The pope has left the United States, but details are still coming out about his trip. Here’s a big one: Last Thursday afternoon, during his time in Washington, D.C., he met with Kim Davis, the Rowan County clerk who has refused to perform same-sex marriages, her lawyers say.
“She left at 1:15 exactly, and she was at the Vatican [embassy] a hour and a half or so, maybe up to two hours, waiting, and that also included the meeting,” said Mat Staver, her attorney at the firm Liberty Counsel, said. Davis and her husband, Joe, met with the pope for “under 15 minutes,” Staver said. “The pope came out and greeted her, held out his hand, ask Kim to pray for him, and she clasped his hands with her hands, and asked the pope to pray for her.”
One major question is: What exactly did the pope say to Davis? “He thanked her for her courage and told her to ‘stay strong,’” Staver said. The pope spoke in English and gave Davis and her husband two rosaries, which they gave to Davis’s parents, who are Catholic.
“A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, confirmed the meeting, but declined to elaborate on it. He said he ‘did not deny that the meeting took place, but I have no other comments to add,’” reports The New York Times.
Joseph Kurtz, the archbishop of Louisville, Kentucky, and the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wouldn’t comment on the meeting itself and how it came about, noting that he stayed about a mile away from the nunciature where Pope Francis stayed during his visit to D.C. But “I can comment on the fact that in Kentucky, I had said that I’m not a lawyer or a politician, but I had certainly hoped that room could be made for people of conscience,” he said on Wednesday. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was the primary coordinator of the pope’s schedule during his visit to the United States.
That this meeting happened is somewhat of a surprise: Davis has been one of the most polarizing figures in American politics in recent months, seen by some on the right as the foremost fighter against violations of religious liberty. When Pope Francis came to the U.S., his message was exactly the opposite—one of unity and reconciliation, not combativeness.
But it’s not surprising that the Vatican went about it this way. During his visit, the pope made a non-public stop to speak with victims of sexual abuse that the Vatican didn't announce until the last day of his trip, hoping not to distract from the pope’s larger message. This is how the Vatican often arranges controversial meetings: privately, and not to be shared until later.
Staver said Vatican officials reached out to his offices before the pope landed in the United States and confirmed the meeting on Wednesday evening. He would not say which officials reached out to him. But he echoed a Vatican-like logic on how the meeting came about, and why it stayed private until now. “We collectively thought that it was best not to detract from the other broader messages that he had,” Staver said. “Had it been revealed even why he was here, he would have gotten a lot of questions about Kim Davis.”
During the trip, there were several hints that the pope was aware of the back-and-forth about religious liberty in the United States. He met with the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of nuns who have pushed back on the Obama administration’s so-called contraceptive mandate. He made a somewhat sabre-rattling defense of individual conscience and religious liberty at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. And on the plane back to Rome, a reporter from ABC News, Terry Moran, obliquely asked Pope Francis what he would think about a situation like the one in Rowan County:
Holy Father, 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?
“I can say the conscientious objection is a right that is a part of every human right,” the pope answered. When pressed as to whether this also included government officials, he added, “It is a human right and if a government official is a human person, he has that right. It is a human right.”
Staver also pointed out that the pope mentioned freedom of conscience during his speech to Congress, although even the most direct reference to that subject was opaque: “A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom, and individual freedoms,” the pope said.
But there may have been a specific issue on his mind. “By that point, he had already [agreed to meet] with Kim Davis,” Staver said.*
* This article originally implied that Pope Francis met with Kim Davis before his speech to Congress, rather than after. We regret the error.