Like all liberals and even a few social conservatives, I believe Kim Davis’s legal case is a weak one. More importantly, I believe the moral analysis behind it is confused. As others have argued, if Davis could no longer carry out her official duties as a county clerk without violating her conscience, then she should have followed the example of Thomas More and resigned. That might have entailed a real hardship for her and her family, at least until she found another job, but the principle of religious freedom does not protect us from every kind of hardship or inconvenience. It protects us—sometimes—from being fined or imprisoned.
It is possible that Pope Francis is not familiar with the details of Davis’s case. Perhaps he only knows that she went to jail because of her opposition to same-sex civil marriage, which he, too, opposes. Then again, it’s possible that he is familiar with the details, and agrees with Davis and her lawyers, in which case I think he’s mistaken.
Now, one can admire Francis and believe he is mistaken—either about this case in particular or about same-sex civil marriage more generally. (Or about capitalism or cap-and-trade, for that matter.) It is much harder to admire Francis, however, if you believe that only a bigot could be opposed to same-sex marriage—if you believe, that is, that all the arguments against it can be reduced to homophobia. And many liberals, including many liberal Catholics, do seem to believe that. Which is one reason the pope’s meeting with Davis has caused so much panic and bewilderment.
Some people are upset because they believe the pope, in meeting with Davis, was being used by culture-warriors. I note that this is very similar to what some conservative Catholics have said about the pope’s cooperation with environmentalists: Doesn’t he know he’s being used by the church’s enemies, by people who support contraception and abortion and socialism? (My friend Rusty Reno, the editor of First Things, has written that he finds this pontificate exhausting. What I have found exhausting during this pontificate are all the warnings that, if Francis isn’t careful, he’s going to find himself liked by the wrong kind of people.) Of course, this similarity between the response of liberals in one case and that of conservatives in another does not prove that either side is wrong. Maybe the pope is being used in one way or the other; it’s even conceivable he’s being used in both ways. But why not at least start with the assumption that Francis is a grown-up who can take care of himself, understands the implications of his actions, and means what he says. Conspiracy theories, including those that treat the pope like a puppet, should always be a last resort.*
Some have suggested that when the pope talks about economic justice and climate change, you can tell his heart is really in it, whereas, when he talks about abortion, contraception, or homosexuality, he appears to be going through the motions, saying what any pope has to say given the constraints of his office. (Once in a while he quietly signals his real ambivalence: “Who am I to judge?”) Other liberals accept that the pope really does disagree with them about some issues, but are willing to forgive him as long as he doesn’t say too much about them. They congratulate him for the Vatican’s change of emphasis and tone (so do I, by the way) and for refusing to be drawn into the “culture wars”—that is, until he went and blessed Kim Davis and her husband. Now they ask, "What was he thinking?"
But culture's about more than sex, and this pope is no less confrontational than his predecessors. In Laudato si’, he treats economic and environmental policy as moral and, yes, cultural issues, and he doesn’t seem to mind offending those who stand in the way of conversion and reform. Did you hear what he said to Congress about the arms trade? If Francis is a pope particularly committed to dialogue, he is also a pope who believes in plain-speaking.
So, if you are a Catholic who supports same-sex marriage, women’s ordination, or anything else about which this pope’s position cannot be described as liberal, you should feel perfectly free to share in the widespread enthusiasm for him. There are, after all, many reasons to admire Francis, and you don't need anyone's permission. You should also feel free not to admire him: there's no obligation, not even for Catholics. But a Catholic should at least respect Francis, and that means taking him at his word. All his words.
*For a vivid example of this tendency, see the fourth comment below.