I was raised Catholic. I spent thirteen long years swaddled in flame-resistant polyester at Catholic schools, and I have the intensely embarrassing class pictures to prove it. I’ve had my own issues with the Catholic faith for a long time, which led me to start identifying as agnostic by the time I was 16. But I still paid attention to the 2013 conclave to elect a new pope after Benedict XVI stepped down. I wasn’t Catholic any more, but Catholicism was a formative part of my childhood. I’ll always pay attention to its leader, as someone who has a platform from which to address the world and as the leader of the faith many of my friends and family belong to. I was thrilled when Pope Francis was elected to the papacy. I was concerned about his history of speaking against LGBTQ rights, particularly gay marriage, as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/14/world/americas/14argentina.html?_r=1&), but he was far more progressive than any pope I was expecting. And Pope Francis has continued to rise in my estimation as he worked for inclusivity and openness in the Catholic faith, even moderating his own stances towards homosexuality, not approving of it, but trying to focus on inclusivity rather than bigotry and hatred.
So I was pretty excited when I heard about his trip to the U.S. And that excitement was mostly carried through as I read or watched his speeches and heard about his actions. But that excitement came to screeching halt when I heard about a private meeting the pope had this week, with Kim Davis. Yeah, that Kim Davis, the Apostolic Christian county clerk in Kentucky who spent five days in jail for refusing to issue — or allow anyone in her office to issue — any marriage licenses rather than issuing licenses to same-sex couples. Kim Davis told ABC News that she and her husband had a private meeting with Pope Francis for 15 minutes, during which he hugged her, thanked her for her courage, gave Davis and her husband rosaries, exchanged promises to pray for each other and told Davis to stay strong. Vatican officials confirmed that the meeting took place after the story broke but refused to comment further. It appears the Davises were covertly brought into the Vatican Embassy in Washington, D.C., and that both the Vatican and the Davises were keeping the story under wraps until after Pope Francis left to avoid making this visit about Pope Francis and Kim Davis.
That is definitely not what I aim to do here. Pope Francis spent his visit discussing incredibly important issues; addressing climate change, responding with compassion to immigrant crises occurring around the globe and actually working to help the poor instead of making it someone else’s problem. Pope Francis had many events and many private meetings during his time here. I heard one argument suggesting that Pope Francis might not have even known much about Davis before meeting her, asking how much stock we can put in the words the pope allegedly said when they are relayed through someone with a clear motive to make it look like she had the pope’s unquestioned support. This doesn’t seem to ring true to me, as the pope had a limited amount of time here, and a private meeting with the pope would have been quite difficult to secure. Beyond that, the pope showed a thorough knowledge of his chosen topics and their context in the U.S. throughout his visit. This is a man who knows what he is is talking about before he gets to a podium. It seems unlikely to me that he would apply anything less in a private meeting.
More frequently, analysts point to the pope’s response to a question posed to him as he returned to Rome. An American reportedly asked the pope about government officials citing religious objections to same-sex marriage when refusing to do their jobs. Pope Francis said, “Conscientious objection is a right, and part of all human rights. If we want to make peace, we must respect all rights” (http://www.wsj.com/articles/pope-francis-defends-right-to-conscientious-objection-1443435150). To me, it seems quite likely to me that his meeting with Davis was part of his stance in support of conscientious objection in government. I find that support of Davis incredibly disappointing. Pope Francis has been a beacon of hope for progressive Catholicism and a change to the traditional positions in Catholicism. Now he seems to be taking the incredibly important issue of conscientious objection and seemingly agreeing that Davis’ refusal qualifies as a noble example of conscientious objection.
And that is something I cannot get behind, even with Pope Francis’s continued commitment to inclusivity in the church. Kim Davis not only refused to do a key part of the job she was elected to do, she refused to let anyone in her office issue a license. Kim Davis said that her name would appear on the certificate, and that would mean that she approved of their marriage. The crux of the matter lies in that moment: to Davis, her religious feeling trumps the civil rights of all people trying to get married. This is not a case of religious objection, in which case, Davis could have resigned from her post or, if she did not want to leave her job, asked someone else in her office to issue the licenses. She did not want to leave a position, though she was no longer comfortable performing the position’s duties. She blocked anyone in her office from performing these duties. This is a case of bigotry disguised as religious objection.
The Vatican can decline to comment further than confirming that a meeting happened, or say that the only issue at play in this meeting is the pope’s support of conscientious objection. But in an issue so wrapped up in the discussion about gay marraige, about about religious freedom and civil rights, no one can simplify the discussion down in this way. It is incredibly disappointing that a visit that was so focused on instigating important discussion in a balanced, inclusive way will be marred, and perhaps derailed, by this meeting with a woman who hides her bigotry behind her religion. This meeting seems to be a step back for the progressive pope. It hearkens back to his outspoken stance as anti-gay marriage as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, a disheartening comparison, particularly in light of the advances the pope has made in moving the church towards acceptance and inclusivity. The pope’s work in this regard has made great strides in improving the Catholic Church’s reputation around the world. There have been real changes as a result of his actions. Even in his visit, he continually tries to bring attention to issues like poverty, immigration and climate change, in addition to his work in advocating for conscientious objection and religious freedom. But Pope Francis undercuts the strides he’s made toward inclusivity when he chooses to ally himself with people like Davis, who use religion as an excuse for their own prejudices. And that’s something I cannot forget about, regardless of how many adorable pictures I see of the pope holding a baby dressed like a pope.