(Update: 3:30 p.m.) I do not find inspiring the Vatican’s response to the controversy surrounding the Pope Francis meeting with Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis. The Vatican released a statement today saying its ambassador to the U.S., Archbishop Carlo Vigano, invited Davis and others to participate in a group audience with the pontiff and did not brief Pope Francis on the controversy, and that the meeting shouldn’t be construed as papal approval of Davis’ actions. Francis is also said to have met with a gay couple personally known to him in a private audience.
I don’t see how that clears anything up. Vigano would have invited Davis for only one reason–her standing as an icon to those with oppositional views on marriage equality, views that are shared by the Catholic Church. On those grounds, it is just not believable that Pope Francis would not have been briefed on who she was. At the level of world leadership, people are not that naïve. Not an ambassador. Not the Pope. That’s just not how it works.
Further, the Pope told Davis to “stay strong” and then indicated to the media that she represents a “conscientious objector” with a right to stand down from the legal expectations of her job. How these things are not to be construed as the pontiff voicing approval for Davis’ actions–which, of course would mean that he had been briefed in advance and, in fact, knew exactly who Davis was–is beyond me.
Further, the fact that it took so long for the Vatican to release a statement regarding the American public relations crisis suggests how hard they worked behind the scenes to come up with a non-damaging backstory they felt would be palpable for the American public. But no matter how much the Vatican wants to have its public relations cake and eat it, too, there’s really no way for the Vatican to spin itself out of this controversy. Ultimately, they’re just trying to hide from the American people a full and honest picture of the views of the Catholic Church regarding LGBTQ human beings.
But the American public isn’t that naïve, either.
I was cautious of the bandwagon of goodwill that greeted Catholic spiritual leader Pope Francis when he visited the United States last week. Even though his opinions have showed him to be the most liberal pontiff of modern times, considering that only thirty percent of American Christians are Catholics, the universal acclaim seemed odd to me.
So did the timing of his trip. While it’s true he came to participate at a conference that his predecessor had agreed to attend, it’s also true that his visit significantly complicated the travel of thousands of Eastern Seaboard Jews and Muslims trying to observe the holy days of Yom Kippur and Eid al-Adha (respectively.)
Now many of the people who rolled out the welcome mat for Pope Francis are shocked that he met with Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis—at all, much less secretly. The lesson is that you can’t celebrate only one part of a person’s ethical worldview. Values don’t operate in isolation from each other. Francis may speak more frankly than his predecessors about justice, fairness, and lovingkindness, but none of that changed the fact that the Catholic church rejects gay civil rights and considers gay people to be sinners.
Last week’s breathless acclaim sidestepped this and other less-than-liberal values held by the pontiff. (For example, continuing to refuse a full role for women in the church.) This week’s shock serves us right for putting our own values in our back pockets. And by us I mean everyone who supports civil rights for all people regardless of sexual orientation.
And considering that full LGBTQ equality is written into the very platform of the Reform movement, Reform Jews who fell over themselves to praise the pontiff last week, I’m looking most directly at you. What on earth were you thinking?
Some have suggested the Vatican didn’t fully understand the context of the Davis controversy, or that critics are reading too much into Francis’ message to Davis to “stay strong.” But why would anyone expect the Vatican—or Pope Francis—to be that naive? At that level, even their PR strategists have PR strategists. I find it hard to believe they didn’t know exactly what they were doing.
Meeting Davis secretly made sure the insult many of his supporters feel this week didn’t make it into coverage of his trip last week, while he was still here—and while he was meeting with the American commander in chief and national legislature. That’s where my personal sense of disappointment lies. The pontiff spoke publicly of justice and equality before the President and Congress, and then in private singled out an individual that this nation’s justice system has determined to have been attempting illegally to abrogate the civil rights of a class of American citizens that are codified in our nation’s founding document in order to tell her that doing so is okay.
Unlike many of the pontiff’s first-time fans from last week, I wouldn’t have expected Pope Francis to have a different message for Davis. Supporting her his consistent with current Catholic doctrine. I would, however, have expected the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion people of faith to have the courage to share that controversial message with Davis in public. That the Vatican chose to hide the meeting from the American people speaks volumes about how intransigent the Catholic Church is to change.
All his great words notwithstanding, by supporting Kim Davis, Pope Francis made it clear that, although it would be his right to do so on behalf of the Catholic Church, he isn’t prepared to fully embrace the civil rights of all of God’s children.
But in 2015, the majority of Americans wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s the buried lede here. Francis met with Davis in secret because the Vatican is well aware how out of step Catholicism’s rejection of LGBTQ human beings is with the majority opinion of mainstream Americans. Had he met with Davis on the courthouse steps, instead, that papal love fest would have evaporated a lot more quickly.
I’ve said it over and over and I’ll say it again. It’s no longer socially acceptable in America to be a Bible bigot. Not for county clerks. Not even for pontiffs. When even the Pope has to hide his Bible bigotry behind closed doors, we’ve come a long way in this country.