Those who wanted to believe Pope Francis is a new kind of Catholic leader who will liberalize its approach to gender and sexuality had their bubble burst when it emerged that he took time out of his jam-packed US tour schedule to give America’s currently most notorious anti-gay bigot, Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis, a private audience with him in Washington.
Among Francis partisans, the first reaction was disbelief. But Davis and her lawyer, Mat Staver, from the right-wing Liberty Counsel, had pictures to tweet — at least of Davis and her husband inside the Vatican’s embassy, the Apostolic Nunciature, in DC –– awaiting their 15 minutes with Francis.
Francis de Bernardo of the pro-gay New Ways Ministry said that the Davis meeting, revealed after the pope’s departure from the US, “throws a wet blanket on the good will that the pontiff” built up on the US trip. New Ways itself had been denied a meeting.
Davis said that it was a private meeting and that the pope told her, “Thank you for your courage” and “stay strong.” According to Staver, the pope “held out his hands and asked Kim to pray for him. Kim held his hands and said, ‘I will. Please pray for me,’ and the pope said he would. The two embraced.”
Staver also said the papal photographer took pictures, but so far none has been released.
Davis said the embrace and encouragement from the pope “kind of validated everything” she had been through, including a stint in jail for refusing a court order to do her job as clerk and issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples –– something now being done by her staff with altered forms of questionable legality that do not bear her signature.
At first, the Vatican would neither confirm nor deny the secret meeting. A day later, it was acknowledged but no details were provided. But by October 2 when it had become clear that the Davis meeting was undoing much of the good will the pope had been trying to build by being against really bad things –– poverty, war, executions, environmental degradation –– and soft-pedaling his opposition to women’s reproductive rights and LGBT relationships and rights, Vatican spokesperson Father Federico Lombardi issued a statement downplaying the Davis encounter, saying it was “not a real audience” and that she was “one of several dozen” people the papal nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, invited to his residence to meet the pope.
Lombardi said, “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.”
On the plane back to Rome, Francis was asked by Terry Moran of ABC News, “Do you also support those individuals, 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? Do you support those kinds of claims of religious liberty?” The pope responded, “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. Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a right, a human right.”
New Ways’ De Bernardo argued it is incorrect to call refusal to issue a marriage license –– a refusal at odds with the statutory requirements of the job Davis sought from the voters –– “conscientious objection.”
Lombardi also said, “The only real audience granted by the pope at the Nunciature was with one of his former students and his family.”
That former student turned about to be an out gay man, Yayo Grassi, who was joined by his male partner of 19 years, Iwan Bagus, and some of their friends, video of which was posted online. Grassi told CNN the meeting was arranged with the pope himself. “Three weeks before the trip, he called me on the phone and said he would like to give me a hug,” he said.
Grassi, 67, said he came forward because of the flap over the Davis meeting. He claims Francis “has never been judgmental” or “said anything negative” about his sexuality. However, Grassi said, “Obviously he is the pastor of the Church and he has to follow the Church's teachings. But as a human being he understands all kinds of situations, and he is open to all kinds of people, including those with different sexual characteristics.”
Whatever the pope understands about gay people, he has expressed zero interest in changing Church teaching that homosexual activity is wrong and that same-sex marriage undermines the institution of marriage –– no less that women could be priests and bishops. He is currently refusing to recognize France’s ambassador to the Vatican because he is an openly gay man. And during his visit to America, he would not even acknowledge numerous pleas from self-affirming LGBT Catholics from Dignity and other groups to meet with him.
Indeed, all such groups were completely shut out of any official role in the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia over which Francis presided, though a homosexual man from the Catholic group Courage, which demands lifelong abstention from homosexual activity, was allowed to speak.
Liberty Counsel pushed back hard against the Vatican’s attempt to distance itself from the meeting with its star client, Davis. Staver said, “This was a private meeting with no other people except for the pope and select Vatican personnel,” though he acknowledged that the specifics of her legal case did not come up.
Esquire published a piece saying that Francis was “set up” by the Davis meeting and that it was instigated by extreme right-winger Vigano, a loyalist to Ex-Pope Benedict XVI, who wanted to embarrass Francis before the imminent expiration of his ambassadorship. Vigano joined an April march in Washington against same-sex marriage organized by the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage (NOM).
But the New Civil Rights Movement blog wrote it “has learned through a source in the Apostolic Nunciature, the Vatican embassy, that Kim Davis’ meeting was arranged — contrary to theories espoused in the media — by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops,” whose president is Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, Davis’ state. Both Kurtz and Washington, DC’s archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, are activists against same-sex marriage, and participated in the NOM march in April like Vigano.
The Liberty Counsel insists that the initiative for the meeting came from Vigano.
Despite Francis’ stonewalling of organized LGBT advocates during his US trip and the significant unknowns that remain about his meetings with Davis and with Grassi, at least some community groups seem intent on forcing the very best face on what was, earlier in the week, a troubling revelation of papal interference in US politics. On Friday afternoon, Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, in a written statement said, “It is heartening news that Pope Francis met privately with his friend and former student, Yayo Grassi, and his partner of 19 years, Iwan. It now not only appears that the pope’s encounter with Kim Davis has been mischaracterized, but that Pope Francis embraced these longtime friends.”
Bishops from around the world will be in Rome for three weeks starting this weekend for the “Synod on the Family,” the preliminary session of which in June rejected changes to the Church’s approach to gender and homosexuality.
Also meeting now in Rome is the newly-formed Global Network of Rainbow Catholics, formed by 13 groups from around the world that met for the first time during the Family Synod in 2014 in Rome and that includes DignityUSA and New Ways Ministry.
Neither the Vatican nor Liberty Counsel is a transparent institution, and we may never know the whole truth about how the Davis meeting came about or what was said. It has knocked Francis’ halo off, as did his US meeting with the Catholic Little Sisters of the Poor who are leading the charge against Obamacare’s coverage of women’s reproductive health. All those who were hoping that Francis would solve all the world’s big problems or at least reform his Church have discovered that the pope is, well, Catholic.
Indeed, the pope’s refusal to meet with dissidents in Cuba –– embracing the Castros who once banned his Church –– and his refusal to meet with the Dalai Lama lest he upset the Chinese government demonstrate that his prime agenda is securing the power and reach of his institution. While he is willing to make some symbolic gestures toward women and gay people to appease Western sentiments, he has shown no inclination to share power or concede equality with them in his patriarchal Church.