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

Kentucky's Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, who was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, makes remarks after receiving the "Cost of Discipleship" award at a Family Research Council conference in Washington on September 25, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-DAVIS-POPE, originally transmitted on Sept. 30, 2015 and RNS-VATICAN-DAVIS, originally transmitted on Oct. 2, 2015.
Kentucky's Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, who was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, makes remarks after receiving the "Cost of Discipleship" award at a Family Research Council conference in Washington on September 25, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-DAVIS-POPE, originally transmitted on Sept. 30, 2015.

Kentucky’s Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, who was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, makes remarks after receiving the “Cost of Discipleship” award at a Family Research Council conference in Washington on Sept. 25, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-DAVIS-POPE, originally transmitted on Sept. 30, 2015.

(RNS) Throughout his just-concluded visit to the U.S., Pope Francis was careful to avoid many of the hot-button social issues that have roiled American society. He repeatedly exhorted his bishops to take a more positive approach and not pick fights that would turn more people off than they would attract.

Now it turns out that even as he was preaching that message the pope met secretly with an icon of the culture wars: Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk and conservative Christian who was jailed for five days in early September for refusing to issue marriage licenses for gay couples because she said it conflicted with God’s law.

The meeting with Davis took place on Thursday (Sept. 24), just before Francis left Washington for New York, Davis’ lawyer said late Tuesday.

Mat Staver of the Liberty Counsel, which has been representing Davis, told CBS News that the Vatican contacted him a few days before the pope was to arrive on his historic visit, his first to the U.S., because Francis had been following Davis’ saga “and obviously is very concerned about religious freedom not just in the United States but worldwide.”

Despite the blanket media coverage of every move the pope made during his visit, which ended Sunday night, Staver said he worked with church officials to sneak Davis and her husband, Joe, into the Vatican Embassy in Washington, where Francis was staying.

READ: Despite papal appeal, Ga. parole board denies murderer’s 11th-hour clemency bid

Pope Francis passes by in a black Fiat in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23, 2015. Photo by George Martell, courtesy of the Archdiocese of Boston

Pope Francis passes by in a black Fiat in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23, 2015. Photo by George Martell, courtesy of the Archdiocese of Boston

They arrived in an SUV, he said, and Davis wore her distinctive long hair “in a different way because her hair is very recognizable from the mug shot.”

The meeting took place about 2:30 p.m., Staver said, and lasted between 10 and 15 minutes.

According to Inside the Vatican magazine, which first broke the story, the Argentine pope spoke in English with Davis and her husband, alone and without an interpreter or aides. Staver said he was not present either.

Davis told the magazine that Francis said to her, “Thank you for your courage.”

“I said, ‘Thank you, Holy Father,’” Davis reportedly said. “I had asked a monsignor earlier what was the proper way to greet the pope, and whether it would be appropriate for me to embrace him, and I had been told it would be OK to hug him. So I hugged him, and he hugged me back.

“It was an extraordinary moment. ‘Stay strong,’ he said to me. Then he gave me a rosary as a gift, and he gave one also to my husband, Joe. I broke into tears. I was deeply moved.

“Then he said to me, ‘Please pray for me.’ And I said to him, ‘Please pray for me also, Holy Father.’ And he assured me that he would pray for me.”

Inside the Vatican editor Robert Moynihan, who has covered the Vatican for years, said Davis recounted the meeting to him shortly after it took place.

The meeting would seem to be a stunning coda to the pope’s visit, which may be one reason why the Vatican on Wednesday seemed eager to avoid engaging it further.

After repeated requests for comment, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, would only say, “I do not deny that the meeting took place, but I have no other comments to add.”

Staver said the Vatican had promised to release photos of the pope and Davis on Wednesday.

Throughout the trip, Francis seemed to studiously sidestep political land mines and repeatedly urged his bishops to avoid harsh language and culture war battles — and the Kim Davis case has been one of the year’s biggest rallying cries for the religious right.

Francis frequently mentioned religious freedom but in a different context and with a different tone from the sharper, more politicized rhetoric deployed by cultural conservatives in the U.S.

Also, even though Catholic leaders have made religious freedom a top priority, the Davis case has not been a banner issue for them because, as a government official sworn to uphold the law, her claims to conscientious objection and religious liberty are not seen as very strong.

