Pope Francis met with Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis during the pope’s visit to the United States, the Vatican confirmed on Wednesday.
The Rev. Manuel Dorantes, a spokesman for the Vatican, said to The Washington Post, “I do not deny that the meeting took place, but I have no comments to add.”
The meeting between Davis, who went to jail for six days after refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and the pope was announced late Tuesday by Liberty Counsel, a religious freedom nonprofit that is representing the elected Rowan County clerk in her ongoing legal struggles.
Liberty Counsel said in a news release that Davis and her husband, Joe, met privately with Francis at the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington last Thursday. The pair reportedly chatted about bravery, then hugged and exchanged promises of prayer.
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The pope thanked Davis for her “courage,” according to the press release, and told her to “stay strong.” The news release also said Francis “presented Kim and Joe Davis each with a Rosary that he personally blessed.”
Mat Staver, Davis’s attorney and the founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, told the Times that photos of the meeting were expected soon from the Vatican. When asked why he delayed the announcement until now, Staver said: “We didn’t want the pope’s visit to be focused on Kim Davis.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Staver’s spokesperson did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The Archdiocese of Washington declined to comment on the matter.
Since his election as to the papacy in 2013, Francis — with his outspoken criticism of global warming and income inequality, as well as his perceived support of the gay community (“Who am I to judge?” he said) — has become a favorite of some liberals. His reported meeting with Davis could feel like a slap to progressives who see him — wrongly or rightly — as their ally on the topic of LGBT acceptance.
The pope outlined his — and the Catholic Church’s — position on religious liberty Saturday in a speech at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. Francis largely avoided addressing specific issues under the religious liberty umbrella during his public remarks in the United States, but several times indicated his support of a campaign from U.S. bishops to prioritize a defense of it.
On an overnight flight back to Rome after his three-city U.S. visit, the pope said government employees had the “human right” to say they cannot discharge duties that they believe go against their conscience. The response was given to an ABC News reporter who specifically mentioned issuing marriage licenses to gay couples as an example. Francis did not mention Davis by name.
“I can’t have in mind all cases that can exist about conscience objection,” the pope told reporters on the plane. “But, yes, I can say the conscientious objection is a right that is a part of every human right. It is a right.”
The meeting with Davis would not be the only one with Americans involved in religious liberty cases. In Washington, Francis met with the Little Sisters of the Poor. The visit was intended as a sign of support for the nuns in their legal battle against a contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act.
The Vatican revealed that meeting at a U.S. news conference. The meeting with Davis was kept private until late Tuesday.
Davis, an Apostolic Christian, has said that her refusal to issue same-sex marriage licenses was “a Heaven or Hell decision” and that she is refusing to issue the documents “under God’s authority.”
“I was humbled to meet Pope Francis,” she said in a statement. “Of all people, why me?”
She added: “I never thought I would meet the Pope. Who am I to have this rare opportunity? I am just a County Clerk who loves Jesus and desires with all my heart to serve him.”
The pope, she said, “was kind, genuinely caring, and very personable.”
Davis’s experience, her lawyer said, speaks to everyone.
“Kim Davis has become a symbol of this worldwide conflict between Christian faith and recent cultural challenges regarding marriage,” Staver said. “The challenges we face in America regarding the sanctity of human life, marriage, and religious freedom are the same universal challenges Christians face around the world. Religious freedom is a human right that comes from God. These values are shared in common by people of faith, and the threats to religious freedom are universal.”
In its press release, seemingly for confirmation of the meeting, the Liberty Counsel linked to a post on Inside the Vatican, an evangelical publication in Rome founded in 1993.
“The meeting is a fact, and facts are the material of which reality is composed, and human beings, though they cannot, as T.S. Eliot said, bear very much reality, strive nevertheless to live in reality,” Robert Moynihan wrote in a piece called “The Secret Meeting of the Papal Trip.” “And reality cannot be understood without knowledge of the facts. Of what really happened.”
Although details on the reported meeting remain slim, the pope’s schedule on Sept. 24 seemed to have had enough time to accommodate a private meeting. Davis was in Washington at the Value Voters Summit last week on the day after the pontiff’s departure for New York City.