Davis, an Apostolic Christian who went to jail rather than allow her office to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, has become a polarizing figure in the country’s debate over religious freedom.
Since the revelation that she met with Francis — an event that was announced by her lawyer, not the Vatican, and kept secret until after the pope had returned to Rome — church insiders have been furiously swapping rumors about who exactly set up the meeting, which U.S. bishops knew of it, who was happy about it and who was upset.
The meeting was cheered by conservatives, who view Francis with suspicion because of previous statements that appeared to be accepting of homosexuality. But it was greeted with dismay by liberals, who have embraced Francis precisely because of his reluctance to engage in U.S. culture wars and his “who-am-I-to-judge” attitude.
Church leaders in the United States and in Rome have been resolutely tight-lipped about the meeting, perhaps concerned about the prospect of appearing to publicly rebuke or challenge the pope, particularly on such a sensitive issue. At the same time, church-watchers have debated and swapped rumors about who set up the meeting, whether it was at the behest of the pope himself, or whether it was an idea pushed by other bishops or religious freedom advocates or donors.
Among those who declined to comment was the Rev. Carlo Maria Viganò, the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States, at whose residence the meeting took place.
On Friday, the Vatican said Davis was among “a number of guests” who were “invited by the Nuncio,” a church term for the ambassador, to greet the pope. “Very brief greetings,” the Rev. Thomas Rosica, an English-language spokesman for the Vatican, told the Associated Press. “And in the pope’s characteristic kindness and warmth and hospitality, he shook people’s hands and gave them rosaries. We should understand it as that. In terms of why this person was invited, you have to ask those questions of the nunciature.”
A controversial figure both in Rome and in the United States, Viganò has gone further than other church leaders in his campaign against same-sex marriage. Among other things, he appeared at an event this year with the National Organization for Marriage, a group that vocally opposes same-sex marriage and with which U.S. bishops typically don’t publicly ally.
A Vatican statement issued Friday by the Rev. Federico Lombardi, another papal spokesman, seemed aimed at quelling speculation about the meeting’s significance.
“The brief meeting between Mrs. Kim Davis and Pope Francis at the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, D.C. has continued to provoke comments and discussion,” the statement said. “…The Pope did not enter into the details of the situation of Mrs. Davis, and his meeting with her should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects.”
Rosica tweeted out two separate stories Friday about Lombardi’s statement, each of which said it made clear the papal visit was not a validation of Davis’s actions.
In response to the Vatican statements, Mat Staver, a lawyer for Davis and founder of the conservative group Liberty Counsel, offered a bit of detail on how the meeting came together, saying the the invitation to meet with Francis was “first conveyed” on Sept. 14, the day that Davis returned to work.
“Neither Kim Davis nor Liberty Counsel ever said the meeting was an endorsement of her legal case,” Staver said in a statement. “Rather, the meeting was a pastoral meeting to encourage Kim Davis in which Pope Francis thanked her for her courage and told her to ‘Stay strong,’”
Staver said Vatican security picked up Davis and her husband from their hotel and took them to the Vatican embassy for the meeting last Thursday.
While some religious-freedom advocates applaud Davis’s refusal to adhere to a Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage across the land, others say Davis — an elected official — could have followed her conscience and U.S. law by stepping aside and allowing others in her office to issue the licenses.
Some individuals who are close to senior U.S. bishops — who as a group have made the religious freedom campaign their top priority — assert that many bishops didn’t know in advance of the Davis-Francis meeting and were upset about it. Others said the bishops were divided on the Davis case, and some may have been aware of the meeting ahead of time.
All week, one bishop after another declined to speak on the record about the meeting. Among them were Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Washington archbishop; Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput; and Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Kurtz — the bishop who is based in Kentucky, where the Davis case is unfolding — gave an interview in September that appeared to support her.
“I believe we as a nation are at our best when we can honor religious liberty,” Kurtz told Louisville television station WHAS-11. “I’d love if legitimately there was a way to let a public official to serve in a way that doesn’t compromise their religious beliefs.”
Ryan Anderson, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation who focuses on religious liberty, said advocates have different perspectives on the legal issues at hand. Some may focus more on faith-based nonprofits, others on individual rights and others on government employees like Davis. There are different opinions and strategies among conservatives worried about the topic, he noted.
“The big problem we’ve seen with the Kim Davis situation is that these distinctions have been lost,” Anderson said.
Pope Francis this weekend is launching a major month-long meeting with top bishops on family issues. The meeting — called a synod — is expected to be contentious, as the pope hears various views about how to support and bring closer to the church people who wind up estranged because they have divorced and remarried outside the church or because they are gay. Conservatives are concerned that Francis is about to loosen rules, and some have speculated this week that whoever arranged the Davis meeting might have done so in order to weaken the pope ahead of the synod.
But Anderson was skeptical about the importance of the Davis meeting to the overall issue of religious freedom.
“My general sense is that papal visits don’t have a big impact on politics,” he said. “I think politics is driven more by underlying factors, such as interest groups and money — not news.”