Religious freedom advocates note that Davis is a government official herself who is sworn to uphold the law, and a conscientious objector would normally resign or find an accommodation to allow someone else to carry out that function.

Francis did meet while in Washington with the Little Sisters of the Poor, the nuns who operate nursing homes throughout the U.S. and  are engaged in a fierce legal battle with the Obama administration over the health care law’s contraception mandate.

The Vatican released photos of that unscheduled visit, and it seemed aimed at backing both the sisters and the bishops, who strongly support the nuns’ religious freedom claims.

How the Davis meeting with Francis came about, however, is a mystery.

Staver told The New York Times that Vatican officials set up the meeting and U.S. bishops were not involved. He did not identify the Vatican officials.

“We did not want to release the information up to this time, nor did the Vatican, because the Vatican wanted to focus its message on a lot of issues (during the papal visit), and at the right time we ultimately released the information and the Vatican gave us the opportunity to do so,” Staver said.

He said that while Davis’ team wanted to broadcast news of the meeting right away, they also knew it would overshadow the “broader message” Francis wanted to bring to the U.S. Francis returned to the Vatican early Monday morning.

READ: Pope: Those who covered up sexual abuse ‘are guilty’

But now progressives — and many church insiders in the U.S. — are shocked, and conservative activists are ecstatic.

The latter say that the meeting with Davis shows that the pope’s visit was in fact primarily aimed at supporting their religious freedom cause.

“The pope’s amazing private action shows that his public drumbeat on religious freedom was no afterthought. It was at the heart of his mission to the United States,” Matt Bowman, senior counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom, wrote on the group’s website.

Staver said the meeting with Davis showed not only that Francis is concerned about religious freedom but that the message was “completely embedded in what he said” during the trip.

“The pope’s visit to the United States, I think, was very successful and he got his messages out, and his themes out, and he’s laid those out, and we’ve had a couple of days for those to resonate and to percolate through out the country, and frankly throughout the world,” Staver told CBS.

“And I think now is a good time to get the additional message” out, he added.

Davis and her husband had gone to Washington last week to receive a “Cost of Discipleship” award on Friday from the Family Research Council, a leading conservative Christian advocacy group, in recognition of her stand against gay marriage.

Davis, 49, whose mother is Catholic, identifies as an Apostolic Christian, a Pentecostal denomination. She has been married four times but said she had a religious awakening several years ago.

A federal judge jailed Davis earlier this month over her refusal to issue marriage licenses with her name on them to same-sex couples in her county. Davis also refused to allow clerks in her office to issue licenses. She cited the Bible as the basis of her opposition, saying God’s law superseded secular law.

Davis was released after five days in jail and, in a compromise, has allowed licenses to be issued without her name and with her title removed. Each license includes a statement saying it is issued “pursuant to a court order.”

READ: Churches step in after feds drop Fugitive Safe Surrender

On the flight back to Rome, Francis met for nearly an hour with reporters; without mentioning Davis by name, Terry Moran of ABC News asked him if he would support people, including government officials, “who say they cannot in good conscience, their own personal conscience, abide by some laws or discharge their duties as government officials, for example in issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.”

Francis said he could not address all cases but said that “conscientious objection is a right that is a part of every human right. It is a right. And if a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right.”

Conservatives quickly pounced on the remarks as a papal endorsement of Davis’ cause, while others argued that it was not clear that Francis was referring to Davis or knew about her case.

(Rosie Scammell contributed to this article from the Vatican.)


About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • I would hope that Pope Francis was not speaking to Kim Davis’ situation. First, she sworn an oath in god’s name promising to do all she is required to do to fulfill her job as Rowan County Clerk. That she then violated that oath by refusing to issue marriage licenses to those qualified to receive them is a violation of that oath, and worse, violates the third commandment which admonishes against taking the Lord’s name in vain. I Francis supports her actions then he is making himself complicite in her sin; in her violation of the third commandment.

  • A foreign head of state met with an American elected official and urged her to violate her oath of office. That was a rude and undiplomatic thing for him to do.

  • I have a very hard time believing this actually happened. Why would an Apostolic Christian even want to meet the Pope? Or to call him ‘Holy Father’ and accept a rosary as a gift? All of these things are counter to her faith and would seem to be just as objectionable to her as issuing licenses for same sex marriages.
    It’s about as likely, in my opinion, as her wanting to meet the Grand Ayatollah and accepting a Koran from him as a gift. Unless, of course, all she cares about is staying in the public eye and her ‘sincerely held objections’ aren’t really that sincere after all.

