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Making sense of the Pope's message to America–including the Kim Davis meeting

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 02, 2015

The hectic week of the papal visit—during which inspiration mingled with confusion and frustration—has been followed by another hectic week of coping with the aftermath, including the surprise announcement that the Holy Father had met with Kim Davis. Let me try to make sense of what has happened, and point readers toward essays by other analysts that I found helpful.

The arrival of the Vicar of Christ on American soil should always be a joyful time for Catholic Americans. Any balanced report on the papal visit should take into account the exhilarating feelings of the many thousands who waited for hours, and battled through security controls, to see Pope Francis in Washington, New York, and Philadelphia. The opportunity to see St. Peter’s successor in person is a thrill and a blessing. Moreover, Pope Francis has a remarkable gift for lifting spirits by his mere gestures, even when he doesn’t say a word.

However, we live in a highly politicized society, and most of the reporters who followed the Pope viewed the visit through an exclusively political lens, paying short shrift to the significance of this trip as an apostolic journey. To be candid, Pope Francis himself contributed to this tendency, because when he spoke at public events (as opposed to liturgical ceremonies), he carefully fashioned his arguments in terms that a secular audience could understand. Apart from personal references, there were very few phrases in his remarks at the White House, his address to Congress, and his appearance before the UN General Assembly that could not have been uttered by a the head of some non-denominational humanitarian agency.

Even when he spoke to a Philadelphia rally for religious freedom —a perfect occasion, it seemed, to urge Catholics to take action—the Pope stuck to his non-sectarian message. The highlight of his address was powerful, but not distinctively Catholic:

In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others.

(Later that same evening, at a prayer vigil for the World Meeting of Families, Pope Francis set aside his prepared text, as he often does, to speak to his audience from the heart. That rhetorical technique is endearing and often effective, and the audience loved his talk. But because he ignored his script, he did not deliver what might have been his strongest message on both sacramental message and the role of the Church:

Jesus was not a confirmed bachelor, far from it! He took the Church as his bride, and made her a people of his own. He laid down hs life for those He loved, so that his bride, the Church, could always know that He is God with us, his people, his family. We cannot understand Christ without his Church, just as we cannot understand the Church without her spouse, Christ Jesus, Who gave his life out of love, and Who makes us see that it is worth the price.)

All through his American sojourn the Pope avoided speaking directly on the most controversial issues of the “culture wars”—although his unscheduled visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor delivered a clear unspoken message. The Pope’s public remarks clearly reaffirmed Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality, but steered clear of current debates on abortion, funding for Planned Parenthood, and mandatory funding for contraception in health-care programs.

Questioned about the Pope’s silence on those issues, Father Federico Lombardi, the director of the Vatican press office, told reporters that the Pontiff preferred to emphasize a positive message. But that explanation is not entirely satisfactory. The Pope’s message was not terribly positive when he spoke about the threats to the environment or the injustices of the global economic system. Other analysts suggested that the Pope did not want to become involved in America’s domestic political debates. But Pope Francis plunged headlong into the discussion of immigration: perhaps the most hotly debated issue of the political season.

So why was it, then, that the Pope left the US without having made any clear, undeniable statement of support for the embattled public defenders of Christian sexual morality? Was he deliberately distancing himself from the culture warriors?

With that question hanging in the air, the news that the Pope had met with Kim Davis shed an entirely new light on the entire apostolic visit. The visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor—who are locked in a legal battle with the Obama administration over the contraceptive mandate—was a clear gesture of support, by a Pontiff who specializes in gestures. But a meeting with Kim Davis conveyed an even more powerful message.

The Kentucky county clerk, who was jailed because she refused to sign marriage licenses for same-sex couples, is a pariah to the Left—not just because she opposes same-sex marriage (that might be forgiven), but because she refuses to accept the notion that a Supreme Court decision can re-define reality. Liberal Catholics, who argue that the Church should embrace dissenters on so many doctrinal issues, drew the line at the idea that the Pope would embrace a dissenter from the Obergefell decision.

The irrepressible Father James Martin led the charge, pouring out Twitter messages, insisting that the Pope’s meeting with Kim Davis did not imply support for Kim Davis. Soon, from the Vatican press office, his fellow Jesuit, Father Lombardi, sent out the same message:

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.

