And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ – Matthew 9:10-13
Why did the Pope meet with Kim Davis, the County Clerk in Kentucky infamous for defying federal law by refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples? Parsing and exegeting this particular event has taken on a life of its own, with Roman Catholics and non-Roman Catholics, secular liberal and conservative pundits, and critics of the Vatican and supporters all analyzing it as if it was a grand historical event. In part this flows from the general non-Catholic warming to Pope Francis. He certainly seems far more congenial than Benedict or John Paul in his later years. He is not a theologian in the way Ratzinger was in his life before being raised to the Holy See. Nor was he a public intellectual in what was for all intents and purposes an occupied country the way Karol Wojtyla had been prior to his election in 1978. Rather than a political prisoner, orphan, or other obvious outcast, Kim Davis is part of a power structure that sought to use that power to subvert the law of the land to fit her prejudices. She seems far from the kind of people with whom Francis usually meets.
There are all sorts of things to consider: Pope Francis’s background as priest then Bishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, child of Italian immigrants to Argentina, a country whose Fascist rule lasted until their defeat by the British in the Falkland Islands War in 1982; a member of the Jesuit order, Francis deliberately took the name of one of the most revered saints in the western tradition to present a different Pontifical face both to the Holy Roman Catholic Church and to the world; someone who is trying with both deliberation and silence to make long-term changes within both the Vatican bureaucracy and the College of Cardinals, considering the role both played in covering up decades of abuse by pedophile priests around the world; a man sympathetic to the plight of the poor and outside while also dedicated to maintaining the integrity of Canon Law and Church tradition which means there has been no more discussion of the place of women in the Catholic Church than there was under his predecessors, while certainly offering a friendlier voice to sexual minorities the Church’s position on such folk hasn’t budged, and there aren’t even whispers Francis will change the Church’s position regarding birth control. In other words, people who understand all this are cautious about the PR campaign offering Francis as the smiling, friendly new Pope who is open to the world in ways neither of his predecessors were.
At the same time, there is Kim Davis, of whom some people still write and say she has been “persecuted” for her religious beliefs. Others, however, continue to insist she was prosecuted for failing to fulfill her legal duties. Relatively speaking, while vocal her supporters are small compared to those who now continue to vilify and degrade her in public. While certainly not a victim of religious persecution, she is nonetheless something we Americans create all the time with our 24-hour news cycles and all-too-shallow “celebrity” press: a social outcast. In a normal, healthy society, people outside Kentucky wouldn’t care all that much. Ours is neither normal nor healthy. Our “news” programs offer us entertainment, with heroes and villains, faithful allies and inhuman enemies. Rather than offer perspective that keeps the matter Kim Davis where it belongs, a local story about one recalcitrant County Clerk, our media – from 24-hour news channels to social media where the abundance of opinions equals the abundance of orifices – becomes magnified out of all proportion. Rather than a sad, stubborn woman breaking the law she suddenly becomes, depending upon one’s perspective, either a hero standing against the ever-increasing moral degradation of America at the hands of an overpowering federal government; or she’s a villain, using her recently adopted religious beliefs as a thin veil over her prejudices, a homo-hater of the first order, little different from George Wallace standing in front of the school house door, surrounded by Federal Marshals dedicated to enforcing the law over his defiance.
Precisely because of the shallowness, simple-mindedness, and ubiquity of our media, we have our facile understanding of what the Pope does and doesn’t do combined with our Manichaean understanding of Kim Davis and her actions. These two people meeting could mean all sorts of things. To me, however, it’s simple: our Pope is meeting with a social pariah, much the way Jesus did. Such a meeting might or might not mean some kind of endorsement or acceptance of what Ms. Davis has done. It could also mean the Pope was offering little more than the grace of the Church’s acceptance of all in and through his person. News reports out this morning from Vatican City insist the meeting was not any kind of support or endorsement. True or not, I believe what Pope Francis did is in our best traditions as Christians; we are so quick to applaud when he washes the feet of young homeless girls or has dinner with Washington, DC’s homeless population rather than give a speech to Congress. Why do so many suddenly become upset that he meets with a person our media has decided is the public face of anti-homosexual prejudice? I’m quite sure the personal, emotional toll being the center of so much nasty public attention is difficult. Why wouldn’t a Pope offer the solace of Christian love to such a one as her? Why aren’t more churches doing so? Why are we so committed to justice, yet fail to see the injustice visited upon a woman who was acting out of misguided principles?
The Pope’s act has cast judgement upon all of us who call ourselves Christian yet are oh-so-quick to condemn the person along with the act. The Pope has reached to her; why aren’t more of us?
UPDATE AND CORRECTION: So . . . it seems that this post was just a tad premature:
According to an official Vatican statement, Kim Davis was among “several dozen persons” attending a reception at the Vatican embassy, “the pope did not enter into the details of the situation,” and “his meeting with her should not be considered a form of support.”
Moreover, it seems that the pope did not request Kim Davis be invited.
According to press reports, one man was likely responsible for Davis’s invitation: Carlo Maria Vigano, a conservative church official who was appointed by Pope Benedict as Vatican ambassador to the United States (formally called the “apostolic nuncio”).
The Vatican’s full statement can be read here (.pdf) and reads:
The brief meeting between Mrs. Kim Davis and Pope Francis at the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, DC has continued to provoke comments and discussion. In order to contribute to an objective understanding of what transpired I am able to clarify the following points: Pope Francis met with several dozen persons who had been invited by the Nunciature to greet him as he prepared to leave Washington for New York City. Such brief greetings occur on all papal visits and are due to the Pope’s characteristic kindness and availability. The only real audience granted by the Pope at the Nunciature was with one of his former students and his family. The Pope did not enter into the details of the situation of Mrs. Davis and his meeting with her should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects.
Apparently, the Pope doesn’t like being used in domestic political disputes in other countries.
Esquire’s political writer Charlie Pierce has more; apparently the whole thing was a set up, and any reports of support from the Pope for Ms. Davis were made up out of whole cloth.
This is just ugly. And heinous. I’m not Catholic and I have no illusions about Francis being some hippie-Pope, but no Holy Father should be treated with such disrespect. This kind of lying cowardice is just wrong.