  • Pope Francis has said that he is waging a “war of god” against the gay rights movement, a movement he said was created by “the father of lies.”

    So it comes as no great surprise that he’s a fan of Kim Davis. Well, I guess it’s surprising to those faitheists and “progressive” Christians who continually mistake Pope Francis for the president of the Rome chapter of PFLAG.

    But it’s not a surprise to members of the reality-based antitheist community.

  • This “report” comes from KNOWN LIARS. Why is it even being covered here, or in any *reputable* news outlet? Does RNS have any standards of verification?

  • I think it was a surprise to everybody, period. Francis was following the pro-gay “Who am I to judge” script right to the letter, prior to his remarks about Kim Davis. Nobody on any side, saw this coming.

    This is the ONLY time Pope Francis has even hinted that he might be halfway serious about marriage being exclusively male-female. Let’s hope he sticks with it and doesn’t do Obama’s worthless “evolving beliefs” mess.

  • This sounds like another lie concocted by this women with delusions of grandeur. The Pope wouldn’t spend precious time meeting with a 4-time married woman who abandoned the Catholic faith, let alone a crazy evangelical right-wing bigot.
    She desperately needs psychiatric help.

  • I have a question for those out there with morals and ethics…. “Why would any honest, God fearing/Loving person ever give one second of their time to an organization, or member of one, that knowingly hid, for Centuries, Pedophiles from the congregations (parents of the victims especially) and Law Enforcement?” Personally, the mere site of any “Person in Cloth” makes me want to vomit. Shame on you all for even covering “The Visit”!

  • CarrotCakeMan,
    ” That was a rude and undiplomatic thing for him to do. ”

    That’s exactly what I was thinking. Strange.

    This is simply another typical, guile filled effort by the CC to harm what it doesn’t like. Its failure is pending.

  • The Vatican spokesman didn’t deny the encounter took place but refused to comment on the topic. So, we shouldn’t infer that the discussion went one way or another.

  • The Vatican spokesman didn’t deny the encounter took place but refused to comment on the topic. So, we shouldn’t infer that the discussion went one way or another.

  • The Vatican spokesman didn’t deny the encounter took place but refused to comment on the topic. So, we shouldn’t infer that the discussion went one way or another.

  • Thanks to constant vigilance, I do think we are managing to hang, by a thread, onto the separation of church and state. But, as long as the church exists, I don’t ever expect to see anything close to a full separation of church and hate.

  • There is nothing secret about this meeting — it is being reported in lots of places with lots of rich details.

    This meeting, and the canonization of Junípero Serra, a genocidal priest, show the many sides of Pope Francis — welcoming to some, moving to many, and sorely out-of-touch in many ways with his American laity who do not follow the Church on abortion, birth control or gay rights.

    As to the newly-minted saint, as The New York Times explains, “Thousands of Native Americans died after being exposed to European diseases. Those who survived were forced to give up tribal customs and submit to the demands of their Christian overlords — from observing rites like baptism to enduring physical abuse and working conditions that resembled slavery.”


  • Of course, if you harken back to 1496 CE, then the Pope issued the “lines of demarcation” which granted the right to plunder the world on one side to Spain and the other to Portugal, which led to the Spanish suzerainiety over the Phillipines and the Portuguese over Brazil because those areas were just next to the lines. And there are certain prideful Catholics like Pat Buchanan, Bill Donahue, and the late Richard John Neuhaus who think that’s a model to aspire toward.

  • The premise is false – Davis is not being asked to act against her religious beliefs.She is being asked to do her job. It’s as simple as that. The forces that detest the true freedom to marry are grasping at any religious straw in order to continue holding a secular, legal right to be the same as a religious sacrament. They cannot and should not be considered as equivalent. Get the churches (and us clergy) out of the state’s area of responsibility and allow the religious sphere to honor marriages in their own way.

