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US Trolls Vatican With Pride Flag

Yes, it's insulting. But given how Church institutions have acted, especially under Pope Francis, is it surprising?
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Let me be clear: I think this was an outrageous insult to the Catholic Church, and it makes me embarrassed to be an American. That said, I suggested on Twitter that this might be less of an intended offense than it seems to conservatives like me, given how much pro-LGBT sensibility one sees among many Catholic institutions and figures. This statement ticked off some of my conservative Catholic friends, who seem to have read it as some kind of defense of the Embassy’s gesture.

It wasn’t that at all. Rather, it was an acknowledgement, from someone outside the Catholic Church (me), that the perception of what the Catholic position in on LGBT matters has changed a great deal. After all, consider that the State Department is part of the administration of Joe Biden, a regular massgoing man often described as a “devout Catholic” in the media. As vice president, he performed a civil marriage for two gay employees. During the Democratic primary campaign, he tweeted this:

Has there been any notable rebuke of him for any of this by the Archbishop of Washington, his ordinary? Any sustained criticism of him on this front by the US bishops? Maybe there was, and I just missed it. If I missed it, I doubt that I’m alone.

Years ago, when Pope Francis made his famous “who am I to judge?” comment about gays in his papal press conference, I received an angry e-mail from a reader in Tennessee, who taught moral theology at a Catholic school. He told me that he had been fighting hard against the popular culture to instruct his students in what the Church teaches about human sexuality, including homosexuality, against the powerful consensus of American culture. In a stroke, Francis destroyed all his work. His students were telling him that he was wrong, that the Pope says it’s fine.

In fact, what the Pope said was more nuanced than that, but the damage was done. This was one result:

The most visible Catholic gay rights campaigner is Father James Martin, SJ. He has been criticized by some orthodox Catholics, but his ministry thrives, and he was even named by the Pope as a special adviser. Father Martin is often in the national media advocating for LGBT rights, as a priest. This is not the fault of the Catholic institution, which has no control over who the media wish to spotlight. (And it’s obvious how useful it is to the liberal media to bring on a Catholic priest to advocate for liberal causes.) Still, from the point of view of the average Catholic, to say nothing of the majority of Americans outside the Catholic Church, the fact that Father Martin has been doing this (and doing it very appealingly) for years without effective rebuke sends a signal that the Church’s position is evolving.

I mentioned on Twitter that a few years ago, I visited the campus of the University of Notre Dame, and was shocked to see large rainbow Pride banners hanging from the front of the student center. From a branding perspective, Notre Dame is American Catholicism. And there it was, celebrating LGBT Pride, on a central campus building. What kind of message does that send to students? What kind of message does that send to campus visitors?

In 2017, a Francis-created cardinal did this:

 The word “pilgrimage” usually evokes visions of far-off, exotic places, but for some 100 gay and lesbian Catholics and their families, a pilgrimage to the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart here on a recent Sunday was more like a homecoming.

The doors to the cathedral were opened to them, and they were welcomed personally by the leader of the Archdiocese of Newark, Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin. They were seated on folding chairs at the cathedral’s center, in front of the altar in the towering sanctuary, under the blue-tinted glow of stained glass.

“I am Joseph, your brother,” Cardinal Tobin told the group, which included lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics from around New York and the five dioceses in New Jersey. “I am your brother, as a disciple of Jesus. I am your brother, as a sinner who finds mercy with the Lord.”

The welcoming of a group of openly gay people to Mass by a leader of Cardinal Tobin’s standing in the Roman Catholic Church in this country would have been unthinkable even five years ago. But Cardinal Tobin, whom Pope Francis appointed to Newark last year, is among a small but growing group of bishops changing how the American church relates to its gay members. They are seeking to be more inclusive and signaling to subordinate priests that they should do the same.

Again, I say: it should not surprise Catholics if other Catholics, and non-Catholics, assume that what was once forbidden (and still is forbidden in Catholic teaching) is now allowed. In 2019, 61 percent of Catholics supported gay marriage. Look at these Pew numbers from 2014; there is no reason at all to assume that in the last six years, they have moved in a conservative way:


There’s a principle in law that says if a company refuses to protect its brand over time, it will lose the legal right to that brand. That’s why if you use the word “Dumpster” as a common noun, you might hear from the legal department at the Dumpster company telling you to stop. It’s important that they act to protect their brand, or it will be dissolved into popular usage. The same principle (though not legally) is at work here, for the Catholic Church. It will be interesting to see if the Vatican files a formal diplomatic protest against the US for the Embassy flag. If not, what conclusion should one draw?