Well, of course the meeting did not indicate the Pope’s support for the political stand taken by Kim Davis “in all of its particular and complex aspects.” It is unlikely that Pope Francis was fully briefed about the legal dispute that put Davis behind bars in Kentucky; he was not offering her a blanket endorsement. But he did meet with her; he did offer her encouragement. It was a gesture, not a public statement. But the meaning of that gesture is unmistakable.

Still later it was revealed that the Pope also met with an old friend, a former student, who is homosexual. This, we were solemnly instructed, clearly showed that he did not support Kim Davis. Nonsense! Pope Francis has frequently said that the Church should reach out in friendship toward homosexuals; that was never in question. By meeting with Kim Davis he sent a different message: that Christians should not be treated as pariahs when they challenge the fashionable public consensus.

For readers looking for other perspectives on the Pope’s visit and its aftermath, I recommend:

  • An America interview with R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things, who explains how the Pope’s identity as a Jesuit shapes his approach. Sample: “When he was first elected, I knew nothing about his reputation, but I knew he was a Jesuit and one of my friends asked: ‘What do you think?’ I said: ‘Strap on your seatbelt.’ And my friend asked: ‘Why?’ I said: ‘Because he’s a Jesuit.’ That extremism is a strength and a weakness of the Society. And I think his papacy has great strength, but also great weaknesses.
  • Another interview, with theologian Russell Hittinger, on the Pope’s unique approach to the world’s economic and social problems. Sample: “Our global elite, the people who are in charge of leading us and protecting the common good and who protect our important institutions from universities to banks to businesses, they think technocratically. That means they don’t think socially, culturally or morally. They think rather in terms of numbers and cost/benefit. It tends to be a very short-term way of thinking.”
  • Springtime for Liberal Christianity, in which New York Times columnist Ross Douthat suggests that Pope Francis has revived the intellectual respectability of liberal thought in Christian circles. Sample: “He is certainly not a Marxist, and he’s not a “liberal” as American politics understands the terms. But he has been a gift to liberals who are also Christians, to religious believers whose politics lean left.”
  • A short essay by veteran Vatican journalist John Thavis on how the Pope’s approach to religious freedom differs from that of the American Catholic bishops. Sample: “At the official “religious freedom” event during his U.S. visit, Pope Francis never mentioned the U.S. bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom” campaigns, nor their battles over alleged religious discrimination on Obamacare provisions and conscience protection issues.”
  • Michael Brendan Dougherty’s pithy explanation of Why the media lost its mind over Kim Davis meeting Pope Francis. Sample: “In the hands of our nation's true clerical class — journalists — this particular pope's function is to demoralize and shame the bad Catholics, i.e., the conservative ones. The previous pope's function was to symbolize their wicked intransigence.”

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: feedback - Oct. 05, 2015 6:53 AM ET USA

    "Indiscreet speech may lead men into error and an imprudent silence may leave in error those who could have been taught. Pastors who lack foresight hesitate to say openly what is right because they fear losing the favor of men. As the voice of truth tells us, such leaders are not zealous pastors who protect their flocks, rather they are like mercenaries who flee by taking refuge in silence when the wolf appears." [St Gregory the Great, Pope; from past Sunday's Office of Readings in the Breviary]

  • Posted by: Thomas429 - Oct. 03, 2015 11:09 PM ET USA

    The Holy Father erred badly by not speaking more as the leader of the Church. Platitudinous pronouncements are poor excuses for strong positions when they come form politicians. They are nearly unforgivable when they come from the wearer of the shoes of the fisherman at a time such as this. His pronouncements against capitalism and in support of "Climate Change" hysteria are even more galling.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Oct. 03, 2015 12:00 AM ET USA

    It is hard to believe that the Pope had a private meeting with a non Catholic and he was not completely briefed on the situation.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Oct. 02, 2015 11:26 PM ET USA

    The apparent picking and choosing by the Pope of what to say - and not say - where and when and not where and not when simply leaves a wake of confusion pretty much like this sentence. The only thing that seems clear is that his secular oriented messages are: a) the most public and b) the most prominent which makes you wonder...

  • Posted by: JonathanC - Oct. 02, 2015 8:34 PM ET USA

    The faithful just can't catch a break! In the face of SSM (a disaster for western culture) and the open assault to religious liberty from Obama care, at a time when we needed our Pope to be speak forthrightly on these issues, he instead spoke generically and "positively," in niceties and platitudes. None of this saves souls, much less families, much less cultures. What a colossal waste of opportunity! The disappointment is immeasurable, the sense of despair overwhelming.