  • Why should by necessity secular rights trump religious rights. The US Constitution says that government may not restrict freedom for religion. How is forcing someone to put his or her name (endorsement) on a legal document that permits (a license is a permit) something they believe (and their tradition teaches) as sin to be construed in any other way than a restriction of religious freedom. You argue that secular freedom trumps religious freedom but I don’t see anything in the US Constitution about that. If anything, the government is required to make an accommodation for her in this matter, such as simply not requiring her name be on the license. It’s not hard. The problem is exactly what you illustrate, there are many Americans who are willing to restrict religious freedom for beliefs they don’t agree with. Our founders recognized this propensity in human beings to project power over others and hence defended freedom for religion.

  • But we should infer that it actually happened? nO photos, no comment, only Davis’s word that it happened. And that she called Feancis the holy father, and accepted a rosary from him.

    The other day, Davis’s lawyers were claiming that 100,000people rallied for Davis in Peru. IN PERU,WHEN SHE COULDNT GET EVEN A HUNDRED SUPPORTERS IN HER OWN COUNTRY.

    Now, they admit the photo was a fake from another event.

  • The falseness of your position is here.

    sHe is claiming that her religious rights trump the religious rights of others, including the gay people getting married, including her own staff, including the laws of the state of Kentucky, including the ministers and rabies, churches and temples, and entire denominations that support the rights of their parishioners to marry.

    Believe it or not, fundelibangelist christians are not the only religious people out there.

  • I think I am somewhat appalled. If she was that committed, she should have resigned. She took an oath of office and, in violating that oath, she “bore false witness.” Hmm, seems to me that there’s something about that in the 10 Commandments. It kind of tarnished my opinion of the Pope.
    Frankly, I have NO respect for this woman. She hurt a lot of people by her refusal to do the job she SWORE to do. She is no great representative for either moral courage of the conduct of a Christian.
    AS I said, REAL courage would be to resign…she is merely arrogant.

  • Except what Kim Davis is doing is not the free exercise of religion. She has no rights, religious or not to use her public position, to deny people something they are entitled to under the law.

    The right to attack the liberties of people is not one recognized under our laws whether one claims it is religiously inspired or not.

    Her name need not be on the document, that accommodation was already made. But evidently accommodation is not what she is looking for. She wants to maliciously deny rights to others with impunity. To keep anyone from issuing the licenses in her office.

    Your religious liberties do not allow you to commit human sacrifice because it is illegal under all laws secular or not. Neither is there a right to engage in polygamy or use certain narcotics as sacrament.

    To claim what she is doing is a form of religious freedom cheapens the concept to irrelevance. You don’t want freedom, you want to attack others with impunity. License to be malicious.

  • I’m disappointed that the pope gave Kim Davis the time of day, and hope that he understands that, while her actions may be spiritually commendable, the United States is not a theocracy, and secular law dictates that she may not obstruct the right of others to legally marry. I’m all for her resigning, or for her getting a reasonable accommodation and staying on for as long as the voters in her district are willing to pay her $80,000 to not do the job for which she was elected…but I also support marriage equality, and disagree with both Kim Davis and the pope if they do not. (Their disagreeing with me does not in itself make them bad people…but I am kinda disappointed in them both–especially the pope, who has done more than most Catholics I’ve seen or heard to note and celebrate the inherent worth and dignity of ALL people. When I pray for pope Francis I will include my plea that God open his heart still further, so he sees the harm Kim Davis has caused. What else can I do?)

  • Pat Buchanan, lacking any sense of irony rightly compared Kim Davis to those upholding segregation (like himself)

    Buchanan added that he himself had advocated civil disobedience when he urged President Nixon to defy a 1971 Supreme Court decision that “called for district-wide desegregation and allowed for the use of busing to achieve integration.”

    “I think that [Davis] did the right thing,” Buchanan said, “she defied the law and went to jail and paid the price, that’s the price of civil disobedience of an unjust law. But I do believe this. …I urged the president to defy court orders mandating court-ordered busing from counties into cities, which were tearing apart cities and towns, defy the court and work with the Congress of the United States to really circumscribe the jurisdiction of the court

  • I find it about as likely that she met the pope as that 100K people prayed for her in Peru in 2013. Mr. Staver has already been caught in a lie. Because we have forgotten about Ms. Davis and focused on someone who lives Christian values they needed a way to capture our attention back.

  • Richard, sadly, you are right. I see the invitation of our congress to the Pope to address them as a violation of the constitution, not to mention the Pope’s advocacy of a government employee who refuses to do the job she swore to do. Why didn’t she get fired?

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