After first refusing to confirm nor deny it, the Vatican has confirmed that Pope Francis met with the Kentucky clerk Kim Davis at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, where Davis’ attorney — who made the news public after the pope’s trip ended — said Francis told her to “stay strong.” And that simple encounter completely undermines all the goodwill the pope created in downplaying “the gay issue” on his U.S. trip.
The pope played us for fools, trying to have it both ways. As I noted last week, he’s an artful politician, telling different audiences what they want to hear on homosexuality. He did that in Argentina as a cardinal — railing against gay marriage when the Vatican expected him to do so — and he’s done that since becoming pope, striking a softer tone on the issue after Benedict’s harsh denunciations were a p.r. disaster for the Catholic Church in the West. But this news about Kim Davis portrays him as a more sinister kind of politician. That’s the kind that secretly supports hate, ushering the bigots in the back door — knowing they’re an embarrassment — while speaking publicly about about how none of us can judge one another.
I would have more respect for the pope if he had publicly embraced Kim Davis and made an argument for her, as he did in his visit with the Little Sisters of the Poor, who are battling against filling out a form to exempt themselves from Obamacare’s contraception requirement, claiming that even filling out the form violates their religious liberty — even though I vehemently disagree with the pope on that issue. I’d have more respect if he boldly, explicitly made a public statement (not the vague, general statement he made on his plane on the way home only in response to a reporter’s question about Davis), as he did in trying to stop the execution of a Georgia inmate who was put to death this morning. But by meeting with Davis secretly, and then at first having the Vatican neither confirm nor deny the encounter — and now having the Vatican say it “won’t deny” the meeting while it still won’t offer any other details — the pope comes off as a coward.
He shows himself to be antithetical to much of what he preaches and teaches. He talks about dialogue and having the courage of one’s convictions and the courage to speak out. But he swept this Davis meeting under the rug, seemingly ashamed and certainly not wanting to broach the subject. Even Davis’s supporters should find that insulting to them.
We all knew Francis was playing a p.r. game, and we were fine with that. He was focusing on climate change, immigration and other issues passionate to him — and certainly I, and I hope everyone, still welcome whatever influence he can have on those issues. And it appeared he viewed the LGBT rights debate as a distraction from a focus on those causes. He even told U.S. bishops in a meeting during his trip that they should stop complaining about it and turn their attention to other issues. The sense was that he was probably not passionate about gay rights, but not passionate about attacking them either.
But by telling Davis that she should “stay strong” — if her attorney’s account of the encounter is to be believed — the pope is only encouraging the bigots, even if he’s doing so quietly. We don’t know all the details yet regarding how Davis came to meet Francis — if, for example, it was one of the more vocally anti-gay U.S. Catholic Church leaders who brought her along, or if the Vatican invited her.
But the optics of it are bad no matter what. Rather than moving us forward on LGBT rights ever so slightly, as many viewed the pope as doing, he now, with this meeting, emboldens the haters in the church who will be pushing to make sure church doctrine continues to call homosexuality “intrinsically disordered.” And it sends a message to all those people who’ve experienced anti-gay discrimination — like the Catholic school teachers fired from their jobs in the U.S. simply because of who they are — that this pope is not going to end that discrimination any time soon. Rather than stopping that discrimination, he welcomed, with open arms in the Vatican’s own embassy, the bigots who promote that discrimination but who’ve turned themselves into the victims.