The Pope’s ‘controversial’ meeting with the Kentucky county clerk

Pope Francis was supposed to come to America to shake his finger at the right over inequality, immigration, and global warming; so it was a shock when he stepped right into our culture war.


WASHINGTON, Sept. 30, 2015 — The headline sounds like satire: “Pope Francis Invites Kim Davis to Washington Meeting.”

That seemed enough like a right-wing fantasy to make some people doubt.

A writer for ReverbPress observed,  “I won’t say I feel Kim Davis is lying about having met Pope Francis. I will say that I require a version of alleged events from witnesses that are not Kim Davis, her husband, her lawyers or the Liberty Counsel.”

If the story still seems far-fetched, note that NPR, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, the Guardian and other moderately credible news outlets have reported it as fact.

If they’ve all been spoofed, miters off to the genius who engineered it, but the story seems true: Pope Francis, a man riding a huge wave of popularity and moral authority, met for between 10 and 15 minutes with the much reviled Kim Davis.

A spokesperson for the Vatican has confirmed that the meeting the left is calling “controversial” did in fact happen.

Pope Francis met with Davis and her husband, giving her two rosaries that the Apostolic Christian re-gifted to her parents, who are Catholics. President Obama gave the pope-blessed rosary he received to Nancy Pelosi. “It was really very humbling to even think that he would want to meet me or know me,” Davis said in an interview broadcast by ABC News.

The shock on the left is palpable.

Talking to reporters following the meeting Pope Francis defended conscientious objection as a human right: “It is a right. And if a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right.”

Rosaries gifted to Kim Davis (Image courtesy Liberty Council)
Rosaries given to Kim Davis (Image courtesy Liberty Council)

Before his visit to the U.S., the left anticipated harsh words from the pontiff on income inequality, capitalism, global warming and immigration. They memed him all over the internet as the anti-Republican man of God, the holy man who knew his Christianity from the Second Amendment and who would shake his finger at conservatives and send them scurrying like a pack of temple money-changers.

And then this.

Esquire’s Charles Pierce wrote, “This is, obviously, the dumbest thing this Pope ever has done.” A writer for the Guardian opined, “It should now be clear to all that (the pope) and the Catholic Church remain steadfastly on the wrong side of history, mired in a discriminatory past.”

But as the Guardian observed, it should really have been no surprise.

Pope Francis has made comments suggesting greater openness to the LGBT community and a desire for a kinder approach from the church. In a 2013 news conference, he said , “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” His clear implication was of a new tone from the Vatican in its approach to gays and lesbians, but there was no hint of a change in doctrine.

The pope’s comments in the Philippines this year made clear that, if he takes a softer approach to the LGBT community, that softness does not extend to same-sex marriage. He said during a mass in Manila, “The family is threatened by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage, by relativism, by the culture of the ephemeral, by a lack of openness to life.”

His comments to the U.S. Congress last week made reference to “fundamental” family relationships imperiled by alternate arrangements, and during a press conference on his flight back to Rome, he expressed support of “conscientious objectors” who refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses.

In fact, the pope has been consistent and clear over the last two years: The church must treat gays and lesbians with compassion and human decency, but only marriage between a man and a woman is a holy sacrament, only that form of marriage should be institutionalized in law, and support of the traditional family is central to the mission of the church.

The pope’s views represent half a loaf to the LGBT community, much more than they received from prior popes. They may have hoped that he would eventually give them the other half of the loaf, but as he has now made very clear, he will not.

If Pope Francis will not, who will?

And so it seems that he has lost his “moral authority” and squandered the good will of the American left. It is unlikely he regrets that lost moral authority; his real moral authority does not rest on winning the approval of American liberals.

They misunderstand the nature of moral authority, believing it to be a reward they bestow on those who agree with them.

Moral authority is not a manifestation of popularity. Whether you believe that the pope has any moral authority at all is a personal question, but if the answer depends on whether he agrees with you on any particular subject, you have confused moral authority with your personal stamp of approval.

The pope’s meeting with Davis, a registered Democrat, and his support of “conscientious objection” to same-sex marriage were a political mistake if his goal was to retain the approbation of the American left. He stepped firmly into America’s culture war in a way guaranteed to cheer the American right.

His stances on immigration, wealth and global warming matter to left and right, but with that meeting, they were forgotten or forgiven. The culture war trumps all.

The correct stance on same-sex marriage and abortion matter more than anything else to political forces that have tried for over 40 years to make every vote a referendum on abortion. The pope should have been warned that the right to perform or prevent abortions is far more important to us than poverty, the number of people in the Middle East killed by American arms and policies, dead refugees in shipping containers, and wealth inequality. Same-sex marriage is not far behind.

They are our most important shibboleths.

The pope’s visit to the U.S. has been converted from an occasion for the left to discover its appreciation of religious figures in our public life to something more complex. The pope is suddenly neither a creature of the American right nor of the left, but just the pope: the head of the Roman Catholic church, a priest whose agenda is not ours and a man whose moral authority is independent of our politics.

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Jim Picht
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.