When the Dominican Republic's Roman Catholic Cardinal Nicolas de Jesus Lopez Rodriguez called President Barack Obama's openly-gay U.S. ambassador nominee to the island nation a "maricon,” or "f----t," it raised eyebrows across the world — for different reasons.
Perhaps a generation ago, the Cardinal's comment would not have created much controversy in the country’s press, the government or the people.
Today, it’s a different story.
The nomination of James "Wally” Brewster as U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic pitted religious leaders against the Dominican public in a moment that has grown much more tolerant to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
The cultural shift has also shown the decreasing political power of the Catholic Church in a country founded on its principles. It wasn’t unheard of in the past for top leaders to consult with the Church before making key policy decisions.
"People move faster than institutions," said sociologist Ramona Hernández, director of the Dominican Studies Institute at the City University of New York. "This is what is wrong with the Church today — it's not catching up with the people."
The Dominican people are speaking and are showing signs that they are in lockstep with the majority of Latino Catholics in the United States, who are increasingly in favor of gay rights.
An informal poll by Dominican newspaper Hoy showed 60 percent of respondents were against the Catholic Church's criticism of Brewster. Another poll conducted by Pulso Dominicano showed that 57 percent believe the Dominican government should protect and provide more opportunity for gays to hold public office.
Since the country’s founding by way of discovery in 1492 by explorer Christopher Columbus, the Catholic Church in the Dominican Republic has been a leading societal voice. Roman Catholic weddings are the only religious marriage ceremonies the government legally recognizes, for example, and as late as 1999, members of the National Police were required to attend Mass weekly.
But a closer look at the numbers, and backlash from the Brewster gay controversy, shows the country is more religiously diverse than it appears. According to the U.S. State Department, 68 percent of Dominicans are Catholic. As with U.S. Latinos and elsewhere in Latin America, the Protestant movement is growing, partly by winning over Catholic converts. Evangelical churches in the country have grown from claiming 11 percent of the country’s religious followers in 2000 to as high as 20 percent as of last year.
"People don't attend church as often and when you look at the rate of marriages in the Dominican Republic, a sacred value of the Church, it is one of the lowest in Latin America,” said Hernandez, of the Dominican Studies Institute.
Signs of a changing public aside, the bond between the Dominican government and the Catholic Church has always been close — even during the ruthless dictatorship of former President Rafael Trujillo. The Church spiritually supported him for sometime in exchange for certain benefits like schools, rectories, convents and stipends for clergy.
But regarding Brewster, the government — unlike the Church — has actually shown restraint, and did not publicly condemn his nomination. In fact, the government is already considering the matter a done deal.
In a statement, the Dominican embassy in Washington said that Brewster "has already been accepted by the Dominican Republic as the next United States Ambassador to the country" and that "it is the position of the Government of the Dominican Republic that a person's sexual preference is strictly a personal matter."
The public's reaction to the controversy has brought hope to some that a significant cultural change in terms of LGBT issues in the island could be in the offing soon.
"What surprises me is that they’re getting push back from the Dominican people," said Andres Duque, Blogger on LGBT issues, referring to religious leaders denouncing Brewster's nomination. "Generally, the Dominican Republic reflects the sentiment of the Caribbean towards gay people, but culturally and socially there have been a lot of advances in the past 10 years for the LGBT community in the DR."
As Evangelicals continue to make inroads in the Dominican Republic, a bold move by the Catholic Church on a more moderate tone on gay rights could pay dividends as to the future of the faith's influence in the island.
"The Church in the Dominican Republic will move and evolve," said Hernandez. "You cannot have an institution that does not have people."