A common theme of commentaries on Pope Francis’ triumphant visit to the United States was that he found a way to preach the Christian Gospel without being dragged into the culture wars that have done so much to divide Americans. Those rave reviews need to be revised with the Vatican’s confirmation that Francis met privately with Kim Davis, the Rowan County, Ky., clerk who invoked “God’s authority” in refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Davis served five days in jail after a federal judge held her in contempt of court.
It’s part of a pope’s job description to console those who have been imprisoned; a highlight of Francis’ visit was his moving encounter with inmates at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, Philadelphia’s largest prison. But his meeting with the unrepentant Davis inevitably created the impression that the pope agreed with her assertion of a religious right to defy the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. That impression is strengthened by comments the pope made in an interview on his plane back to Rome. In response to a question, he said conscientious objection “is a human right, and if a government official is a human person, he has that right.”
Obviously the pope is free to express his opinions about political matters, as he did when he called on Congress to abolish the death penalty. But Americans of all faiths also have the right to take issue with what he says. According to Davis’ lawyers, the pope thanked her for her courage and exhorted her to “stay strong” — sentiments that sound like an endorsement of the extreme view that a government official may ignore her duties and defy a court order.
That wasn’t the only hint that the pope was embracing the long-standing (and in our view overblown) claim that religiously liberty in this country is under siege. While in Washington, Francis also visited members of the Little Sisters of the Poor. That Catholic charity has refused to complete the paperwork necessary to obtain an exemption from a federal requirement that large employers include contraception in their health insurance plans. (The contraceptives are covered instead by a third party.)
Interestingly, the pope chose not to adopt the alarmist language of some Catholic bishops in his speech on religious liberty at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. While he insisted that religious groups must have a voice in the “public square,” his emphasis was on the importance of people from many faiths joining their voices in “calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others.”
His visit with Davis and his seeming endorsement of her defiance send a different, and deeply disappointing, message.