Among the thousands of pilgrims flowing into Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families and the papal visit are 14 families.

Each of them has at least one member who is lesbian, gay, transgender, questioning/queer or intersex (LGBTQI). Organized by a group called Equally Blessed, they want to make visible relationships that are not on display at the World Meeting of Families. In doing so, they're coming up against one of the biggest debates in the modern Catholic Church.

'Who am I to judge?'

In 2013, Pope Francis made a remark at an inflight press conference. Responding to a reporter's question, he said, "Who am I to judge gay people seeking God with good will?" As a result, some seized on the phrase a harbinger of change in the church.

That hasn't happened.

"We've seen Pope Francis continue to work against same-sex marriage, to say it's a threat to the family, to say same-sex families shouldn't have or adopt children," said Marianne Duddy-Burke, a member of one of the 14 families and executive director of DignityUSA, a Catholic group that lobbies for LGBTQI inclusion.

Others say they simply don't exist under Catholicism. Nicole Santamaría, an intersex woman from El Salvador, has come to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families. Intersex is an umbrella term for someone who physically or genetically does not fall neatly into biological categories of man or woman.

Santamaría said the Catholic Church is silent on the matter of intersex people, and "not even the medical manuals have a very good approach to this human condition."

But as an intersex woman and activist in a country she described as very religious and "machista," she faced hate and discrimination. After a brutal attack in April -- not the first -- Santamaría fled to the United States.

"The point of having the Lord's love in our life is to create the space for people to be" themselves, she said. For Santamaría, exclusion from the Catholic church -- which views gender as innate and male and female roles as designed for procreation -- is not just a form of psychic alienation.

"If people believe that they have the Lord's right to attack you, they are going to attack you and they are going to be celebrated," she said.

 

Nicole Santamaria

Nicole Santamaría, an intersex woman who traveled from El Salvador to attend the World Meeting of Families, is greeted at 30th Street Station by Sister Jeannine Gramick of Equally Blessed. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The pastoral vs. the doctrinal

In 1986, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger sent a letter to bishops, calling any same-sex attraction an inclination toward "intrinsic moral evil." But the man who would become Pope Benedict XVI also condemned violence against gay people and called for their spiritual care.

"In some ways, that's the whole struggle of the church: the pastoral and the dogmatic," said Duddy-Burke.

In other words, which takes precedence: to minister to a person first or to enforce the letter of Catholic law?

Some more traditional Catholic groups don't necessarily see a tension between the two. Rick Henshaw, director of communications for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a group that has railed against LGBTQI Catholic groups, said no one is excluded from the faith -- but that doesn't mean anything goes.

"There's a difference between trying and struggling ... to live according to church teachings and rejecting the teachings of the church and saying that the church should become something that it is not," according to Henshaw.

Henshaw also downplayed any impact the pontiff's sometimes inclusive tone might have on actual church teaching -- something more conservative Catholics are worried about as well.

"The fundamental teachings of the church are not open for debate," he said. "The correct read is that the Holy Father is upholding the teachings of the church while he is highlighting certain parts of those teachings."

'The church who accepts me doesn't need me'

The triennial international Catholic convention, the World Meeting of Families, has only one panel on gay issues in the church, led by mother and son Beverly and Ron Belgau.

Ron Belgau, who is a doctoral candidate at St. Louis University, has received accolades in the Catholic Church for an essay he wrote on choosing to live as a celibate Catholic. Since Belgau is gay -- "same-sex attracted" as it is sometimes clinically called in a Catholic setting -- official church doctrine says he can never have sex or get married. Instead, he promotes friendship as a means to spiritual fulfillment.

While Belgau and other Catholics held up for their adherence to church teaching talk about acceptance of LGBTQI faithful, in practice many feel excluded.

"I've been at a funeral and heard the priest say if you're a homosexual, don't come to Communion," said Duddy-Burke.

Pilgrim Lui Francesco Matsuo, a trans man living in Detroit, left his diocese after an incident where a the bishop advocated "praying the gay away."

According to a 2015 report from the Pew Research Center, about four in 10 people raised Catholic in the United States leave the church. But while many leave, some LGBTQI Catholics are emboldened to stay. They work on the fringes, ministering to those people who want to straddle two -- not always complementary -- identities.

Matsuo, who converted to Catholicism after being raised in a conservative Buddhist household, wants to be a role model for trans youth in the church.

"The church who accepts me doesn't need me," he said.

Others who were raised in the church feel someone else's definition of Catholic can't strip away their identity.

"I was born a Catholic. I was raised a Catholic, and it's my church," said Michael Rocks, the head of the local chapter of DignityUSA. "I'm not going to be put out of my church."

DignityUSA, which has been around for more than 40 years, offers a parallel ministry to the traditional Catholic churches; the Philadelphia church offers a Sunday night Mass. It's held in an Episcopal church because the group has never had permission to practice in a Catholic one.

Rocks said he's leaving any advocacy to the national groups that have shown up.

"After this is all done and the pope is gone and everybody else is done, we're still a community of gay and lesbian Catholics here in Philadelphia ... meeting the spiritual and religious needs of our congregation."