The private meeting Pope Francis held with Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis is a strong papal endorsement of religious resistance to gay marriage, but it does not necessarily mean he approves of how she has waged her fight, experts said on Wednesday.
The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, said their encounter in Washington on Thursday last week was private.
Out of deference to the Vatican, Davis’ attorney, Mat Staver, would not say how it was arranged.
The Vatican essentially confirmed it, without further comment.
Davis said she grasped the pope’s outstretched hand, and he told her to “stay strong.”
Davis refused to issue any marriage licenses in Rowan County rather than comply with the US Supreme Court’s opinion that said homosexuals could be issued marriage licenses throughout the US.
Davis spent five days in jail after she refused to resign.
Some of her deputies now issue licenses without her authority, and she claims they are invalid.
“Just knowing that the pope is on track with what we’re doing and agreeing, you know, it kind of validates everything,” Davis told ABC News.
Vatican observers say that is reading too much into the visit.
“You can’t take his presence with somebody as his affirmation of everything that they stand for,” said Cathleen Kaveny, a theologian and legal academic at Boston College. “He thanked her for her courage and told her to stay strong. That’s a commitment to her voice in the conversation. I don’t think it’s necessarily commitment to her policy views.”
Francis, whose visit to the US ended on Sunday, largely steered clear of issues like homosexuality and abortion, telling US bishops to avoid “harsh and divisive” language, despite the challenges they face in society.
From the start of his six-day tour, Francis encouraged Americans to preserve religious freedom.
At the White House, he said: “American Catholics are committed to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive,” then said “they are likewise concerned that efforts to build a just and wisely ordered society respect their deepest concerns and their right to religious liberty.”
Francis raised questions about whether he prioritizes objections to homosexual marriage and other laws as much as US bishops do.
The pope also had a private meeting with the Little Sisters of the Poor, a religious order that is suing US President Barack Obama over requirements of the Affordable Care Act, arguing that an exemption for religious objectors is too narrow.
Both meetings “refute the mistaken idea that the pope was somehow trying to put distance between himself and the current, on-the-ground religious freedom controversies and challenges that the American bishops and others are facing,” said Rick Garnett, a University of Notre Dame law professor who specializes in religious freedom.
Davis, who is an Apostolic Christian, and her husband were called to the Vatican embassy on Thursday last week. They met with the pope for less than 15 minutes, but left inspired as the pope thanked her for her courage and told her to “stay strong,” Staver said.
That was puzzling to Francis DeBernardo, who runs the New Ways Ministry, which seeks acceptance for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Catholics.
The pope had turned away a crush of advocacy groups lobbying to see him and held only a few private meetings, with groups including Catholic schools and heads of Catholic nonprofits. That he carved out even a few minutes in his event-packed schedule for Davis was noteworthy.
“It throws a wet blanket on the goodwill that the pontiff had garnered during his US visit last week,” DeBernardo said.
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