In meeting Kim Davis, Pope Francis confounds and challenges (COMMENTARY)

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Pope Francis passes the crowd along the street of Philadelphia on September 27, 2015. Religion News Service by Kimberly Winston

Pope Francis passes the crowd along the street of Philadelphia on September 27, 2015. Religion News Service by Kimberly Winston

(RNS) Pope Francis’ visit to the United States last week was a huge hit with the media and with the public. This week, Americans may have wondered whether he would provide ongoing unity and inspiration for our public discourse, or whether we would return to culture warring and ideological sniping.

Liberals inside and outside the Catholic Church noted that the pope made only brief allusions to abortion and same-sex marriage but spoke at length about immigration, climate change and economic inequality.

Yet as progressives were ebullient, news broke Tuesday (Sept. 29) that Pope Francis met privately with Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refuses to sign marriage licenses for same-sex couples.

Davis was in Washington to receive an award at a gathering of religious right activists. Vatican officials requested the meeting, which took place inside the Holy See’s U.S. embassy on Thursday  before the pope departed for New York. Pope Francis gave Davis, an ex-Catholic, two rosaries. They pledged to pray for each other.

This meeting challenges a media narrative — one in which I am complicit — that Davis is too fringe a figure and the pope too gracious a leader for the two to have much in common.

But this odd couple shares several convictions that we would do well to remember. They believe that homosexual expression is sinful, that marriage is between a man and a woman and that people should be free to live in accordance with those convictions.

When she was in the headlines earlier this month, sensible traditionalists tread cautiously with Davis. They know that religious freedom isn’t a trump card. Her strongest support came from less reflective political and religious figures. A rally held on her behalf drew angry protesters with offensive signs.

But the Davis case illustrates two important ways that social conservatives are struggling to formulate appealing and coherent statements of their positions in response to the rapidly changing cultural and legal affirmation of LGBT rights.

READ: Pope Francis met Kentucky clerk Kim Davis: ‘Stay strong!’

First, conservative Christians must articulate a teaching on when to acquiesce to the legal reality of same-sex marriage, when to resist and on what grounds. There is a serious lack of consensus in both Catholic and evangelical circles.

If a magistrate is a Christian, is his or her conscience necessarily offended by serving as a civil functionary to a same-sex marriage? Is it a sin to sign a marriage license for a same-sex couple? Is it a sin to refuse? Neither Catholic nor Protestant leaders unanimously agree on what a traditionalist Christian must do.

Evangelicals, who are much less supportive of gay rights than Catholics, could interpret Pope Francis’ meeting with Davis as a signal that Christians in professional settings should be free to stand in the way of gay couples whenever possible.

Second, the Davis situation arose and escalated because the debate about conscience protections for courthouse clerks was unresolved. When a gay couple encountered a clerk absolutely determined to deny their civil rights, it was unclear what, if any, legal recourse Davis had.

In the end, I think traditionalists will agree that it is not a sin to sign a same-sex couple’s marriage license, that the Christian conscience is not offended in doing so and that obstinate refusals to serve do Christianity more harm than good.

READ: No Francis effect on Georgia pardons board

And while people will debate the meaning of the pope’s meeting with Davis, I think his support is less a specific endorsement of her lawless and discriminatory actions as clerk than a general affirmation of conscience rights.

Pope Francis knows about the fundamental value American society places on civil rights. But he stands in a tradition that makes generous accommodation for conscience rights and conscientious objectors to what the church sees as social evils.

Still, Francis has arguably lent his considerable moral authority to social conservatives whose top public policy priority is to refuse to acknowledge same-sex marriage. Three weeks ago, Davis drew most of her support from fundamentalists and a few evangelicals. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops was silent. Now, Davis claims the support of the most compelling religious leader in the world.

Social liberals who, inexplicably, think the pope is on their side of marriage and sexuality debates received a much-needed reality check.

Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at Religion News Service and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University. His website is Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf. Photo courtesy of Jacob Lupfer

Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at Religion News Service and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University. His website is Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf. Photo courtesy of Jacob Lupfer

Conservative Catholics often complain that Pope Francis, especially in his unscripted moments, sows confusion. Now, for a change, progressives are grappling with that frustration.

Days after the papal plane landed in Rome, Pope Francis is still challenging our rigid ideological frameworks. In meeting with Davis, he signals to traditionalists that he has not forgotten about their concerns.

Davis is a cultural lightning rod who has drawn comparisons to civil rights icon Rosa Parks and to segregationist governor George Wallace. Yet this pope of surprises met Davis with a hug, a gift and a prayer. Agree or disagree with Davis, Pope Francis continues to model grace and generosity in ways that confound and challenge us.

(Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at RNS and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University. His website is Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf.)


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  • Tom Downs

    Lets see. Suppose I’m a teacher in a catholic school and I have a conscience objection to the church’s teaching on same sex marriage, do I get to marry a person of my gender and keep my job?

