After going to jail for six days rather than issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis has become perhaps the most controversial icon in the debate over about what constitutes religious freedom. That’s why news that Davis, an Apostolic Christian, had a private audience with Pope Francis last week during his trip to Washington has set off furious analysis about just what message the super-popular pontiff might have been trying to send.
It was particularly disturbing for Francis’ more progressive fans, who saw the meeting as a slap to LGBT people from the who-am-I-to-judge pope. Yet as differing perspectives about what Francis knew of Davis and how the meeting came together surfaced, it seemed most people people weren’t quick to judge him, either.
The meeting only became public late Tuesday, when Davis’s attorney was quoted as saying it had happened. The Rev. Manuel Dorantes, a Vatican spokesman, on Wednesday said this: “I do not deny that the meeting took place, but I have no comments to add.”
The pope was politically deft during his trip to this polarized country, delving into hot-button issues like immigration, climate change and even religious freedom, but speaking broadly, inclusively and — for the most part — without specifics. If he talked about religious freedom, he linked it to non-discrimination. If he talked about challenges to marriage, he widened the lens to include issues like unemployment and low wages.
“One narrative here a lot of us in the run-up were stressing is that this is a pastoral trip, the pope wasn’t inserting himself in U.S. politics, but he’s also a politically savvy person too,” said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, director of the Cushwa Center for the study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. “I was surprised about how much he knew about the American context, whether it was history or whatever. This is a man who did his homework.”
Even as news of the meeting with Davis exploded on social media, veteran pope-watchers weren’t immune from disagreements about what Francis really meant. They noted that popes meet with dozens of people privately during such visits, and cautioned against reading too much into it.
Austen Ivereigh, a prominent Francis biographer, said he found it telling that Davis remained quiet about the meeting until after the pope left, and that the Vatican won’t give details about it – unlike a separate meeting Francis held with the nuns who are engaged in a religious liberty case.
“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,” said Ivereigh. “It was a deft political move designed to express support but at the same time avoid a media circus. I wouldn’t read too much into his meeting her in terms of the details of her case.”
Ivereigh, who wrote extensively about Francis’ years in Argentina, calls him a “shrewd political operator. He thinks strategically.”
He said Francis was influenced heavily by a British military strategy or philosophy called “indirect approach. It means in a confrontation, always avoid it.” For example, Francis emphasized in his address to Congress topics that he sensed were less polarizing – the death penalty and the arms race — and sought to highlight more sensitive issues through quiet private meetings, like the sessions with Davis and the nuns.
And the topic of religious freedom is certainly contentious. There is not even unanimity among the U.S. Catholic bishops, nor with the community of largely conservative religious-liberty advocates, about which cases best propel the movement forward and whether the pope’s visit with Davis was a positive or negative development.
The Becket Fund, which represents many clients suing the White House over the contraception mandate – including the Little Sisters – declined to comment Wednesday on the Davis’s visit, except to say the organization was not involved. The group prominently features the pope’s comments about religious liberty on its Web site but has been silent so far on the Davis’s visit.
Ivereigh said there is no way such a visit could have happened without the knowledge of top U.S. bishops, and speculated that some of them were certainly involved in setting it up.
A Vatican official who spoke on condition of anonymity said it would be rare for the Vatican to have initiated such a meeting, and added that it was likely suggested by “someone familiar with the Davis case and who enjoys the trust of the Holy Father.”
“Let’s not read too much into this,” the official said. “The meeting should not be understood as a blanket endorsement of the pope for all the things that Kim Davis says or does. Instead it should be read as the support of the Holy Father for the right to conscientious objection.
Michael Sean Winters, who analyzes the bishops and the U.S. church for the National Catholic Reporter, predicted the meeting would not be celebrated by all the bishops. “Whomever thought this was a good idea, the pope was very poorly served by.”
Details of how the meeting came together and why it was being rolled out in such a vague way weren’t immediately clear Wednesday. Since becoming pope in 2013, the pontiff has made news almost every month about various meetings or interactions — including a positive note he sent to the author of complimentary books about gay families, and a private meeting he held with a transgender man in Italy. Such incidents are often unconfirmed and not discussed by the Vatican, leaving the world to debate Francis’s intentions.
Other meetings, however, are officially detailed by church officials — a distinction that added to the intrigue Wednesday. For example, Francis met with survivors of sex abuse during his U.S. trip, as well as with the D.C. nuns. In both cases the Vatican quickly confirmed the meetings.
As word spread about the Davis meeting, some saw clear support for the conservative interpretation of religious freedom in the fact that Francis would meet with her, and reportedly hug her and praise here for her “courage.” Others saw something murkier in the fact that the meeting initially was kept private, and that the Vatican took hours to even confirm it had happened. Perhaps the Vatican was deliberately not advertising the meeting to show the pope doesn’t like the politicized nature of the case, even if he supports the principles?
In a piece for the Catholic Web site Crux, Vatican analyst John Allen said the pope made clear through his meeting with Davis and comments he made while in the United States that he stands strongly behind U.S. bishops, who have framed the freedom of religious conservatives as being under serious threat with the advance of gay marriage, among other developments.
The bishops have made this cause their top priority in recent years. They — and other, non-Catholic religious conservatives — say religious-freedom conflicts are jeopardizing the massive social service partnerships between the government and faith-based groups. The Catholic church already pulled out of foster care in Massachusetts, for example, after the state said that same-sex couples must be considered as potential foster parents. Some faith-based nonprofit groups fear losing their tax-exempt status if they won’t give health care to same-sex spouses of employees, or if they make other policy decisions that could be considered discriminatory but are in accordance with their religious beliefs.
At the same time, Allen speculated that the Davis-Pope meeting could actually help more progressive Catholics in some ways. Next month Francis launches a major meeting — called a synod — with church leaders that is expected to produce concrete ideas about how the church can better connect with people who are leaving the church in droves over family issues such as divorce and the status of LGBT people in church. Conservatives who are skeptical of Francis’s plea for openness have openly worried that he might use the synod to lead bishops toward even a new openness to the concept of same-sex marriage.
By meeting with Davis, Allen wrote, the pope may have made clear that he isn’t about to “go soft on same-sex marriage. Ironically, the Davis meeting may actually increase the odds of the synod recommending a more pastoral approach to same-sex relationships, since there won’t be the same fear about where such an opening might lead.”
Similarly, some progressive Catholics saw the meeting as a chance for the popular pontiff to douse some culture war flames.
The meeting “puts to rest the tired, incoherent narrative that Pope Francis is a Democrat. It also challenges the left on how to appropriately respond to situations like Kim Davis,” Christopher Hale, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, wrote in a statement. “But let’s set the record straight. Kim Davis is no Saint Paul. Davis didn’t practice moral heroism by refusing to step down as a county clerk.”
In a recent Washington Post/ABC poll, 65 percent of Catholics said Davis, who recently switched party alliances and became a Republican, should be required to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples, similar to 63 percent of the public overall. Less than half of Americans (45 percent), also supported the judge’s decision to imprison Davis for not following a court order, identical to the public overall.