Beware the highs and lows.
Just a couple of days after Pope Francis departed U.S. soil in a glow of progressive good will, we learn he met with Kim Davis at the Vatican Embassy in Washington.
Yes, that Kim Davis. The Kentucky clerk who got herself tossed into the county jail by refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples after federal courts told her she had to.
What the heck? Francis is supposed to be the cool pope, the towering spiritual figure who encourages us to put the needs of the poor and oppressed above the fray of the culture wars. Is all that over?
I think not. Francis is still cool. He’s just mistaken, or misled, about Davis and her situation.
We know the pope opposes same-sex marriage but has chosen not to be defined by that opposition. We know he supports religious liberty around the globe but has warned against using religion as a form of oppression. We know he has called conscientious objection “a human right.”
But Davis is not a symbol of religious liberty denied. She is free to practice her Apostolic Christian religion as she pleases.
And she is a poor example of a conscientious objector. She is a government official who has refused to follow her oath of office. She isn’t willing to endure a long stay behind bars to protect her beliefs, and she doesn’t want to quit her good-paying job in protest of the Supreme Court’s order. Rather, she has settled for an “accommodation” whereby her deputies issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and her name doesn’t appear on them.
She is more a profile of stubbornness than of courage.
There are a lot of questions about how and why this meeting got set up. It reportedly lasted about 15 minutes as the pope was supposed to be taking a brief afternoon siesta. The Vatican isn’t sharing, which opens the door to rampant speculation.
I don’t claim to be a Vatican watcher, but I am partial to the theory of author Michael Sean Winters, who proposes in the National Catholic Reporter that “somebody messed up,” and suggests that Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the Vatican’s nuncio, or ambassador, in Washington is the logical candidate.
“Perhaps he did not understand how Davis’ case was not really an instance of conscientious objection,” Winters wrote. “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.”
In which case, perhaps there is a nuncio’s job opening up in beautiful Washington D.C.
Whatever the mysterious meeting’s intent, it doesn’t wipe out Francis’ plea to protect the earth and its people against the ravages of industrialization. It doesn’t make him any less a champion of refugees, immigrants and the poor. It doesn’t make his call to politicians to set aside ideological causes to focus on the common good any less urgent.
It just makes the narrative that the pope by word and example is urging his flock to be less rigid on issues of sexuality a lot less tidy. And the encounter is certain to provide aid and comfort to politicians and others who are ready to use “religious freedom” as a reason to discriminate against gay and lesbian couples.
I have to give Davis credit. Getting hugs from evangelical presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and Pope Francis in the space of one month is no small feat.
But I wish the pope had actually taken that Thursday afternoon siesta.