Originally published at my Huffington Post column, October 1, 2015.
The news that Pope Francis met with Kim Davis raises a series of questions that must be answered urgently. Let’s begin with trying to understand what happened. And so we should ask: Did Pope Francis know who Kim Davis is? Was he aware of the consequences that were sure to follow his meeting with her?
On his return flight from Rome at the conclusion of his visit, Pope Francis was asked by reporter Terry Moran of ABC to comment on the facts of the Kim Davis case. While Moran did not mention her by name, he described a situation in which a government official refused to issue “marriage licenses to same-sex couples.” The Pope declined to speak to the details of Moran’s description of the case but answered in general terms that “conscientious objection” is a “human right.”
He elaborated on what he meant by rights of conscience with a reference to the medieval Song of Roland. In that poem, one finds an account of Charlemagne commanding a massed, forced baptism of thousands of non-Christians. “The baptismal font or the sword,” was how Pope Francis described Charlemagne’s command, and he made clear that compulsion was not for him.
It seems like a good answer. The Pope’s response drew from an historical example of Christian extremism — Charlemagne’s policy of forced conversions — to say that no one should be coerced into professing a belief against her or his conscience.
On its terms, furthermore, it refutes Kim Davis’s position. Indeed, if we follow the logic of the papal analogy, it is Kim Davis who is playing the part of Charlemagne. After all, she is an elected office-holder who exercises the power of the state and has used that power to impose her religious views on subordinates and the prospective same-sex partners of Rowan County, Kentucky. Personally, I find it difficult to believe that the Pope was aware of the facts of the Kim Davis case or knew what she stood for when he gave his interview to Terry Moran.
Word, however, swiftly broke that the Pope had met briefly with Kim Davis at the papal nunciature — essentially, the papal embassy, situated in Washington, D.C. The meeting was fifteen or so minutes long, without interpreters. Reportedly, Francis told Davis to remain strong, advised her to pray the rosary, and handed her a pair of rosaries. Pictures of those rosaries have now gone viral on the internet.
How do we interpret the news of this meeting, which seems so much at odds with the public message of inclusion Pope Francis sought to convey on every step of his journey? It may be that the Pope quite innocently saw no inconsistency in his actions. After all, he met with all sorts of people on his trip without endorsing their viewpoints. But the reality is that the Pope was likely played by others who were aware of the controversy that would attend a papal meeting with Kim Davis and sought to use that controversy for their own ends.
I should state that I am convinced of the Pope’s sincerity. He took enormous pains, at every step of his journey to the United States, to bury the culture war. He made no mention of same-sex marriage on his trip, not even at the World Congress of Families. While his stance on abortion is firm, he has also made clear that the old strategy of confrontation has failed. He knows that most women who have abortions do so out of desperation, and he wants to build social structures that relieve that desperation.
In other words, what the Pope plainly wanted from his trip was a re-invigoration of a progressive Catholicism that looked confidently towards the world and the future. His message was compelling: Don’t dwell in the past as if it was some golden age and don’t demonize the present. Meet people where they are, take risks for the faith, and love one another. This was the Pope’s message to individual believers. And to the political order, he advised Catholics to work with all persons of good will, whatever their perspective or way of life, towards the achievement of shared objectives — the climate change treaty, economic justice, a fairer, more humane penal system.
So I am persuaded that the Pope was played. Who was responsible? Most immediately, Kim Davis and her attorney must be held to account. They are obviously exploitative in the way they are spinning a brief, private meeting.
But one might also surmise that some highly-placed Vatican figures sought to sabotage this papacy in a way that may prove as damaging the Vatileaks scandal was to Pope Benedict XVI. And I have little doubt that the damage will prove serious. The Pope’s ambition to build an alliance that spans the political spectrum to work for the common good will now face larger obstacles. The larger secular world, with which he sought to open lines of communication, will view with varying degrees of mistrust. Furthermore, a right wing that seeks to undo most of what Pope Francis stands for — from the environment to economic equality — gains greater empowerment. There will doubtless be members of Congress, as the December deadline approaches, who will invoke Pope Francis as supporting the shutting down of the government.
The Pope must therefore take action. Internally, he must make his wrath felt. And then he needs to respond, visibly and unambiguously, because his very public stature has been put at risk.
What steps should Pope Francis take? I can offer two suggestions. The first comes from Francis DeBernardo, the Executive Director of New Ways Ministry. It is about time, DeBernardo writes, for Pope Francis to meet with LGBT Catholics and their families. He was called upon to do so during his visit to the United States and did not take up the invitation. I concur with DeBernardo. Such meetings must take place. In the face of great official hostility, LGBT Catholics have remained faithful to the Church, and that loyalty must be swiftly recognized and acknowledged.
Second, the Vatican is about to host a second meeting of the synod on the family. The first meeting was held in October, 2014, and divided badly over questions such as the reception of Communion by divorced and remarried Catholics and the status of gays within the Catholic Church. Now would be an excellent time to push for greater inclusiveness, beginning with a revision of the Catechism to remove that most offensive provision that describes “homosexual tendencies” as “objectively disordered” (para. 2358).
These are not extravagant requests. They are eminently doable, and should be undertaken, the sooner the better.