The Vatican's Internal Fight Over Kim Davis and the Pope

Did Francis understand what he was doing when he met the Rowan County clerk? Let the debate begin.

Pope Francis with his spokesman, Federico Lombardi, in 2013 (Vincenzo Pinto / Reuters )

Updated 9:30 a.m. EST

This week, lawyers for Liberty Counsel and representatives from the Vatican confirmed that Pope Francis met with Kim Davis, the clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky, who has refused to issue same-sex-marriage licenses.* It immediately became one of the biggest stories about the pope’s trip to the United States: A pontiff who has strained to change the Church’s tone on issues from abortion to homosexuality met with one of the most divisive figures in American politics.

Conservatives chalked it up as a win. The Church’s more progressive prelates pushed back. Now, the Vatican is downplaying the get together. “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,” wrote the Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi in a statement to reporters. “Such brief greetings occur on all papal visits and are due to the Pope’s characteristic kindness and availability.”

The greatest source of speculation since the news of the visit came out has been: Did the pope know who Kim Davis was and understand the controversy she represents? “The Pope did not enter into the details of the situation of Mrs. Davis,” Lombardi wrote. “His meeting with her should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects.”

A few hours after the Vatican released its statement, Liberty Counsel, the firm representing Davis, shot back its own counter-statement. “Neither Kim Davis nor Liberty Counsel ever said the meeting was an endorsement of her legal case,” said Mat Staver, Davis’s lawyer. “Rather, the meeting was a pastoral meeting to encourage Kim Davis in which Pope Francis thanked her for her courage and told her to ‘Stay strong.’ His words and actions support the universal human right to conscientious objection.”

It’s still not clear who arranged the meeting with Davis from the Vatican side. In an interview on Wednesday, Staver refused to say who had reached out to his firm, although he noted that their conversations began before Francis arrived in the United States. Thomas Rosica, the Vatican’s English-language media representative, claims that Vatican staff did not organize the meeting, according to the Religion News Service. Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter has speculated who the representative was: “Seeing as the meeting happened at the nunciature in Washington, it could only have happened with the approval and participation of the nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano.”

When the news first came out, a few American priests immediately began to downplay the visit. “It’s hard to know how much the Pope Francis knew about each individual who was introduced to him during his long trip to the United States,” wrote the Jesuit priest James Martin in America magazine. “His words to her, ‘Be strong,’ and his gift of a rosary seem to be the kind of thing the pope might do for anyone presented to him.”

Others seemed to offer a quiet note of support, though. For example: Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, who heads the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, told me Wednesday that he wouldn’t comment on the meeting, 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.”

The walk-back from the Vatican suggests officials in Rome are realizing the potentially long-lasting effects that this meeting could have on how people remember the pope’s visit. As Staver told me on Wednesday, the people who coordinated this meeting realized the story would dominate news cycles as soon as it came out. As speculation grows that this was a subtle political play by the pope or a signal in advance of an upcoming meeting of bishops in Rome on issues of the family, the Vatican is trying to wrest back control of the narrative. The question is: What will happen to the person who set the meeting up?

* This article has been updated to clarify that Kim Davis has refused to issue same-sex-marriage licenses in Rowan County, Kentucky, rather than refusing to perform same-sex marriages, which clerks are not authorized to do under Kentucky law.