To See What is in Front of One's Nose

We now have at least some clarity from the Vatican about the nature of Pope Francis's meeting with Kim Davis, the county clerk from Kentucky who stopped issuing marriage licenses after the Obergefell decision in June. (For those just joining us, it was revealed on Tuesday that the two met while he was in the States.) Here's the explanation Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, the head of the Holy See Press Office, gave for what happened:

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.

And, ahem, this further detail from Fr. Tom Rosica caught my attention: "The priest also said Francis had personally approved Friday's press statement after a meeting with Lombardi on the issue."

In short: no, this apparently was not an endorsement of Kim Davis or her claims about religious liberty, or a symbolic gesture of any kind. And no, this doesn’t seem to have been initiated by the pope – this was not Francis reaching out to make a statement about how to understand the rights of conscience or religious liberty. Unless Kim Davis or her handlers produce actual evidence to the contrary, I’ll believe the press statement issued today. It certainly makes more sense than the shifting story of her lawyers.

But here’s what must be emphasized: we didn’t need this press statement to find the claims of Davis and her legal team to be rather dubious. The entire episode seemed radically out of character with the rest of Francis’s visit, both substantively and logistically. (Read Michael O’Loughlin’s helpful and revealing juxtaposition of the way the Davis meeting unfolded compared to, well, everything else that happened during the Francis visit, including his visit with the Little Sisters of the Poor.) This dubiousness is not because of panic and bewilderment from being "disappointed" that Francis isn't a doctrinaire, American-style progressive; it’s because the entire Davis episode so obviously seemed to have something amiss about it. I don’t think it’s a sign of respect for this Pope to passively accept the version of events peddled by Davis’s lawyers at the right-wing Liberty Counsel.

When a story like this breaks, it can be exploited easily by those looking for public relations victories partly because of our collective fetish for “balanced” journalism and commentary. "Balanced" journalism means treating both “liberals” and “conservatives” with a certain solicitude; the imperative here is not the search for truth, but placating the different “sides” of a story.

A kind of theologically-inflected version of this tendency took hold with the case of Kim Davis meeting Pope Francis. We were told that the Pope was being the Pope, which is to say a Christian. And that the breadth of Catholic Christianity certainly transcends American political categories! Which is true but also, it must be said, a rather shopworn platitude. (This way of approaching the Davis situation was peddled by many, but it seemed to find special favor, oddly enough, with those conservatives who just yesterday were wringing their hands over potential schism. How swiftly they seized on this episode to recalibrate their understanding of this pope!) So Francis upsets conservatives by talking about the death penalty and climate change, and outrages liberals and progressives by talking about threats to the family and the sanctity of life. Something for everyone – and something to offend everyone. How congenial. 

You can see how easy it was to fit the Davis debacle into this narrative. And whose interests it served to deploy such thinking. 

She became the prime example of Francis reminding progressives that he’s no secular liberal – and anyway he’s from Argentina and likes Pentecostals, so it makes sense he’d seek her out, right? Though he offers plenty of caveats, consider this excerpt from Ross Douthat’s latest that deploys something similar to the "balanced" approach I've described:

[T]he pope is not really a theological liberal in the way the Western media generally understands the term; he’s certainly not Garry Wills with a miter. He is pro-life, full stop. He seems inclined to reinterpret “Humanae Vitae” in anti-colonial terms (not without reason) but not to jettison its teaching. He has shown exactly zero interest in opening a debate on women’s ordination; indeed, expanding the role of women in church governance — which I once imagined would be the easiest and safest way to satisfy progressive Catholics — seems to be strikingly low on his list of priorities. He clearly wants the church to be more welcoming to gay people, but despite the fond wishes of his admirers there is no reason to think he would ever countenance same-sex marriage. While a religious-liberty supporter and an enthusiastic ecumenist, he has some old-fashioned Catholic impulses around church-state issues: Both his comments on “Charlie Hebdo” and now his meeting with Davis suggest a different understanding of how civil government should interact with religious belief than the one held in many quarters (religious as well as secular) in the West.

Emphasis mine. Most of this, I suppose, is true – until you get to the very end. In light of today’s Vatican statement, the meeting with Davis does not suggest anything about how Francis believes “civil government should interact with religious belief.” Why would Douthat say that it did? How could he possibly have known that? See how all the throat clearing about Francis eluding our usual categories or dashing the expectations of Garry Wills-style liberals prepares the way for, and leads into, a claim about the Davis meeting that, so far as I can tell, is not true? It’s a nifty trick, rhetorically. Even as pure speculation, that's quite a bit to deduce from a brief, seemingly perfunctory encounter. (Douthat ruminated on these matters in another post a day earlier; it should be consulted, out of fairness, because it does add slightly to the complexity of his position.)

We should not let appeals to "Francis being Catholic" – and as such beyond American political categories – blunt whatever he might be trying to teach us and show us. It might seem like an expansive way of understanding Francis, but it actually can be a means of cutting him down to size. The rhetoric of "equal opportunity offender" can function as obfuscation, precisely because it de-centers the truth, and proceeds via ideological scorekeeping. The best reason to have been suspicious of the Francis-Davis meeting actually meaning much is that it seemed such a poor choice – not because of her, but because of her paltry legal case and the sheer spectacle and absurdity surrounding the entire situation. (Douthat himself admits that he finds her claims unpersuasive; oddly, he chose not to speculate that Francis might not either, if the pope even knows what precisely Davis is asserting.) What exactly does Douthat believe Francis would have wanted us to learn by holding aloft Kim Davis as a profile in courage? That government employees can refuse to do their job even when simple workarounds are available?

Here's something about which we don't need to speculate. Remember the “only real audience” mentioned in the Vatican statement I began with? That audience was granted to a gay couple on September 23, the day before Francis made the acquaintance of Kim Davis; one of the men, Yayo Grassi, has been described as “a longtime friend from Argentina.” That is, friend of Pope Francis. He brought his partner of 19 years. How Grassi said the audience came about: "Three weeks before the trip, he called me on the phone and said he would love to give me a hug." You can watch that hug here

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

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