  • Pablo

    The short hope I had, as a Roman Catholic from birth (not some lapsed protestant) that the church of my birth might move beyond hating gays for the way we were born has suddenly vanished. No one playing a Pope-level game would endorse a three times divorced gay-hater like Kim Davis unless they meant to deliver a message.

    The nastiest bashing seethers among the “Christians” are now rejoicing that their hero was granted a private audience.

    Thanks for nothing, Francis.

    How many more gays need to kill themselves before “Christians” give a damn? Probably all of us.

  • Richard Rush

    I’m embarrassed to admit that I had been gullible enough to increasingly believe that Francis was a dramatically new-and-improved pope trying to gently nudge church-thinking in a more humane direction (even though he obviously still supports the supernatural stuff). My husband, who was raised Catholic, warned me about him, and he was correct. Now I realize that Francis actually supports the Church’s legendary hateful bigotry, but is trying his skillful best to put a pretty face on it. He is the lipstick on the pig.

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  • CarrotCakeMan

    A foreign head of state arranged a secret meeting in his embassy in Washington DC with the derelict Kentucky county clerk. The foreign head of state showed contempt for our Constitution and the Proper Rule of Law written therein by urging her to continue to violate the US Constitution.

    If he’s that contemptuous of America, our Constitution, and the Proper Rule of Law, perhaps he shouldn’t try to come back here.

  • Dave

    If you have been a Catholic since birth, hopefully you have a Bible. It tells us, “…I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them;…” We know right from wrong before we ever come to the knowledge of the saving grace of Jesus Christ.

    I work with many LGBT persons here in the Philippines. Most are Catholics. I sense their internal struggles and unhappiness. In their hearts they know the law; hence, this produces conflict.

    When I ask them to read Romans 1:18-32 I can see an awakening. Most thought the law regarding LGBT choice was only in the O.T.

    For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.

    I hope you discover the truth and find…

  • Tom Ryberg

    So according to your reading of Romans 1, all LGBT people today have been given over by God to their wicked lusts of choice. This, to you, is equivalent to same sex couples and transgender people as they live today.

    The things that astound me about interpretations like yours is that you don’t even need to get into historical context to see why the comparison doesn’t work. You just need to read the passage itself and acknowledge that one of these things is not like the other.

  • Bernardo

    Apparently the meeting was not a hoax. How to ruin a “feel-good” trip in five minutes!!!

  • Larry

    The man holds his position for life and is elected by a core of organization elites in an unopposed election. Just like the leader of every Communist country.

    Of course he is contemptuous of democracy and its rule of law. You might as well be asking Castro or the Premier of China their opinion on such subjects.

  • Garson Abuita

    At the very least the State Department should take some kind of action. I don’t think it calls for expelling the papal nuncio or anything, but certainly an expression of “concern” at a foreign government’s urging a US state official to keep violating the law would be warranted.

  • Billysees

    What Paul has written is questionable because he explains himself and all of his writings in the following way —

    1. …our knowledge is partial and incomplete…
    2. …we see things imperfectly…
    3. All that I know now is partial and incomplete…
    (1 Corinthians 13:9,12)

    Those are excellent examples that ‘teach us’ that scripture can be too partial, too incomplete and too imperfect to be meaningful for everybody in every situation.

    We therefore must reason out anything and everything in scripture ‘as necessary’. That will help us to ‘effectively’ judge and evaluate a matter or people based on all reasonable, ‘current or modern’ attitudes, experiences and knowledge.

    The continuing and modern work of the ‘Spirit of God’ is alive and well in the world.

  • samuel johnston

    “The foreign head of state..”
    Our republic got along quite well, not recognizing the Pope as head of any state for two centuries. That was/is a wise policy for a democratic secular government, and it was not an accident, it was deliberate and fair policy. We should return to it, and treat the Pope as we treat the Dali Lima, traditional head of a large religious organization.

  • Mary

    Neither Pope Francis nor the Catholic Church should be identified in political terms. The Church has consistently taught that homosexual acts are sinful. Pope Francis has affirmed this by meeting with Kim Davis. There is no debate required. It is a teaching that cannot and will not change. Accusing the Church of hate and bigotry is irrational. The Hebrew and New Testament Scriptures support that homosexual acts are sinful. People may reject this but it does not change the truth. The Church and the Vicar of Christ, who is Pope Francis, are entrusted with articulating and preserving that which has been revealed by God.

  • “The continuing and modern work of the ‘Spirit of God’ is alive and well in the world.”


  • Drew

    “The Church has consistently taught that homosexual acts are sinful. Pope Francis has affirmed this by meeting with Kim Davis. There is no debate required. It is a teaching that cannot and will not change. Accusing the Church of hate and bigotry is irrational.”

    The Church used to consistently teach that the earth was flat. No debate was required. It was a teaching that could not and would not be changed….

  • Religion is a curtain built by others to obscure the truth. Pull it open and you will see a mirror. Nothing more.

    The Pope builds a very appealing curtain. And people love him for it.

  • Don

    It seems rather straightforward. The Pope is saying that deciding whether of not to descriminate against gay citizens is “a matter of conscience.”

