous step forward.” He contended that an overwhelming… pic.twitter.com/kvCSJcOZUt
The global synod statement added: “Sometimes existing anthropological categories are not sufficient to grasp the complexity of what emerges from experience or from science, and therefore this calls for further investigation. We must take the necessary time for this reflection and devote the best of our energies to it, and not fall into simplistic judgments that hurt people or damage the body of the Church.”
Before this synod meeting, Pope Francis urged “pastoral charity” when considering same-sex blessings, adding that the “defense of objective truth” in ancient doctrines is not enough. “For this reason, pastoral prudence must adequately discern whether there are forms of blessing … that do not transmit a mistaken conception of marriage,” he wrote.
Now, Pope Francis has issued an apostolic letter – “Ad theologiam promovendam (to promote theology)” – seeking a “paradigm shift” to a “fundamentally contextual theology” that doesn’t settle for “abstractly re-proposing formulas and schemes from the past.”
This post-synod letter proclaimed: “Theology can only develop in a culture of dialogue and encounter between different traditions and different knowledge, between different Christian confessions and different religions, openly engaging with everyone, believers and nonbelievers.”
OCT 21 #Synod briefing: German Bishop Overbeck says: “We put Jesus Christ at the center of faith in a common quest without clinging to habits & traditionalisms which, if critically examined, have no priority in the hierarchy of truth, & this in the end is important to say.”👇1/4 pic.twitter.com/7HptSttJAU
Bishops in Germany and other rapidly shrinking European churches have, in recent years, openly pushed for the modernization of Catholic doctrines on sexuality. Last year, bishops in Belgium approved a text allowing rites blessing same-sex couples. And 93% of participants in German sessions preparing for the Vatican synod backed a document (.pdf here) approving “blessing celebrations for people who love each other.”
During a synod press conference, Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen – a diocese with 321 parishes in 2002, but only 40 parishes in 2022 – said that if church “theology, the magisterium, or tradition” continues to ignore the “signs of the times,” modern Germans will stop listening, including young Catholics.
Asked to clarify, Overbeck added: “We put Jesus Christ at the center of faith in a common quest without clinging to habits and traditionalisms which, if critically examined, have no priority in the hierarchy of truth.”
Dressed in purple and wielding lavender banners, dozens of women took to the cobblestone paths lining the Vatican to advocate for female ordination this past October. The organizing group — Women’s Ordination Conference — has become one of the largest organizations calling for the ordination of women and gender equality within the Roman Catholic Church. The WOC’s recent march took place during the Vatican’s Synod on Synodality, a month-long summit where members of the Catholic Church gather to discuss concerns facing the Church. Amongst the issues addressed, women’s role in the church emerged as one of the most contentious topics.
Female ordination has been banned within the Roman Catholic Church for centuries. The 1994 apostolic letter issued by Pope John Paul II further cemented the Church’s strong opposition to women joining the priesthood. Still, the topic has continued to be one of the most criticized stances taken by the Church. Although Pope Francis expressed that there is no “clear and authoritative doctrine” regarding the ordination of women, some members of the Church feel differently.
Proponents of female ordination often assert the fact that all 12 of Jesus’s Apostles were men as justification for prohibiting women from being ordained. Indeed, Jesus and his apostles were men, but this logic seems to blatantly ignore the fact that women also held leadership roles in early Christianity. In Colossians 4:15, Nympha is described as hosting a church in her home, similar to Apphia in Philemon 2. And in Romans 16:1, Paul commends Phoebe for being a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. To assert that women are unqualified to preach solely because of their gender is a myopic reading of the Bible that silences the stories of female biblical figures. Archival evidence further shows that women served as priests and even bishops from the second to sixth centuries, affirming their experience as preachers.
Still, picturing a woman dressed in an alb and chasuble can be difficult for some to imagine. One participant at the recent Synod explained he felt “violated” by the concept of female priests. The current sentiment regarding female ordination is partly attributed to the Church’s view on gender roles: that there is a clear distinction between men and women. Yet using this as reasoning to prevent female ordination is hypocritical. Under Gaudium et spes, discrimination, including gender discrimination, is called to be eliminated. Preventing women from being ordained because of their gender contradicts the Church’s own teaching.
Certain Catholic women have sought to pursue their dreams of priestly vocations despite the current policies in place. The Roman Catholic woman priest movement, consisting of over 200 women globally, takes part in unauthorized ordination practices to help women become priests. But it comes at significant risk: Women who become ordained can face hostility and be punished with excommunication from the Church.
The Catholic Church should look to embrace female ordination as opposed to fearing it. From a pragmatic standpoint, allowing women to be ordained could help remedy the ongoing priest shortage in the U.S. by filling vacant roles. It has also been consistently proven that having women in leadership roles helps to improve fairness and increase collaboration. As nuns, American women have shown great involvement in forwarding social justice initiatives too. Given that as of 2015, 59% of Catholic Americans believed that women should be allowed to be ordained, there is evident support behind this movement. While the Catholic Church has remained relatively fixed in its stance on female ordination, women in general have seen tremendous strides in autonomy within the past few centuries, from gaining voting rights to serving as CEOs in the workforce. But it’s time for the Catholic Church, an institution grounded in the belief of solidarity, to start demonstrating that virtue toward women.