This, by the way, is not just a problem for the Catholic Church. I was talking to an Orthodox priest not long ago about gender ideology, and suggested that Orthodox parishes needed to step up education of parents and children about what the Church teaches about the meaning of maleness and femaleness, and so forth. Kids are being bombarded with trans messaging in schools and in popular culture, and parents are confused. The priest said no, that we Orthodox need to keep the culture war out of our churches.

This is incredibly naive. The anti-Christian culture knows well what it believes, and is not shy about promoting it. It has an immensely powerful propaganda machine, one that never stops. Perhaps the only place where children and families will receive a countercultural message is in church, and in church institutions. If clerics and lay leaders are willing to rest on the assumption that simply stating official church teaching is sufficient, they are going to be steamrollered.

Neuhaus’s Law holds that wherever orthodoxy is optional, it will eventually be proscribed. We are seeing right now at Baylor University, the Texas Baptist institution, this at work. The school is finally granting some legitimacy to an LGBT student group. Within a decade, maybe a decade and a half, I predict that student groups on that campus who espouse the Biblical teaching about homosexuality will be fighting for their existence as LGBT advocates say the campus must be protected from “hate.”

The bottom line is that I agree with what the Catholic Church teaches about LGBT, and I wish she would defend herself. I believe that the US diplomatic gesture was likely a provocation; the State Department is doing the same thing in Central and Eastern European countries, where LGBT rights are more contested. But I also think that a reasonable person, looking at the Catholic Church from the outside in 2021, after years of this pontificate, would conclude that the Catholic Church is much more accepting of LGBT claims than it used to be. Again, I remind you that the Catholic president of the US, a man who civilly married a gay couple, and who has called transgender rights “the civil rights issue of our time,” is the chief executive overseeing the State Department. I would be willing to be money that in a poll, most US Catholics would either support the Vatican embassy Pride flag, or would see no problem with it.

One last thing: according to this report, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that US embassies may fly the Pride flag during June, but that it is not required. He also advised not doing it in countries where it might cause offense. This would appear to have been a decision made within the US Vatican outpost. Again, it will be interesting to see whether or not the Vatican protests.

And by the way, in case you were wondering if the US Embassy to the Holy See was having second thoughts about its stance in the wake of social media reaction, here’s its latest tweet:

They’re trolling the Vatican. I hope they don’t get away with it. But if they do, that will send a powerful signal, and not a good one.

UPDATE: A reader writes:

I followed your coverage of the recent dustup over the flying of the rainbow Pride Flag at the US Embassy to the Holy See. Lost amid the strong passions on both sides of this issue is the fact that this particular embassy is in the middle of an affluent, politically progressive, and usually touristy part of Rome near the Spanish Steps. It is not even on the same side of the Tiber as the actual Holy See HQ in and around St. Peter’s Square. The flag would be very out of place indeed were it actually on the grounds of the papal micro-state, but it is not. A charitable reading of the flag display is that this embassy, unlike other embassies, must live on good terms with two groups – the Holy See and the host nation of Italy itself. Gay pride in an affluent, secular Roman neighborhood (such as near Via Sallustiana, site of the embassy building) is about as controversial as it would be on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I don’t think that this completely annihilates all complaints and I would personally prefer to see all embassies fly no flag other than the actual US flag, but perhaps it can get everybody a little bit calmed down.

I appreciate the point, but would people of the neighborhood where the Embassy sits really have complained if no Pride flag had flown? And even if they had, the US Embassy had better be more concerned with what its “host country” (in this case, the Holy See) thinks about it than its neighbors in that Roman neighborhood.

Another reader writes:

I’m an American living in South Korea. I understand your point about the rainbow flag outside the embassy in the Holy See and just wanted to offer a bit of context. Back around 2018 or 2019, the US embassy in Seoul (and other posts, I assume) had apparently wanted to fly the rainbow flag underneath the US flag on the main flagpole, and Mike Pence said “no (somehow it was apparently Pence’s call, I’m not really sure how that worked). So they flew it prominently on the outer facade of the embassy. Naturally it pissed a lot of people off here, and I think a Christian group even complained officially. Meanwhile I remember seeing pictures of Ambassador Harry Harris – a Trump appointee – attending some sort of Pride events in Seoul or something.
My point is that this goes well beyond the Vatican and it isn’t just a Biden thing. Again, I can only speak for Seoul, but I’ll bet if you look at postings from the month of June on US diplomatic missions’ social media pages you might find some similar images even from the Trump era.
Just to bring you up to speed, although the Holy See embassy may not have done it last year or the year before.