  • Ben in oakland

    So a passage that is clearly about heterosexuals behaving badly in the context of idolatry is a law written on the hearts of gay people everywhere.


  • Ben in oakland

    Davis is three times divorced, not married to her original husband, who is still alive, and is therefore an unrepentant adulterer and formicator. wHat were you saying about sin?

    She is not treating others how she would be treated, but judging the alleged sins of others while ignoring her own, and is a member of a Protestant sect that not only defies the bishop of Rome as the vicar of Christ, but as far as I can tell, thinks of Catholicism as from the devil.

    Now what was it you were saying about the clear word o’ God?

  • Larry

    Much like the church’s decision to shield child molesters, obstruct justice and hide funds for victim compensation was a matter of conscience for them.

    There is no compelling reason to consider the Catholic church or any church to have some kind of authority on the subject of morality. Obviously they do not understand the concept.

  • Anita Manning

    Richard, this is my situation, exactly. I felt so hopeful about this pope and now I feel snookered. I didn’t expect him to openly embrace marriage equality or even women’s rights, but I thought he was trying to move the church forward a little. Now I see he’s just like all the rest of them.

  • Richard Rush

    I hope you discover the truth and find…”

    Dave, I think he may have already discovered the truth, and I’m pretty darn sure it wasn’t in the Bible. After all, how can you accept anything in the Bible as truth when its writers thought the earth was flat and stationary. And, I wonder why Jesus never bothered to mention to his disciples that the earth was a sphere and revolved around the sun. If he was “the son of God,” surely his dad would have mentioned that basic fact.

  • samuel johnston

    The Catholic Chuch is nothing BUT a political organization. Jesus was not a politician, but the Church has been exactly a political organization since perhaps, 140 C.E. or, certainly by 325 C.E. Just because the Church managed and organized the religious, does not mean that the organization itself did not live by political manauvering, rather than leaving the fate of the organizartion to God.
    FWIW, Jesus had nothing to say about his mother Mary that could possibly justify her ascendency to the status of a Godess (co-redemptress).

  • samuel johnston

    Resigning her job, would be a “a matter of conscience”.
    Acting as an individial is fine, but acting as a representative of the state, contrary to the State’s rules, is -at the least- misrepresentation, or even treachery. She should be in jail, until she is impeached.

  • Billysees

    ” Where ”

    I was specifically thinking about the marriage equality ruling by the court and the many ways that LGBT folks are becoming more and more acceptable ‘around the world’.

    That increasing ‘acceptance’ is the ‘proof’ I need to realize that there is some kind of ‘good intervention’ by ‘something’ that is ‘helping’ regardless of what any scripture may declare.

    I don’t think that ‘good things’ happen without a purpose.

  • Billysees

    The Catholic church is ‘power for righteousness and good’ on one hand and ‘spiritual wickedness’ on the other.

  • Shawnie5

    The Church “consistently taught” nothing of the sort. A handful of middle eastern Christian writers were of this opinion but it certainly was not a teaching of the Roman Catholic church. The church itself established the great universities of Europe, where the most widely used astonomy textbook of the middle ages was titled “Sphere.”

  • By meeting with Kim Davis, the Pope risked affirming her “traditional marriage” lifestyle of multiple divorces and multiple remarriages. Unfortunately, in 2015 the marriage tradition often means multiple divorces and multiple remarriages, and all that goes with that nightmare, especially when children are involved.

    I would rather see Francis go to the red light district in search of a modern ‘Mary Magdalene’. The oldest profession is a reliable tradition.

    But honestly, who am I to judge Pope Francis? I’m just another sinner.

    And who is Kim Davis to judge (on the basis of her religion) an applicant for a state-issued marriage license?

    What would Jesus REALLY do in this situation?

  • Ben in oakland

    Confounds and challenges indeed. It appears the word you want is conned, or duped, or manipulated.

    So it turns out, according to news reports this morning, that there was no secret meeting, but a brief hug-line with a lot of other people, and that the pope may well have been set up by his enemies in the Vatican, or perhaps by enemies of gay people in the Vatican who thought they could use the pope to their advantage.

    Bryan Fissure is already claiming that the Gaystapo is so powerful that we can even intimidate the pope. What fun!

    It will be interesting to see the fallout from all of this. It appears that nothing has changed in the Vatican since alexander Borgia was elected pope. That’s alexander the father of Lucrezia Borgia and Cesare Borgia.

  • From Philly

    It was definitely a teaching of that church then and yet the church has not been consistent in it, which makes the church look even worse. Your bad, ShawnieS.

  • Billysees

    ” By meeting with Kim Davis, the Pope risked affirming her “traditional marriage” lifestyle of multiple divorces and multiple remarriages. ”

    That’s possible. He might’ve also asked her, why aren’t you still a Catholic like your mom? Why did you leave Catholicism? That woman’s recent life as we know it seems to be an embarrassment for the CC.

    ” What would Jesus REALLY do in this situation? ”

    Thought provoking question.