What to Make of the Pope Francis-Kim Davis Meeting?

This story appears in the Francis in the United States feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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Yesterday, when news broke about the meeting between Pope Francis and Kim Davis, I received more emails and phone calls, all of them agitated, than during any day of this papacy. People leapt to conclusions about what this meant, and what the pope meant by having this meeting, and unless they have the pope on speed dial, I am not sure how they divined the significance of the meeting so quickly and authoritatively.

Before the news of the meeting leaked, we knew some things, and knew them with certainty, because the evidence was before our eyes. Pope Francis is in favor of recognizing conscientious objection as a fundamental human right. How do we know this? Because he said so on the plane during the press conference flying back to Rome. Pope Francis is not in favor of same-sex marriage. How do we know this? Because Catholic theology holds that procreation is one of the two ends of marriage and while same-sex marriages can be fabulous, they can’t be fecund. Pope Francis is concerned about the preservation of religious liberty, here in the U.S. and around the world. How do we know this? Because he said so in his remarks at the White House, at the Congress, at Independence Hall and with a visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor, whose Denver branch is engaged in the fight against the HHS contraception mandate. Pope Francis is not much of a fan of the culture wars, as made evident in his speech to the U.S. bishops at St. Matthew’s Cathedral and his speech to the clergy and religious at the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul. And, Pope Francis is a large-hearted, non-judgmental soul as he has repeatedly made clear in many of his official and non-official statements.

One other thing was clear about the papal trip: Many, many people were trying to glom on to the pope and his message any which way they could and manipulate him and his message for their own ends. Regrettably, the pope is now being made into a hot potato in the very culture wars he so obviously wishes to avoid. This was a thoroughly foreseeable consequence of the meeting with Ms. Davis which is why the pope was ill served by whoever arranged this meeting.

In this morning’s Washington Post, my friend Austen Ivereigh, who wrote a great biography of the pope, states that, “I think the pope didn’t want to get into the specifics of the case. He wanted only to show support for religious freedom and the right of conscientious objection.” The problem with this interpretation is obvious: If the pope wanted to show support for the right of conscientious objection, it would have been better to have him meet with a conscientious objector. Davis lost her right to consider herself a conscientious objector when she forbade other people from issuing the marriage licenses she did not wish to issue herself. Davis was not jailed for practicing her religion. She was jailed for forcing others to practice her religion. She is not even a cake baker or florist in a private business, people whose claims I find suspect but which the U.S. bishops support. She is a public official with a sworn duty. If she cannot carry out that duty, she should seek a work-around or an accommodation, which is what she ended up accepting, or she could have done what a real person of conscience would do: quit.

Over at Crux, my friend and former colleague John Allen was even more sweeping in his interpretation. After noting his caveats against over-interpreting the meeting, Allen over-interpreted the meeting, writing: “That said, there’s no way to view the encounter other than as a broad gesture of support by the pope for conscientious objection from gay marriage laws, especially taken in tandem with his statement aboard the papal plane that following one’s conscience in such a situation is a ‘human right’ -- one, he insisted, that also belongs to government officials.” Again, one does not indicate support for conscientious objection by meeting with someone who is not a conscientious objector. There is a reason our friends at the Becket Fund, who are no slouches when it comes to being vigilant about religious liberty, have steered clear of Ms. Davis’ case: She epitomizes what Becket and the bishops are fighting against, government officials using their office to enforce their moral views on others with no allowance for those with different views.

So, in response to Ivereigh and Allen, let me offer an alternative theory of how the meeting happened and what it means: Somebody messed up. A source at the bishops’ conference told me on background that the meeting happened “against the advice of the bishops’ conference.” Other reports in both the Washington Post and the New York Times agree that the meeting was arranged by a “Vatican official.” Seeing as the meeting happened at the nunciature in Washington, it could only have happened with the approval and participation of the nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano. Perhaps he did not understand how Davis’ case was not really an instance of conscientious objection. Perhaps, he felt sorry for her, as I did, because sending that poor woman to jail was overkill by the judge. Perhaps he did not see how the news of this meeting would trample on the pope’s message and begin to drown out everything else the pope said or did during his six days here. Of course, it is a nuncio’s job to know such things and, most especially, not to put his boss in a compromising position. If the president visits a foreign country, and the ambassador, against the advice of the State Department, nonetheless introduces the president to someone who causes a controversy that reflects badly on the president, that mistake is laid at the feet of the ambassador, not the president. If this meeting was all the nuncio’s doing then he should, in conscience, quit too.

As for what it means, here is my hunch: The pope knew about Davis what the person introducing them told him about her. If she was introduced as someone who went to jail because of her commitment to traditional marriage, then I do not find it surprising that the pope embraced her and wished her well. The pope met many, many people during his trip and as the ever-quotable Fr. James Martin S.J. pointed out, “Not to put too fine a point on it, but Pope Francis met with Mark Wahlberg, and that does not mean he liked ‘Ted’.” Watching the video of the interaction on the plane between Terry Moran and Pope Francis, it did not appear that the pope was connecting Moran’s question with any meeting he had four days prior. And, Moran’s question was also poorly framed, premised on the false assumption that Davis’ case is a case of conscientious objection.

We know something else. This story is now in the hands of Davis and the Falwell empire, neither of which have much knowledge of, nor institutional loyalty to, the Catholic church. Until the Vatican or the bishops’ conference gets out front of this story, Davis and her evangelical lawyers will be the only ones explaining what happened and what it meant. The Vatican’s “no comment” is woefully insufficient. The headlines yesterday morning almost all had the words “secret meeting” and surely at the Vatican they know that people are attracted to secrets. This story will not go away. Various news accounts have people calling the pope “a liar” and “a coward.” That is not a good thing if you are tasked with press operation for the pope. Someone needs to say something or we will only know what Davis and her lawyers want us to know. The rest will be speculation, endless speculation. Non-stop speculation. If the pope was badly served by his staff, let that be known. If the pope was badly served by himself, let that be known. But, neither the bishops nor the Vatican can afford to let this fester another minute.

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