Perhaps you, too, are stunned and saddened that Pope Francis, who preaches against divisiveness, secretly met Kim Davis, one of the most divisive figures in America’s never-ending culture wars. If so, at least two journalists offer theories on why that’s not as horrible as it seems.
Crux reported this morning that the Vatican said it was its ambassador in Washington, DC, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who invited the dozens of people who got to meet the pope briefly at his residence before Francis took off for New York. The Vatican spokesman also said that the pope “wasn’t properly briefed" on who he was meeting. “I don’t think anyone was willfully trying to trick the pope," he said.
But both the National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters and Esquire’s astute Catholic watcher, Charles Pierce, argue, to a greater or lesser degree, that Francis was, indeed, duped (possibly with nefarious intent). Both wrote — before the Vatican confirmed it — that Francis probably was unaware of the details of Davis’ actions or her superstar status and vast conservative publicity machine.
In Esquire online, Charles Pierce minces no words. He calls the Davis meeting “the dumbest thing this pope has ever done." He refers to Vatican skullduggery and insiders loyal to Francis’ predecessor, Benedict, and unhappy with this new pope’s kinder, gentler, more inclusive papacy.
But most relevant, he points to the history of the man the Vatican now says arranged the meeting, Viganò, who serves as the papal nuncio in the United States.
“Vigano is well-known to be a Ratzinger loyalist and he always has been a cultural conservative, particularly on the issue of marriage equality," says Pierce. “In April, in a move that was unprecedented, Vigano got involved with an anti-marriage equality march in Washington sponsored by the National Association For Marriage. (And, mirabile dictu, as we say around Castel Gandolfo at happy hour, one of the speakers at this rally was Mat Staver, who happens now to be Kim Davis’s lawyer.)"
Today Crux quotes the Rev. Thomas Rosica of the Vatican as suggesting the meeting might have been “orchestrated" by Davis’ legal team.
Pierce theorizes that Vigano, or somebody, had the pope meet Davis “not as an American culture war celebrity, but as a devout Christian whose faith is under vague assault." Then he could shuffle her in and out along with others shuffled in and out. Davis gets brief words of encouragement she can broadcast to the world. The plotter(s) then sit on the news until the pope is safely home, when they leak the story to a conservative Catholic website and “wait for the inevitable explosion."
Well, the explosion came. The publicity value of this Davis meeting just can’t be underestimated from the perspective of the Christian/Catholic right, which includes Vigano.
NCR’s Winters says we already know Pope Francis opposes gay marriage, favors recognizing conscientious objection as a fundamental right, and is concerned about the preservation of religious liberty.
But in meeting Kim Davis, Francis bestowed legitimacy on a woman who is not truly a conscientious objector. She lost her right to consider herself one “when she forbade other people from issuing the marriage licenses she did not wish to issue herself," he says. She is not a valid symbol for religious liberty either, he says, since she was jailed not for practicing her religion, but for forcing others (her clerk colleagues) to practice her religion.
As a government official sworn to carry out government tasks, Davis, when she believed she could not herself approve the gay couple’s license, should have sought a workaround or an accommodation. That is what she has since done, of course, now allowing her colleagues to issue such licenses.
Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, with Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, left, at her side, spoke after being released from the Carter County Detention Center Sept. 8, 2015, in Grayson, Ky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
Vatican distances Pope Francis from Kentucky clerk Kim Davis
Pope Francis greets nuns of the Little Sisters of the Poor order during a private meeting at their residence in Washington last week. The Vatican’s newspaper announced Wednesday that it would not release photos of the pope’s meeting with Kim Davis. (L’Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)
A tale of two papal meetings
Says Winters, cutting to the bone, she also could have done “what a real person of conscience would do: quit."
Pierce admits he may be engaging in apologetics, and Winters admits he does not yet have all the answers. But the Vatican’s statement this morning seems to support their theories: that the pope was not properly briefed, and did not realize what he was stepping into or that his brief meeting with Davis would mushroom into a disheartening mess.
If you, like me, are looking for a thin thread allowing you to excuse, or at least understand, how the normally savvy Francis made this blunder, check out both Pierce’s and Winters’ stories. They’ll cheer you up.
By Margery Eagan