To many observers, it may seem strange that the Vatican would choose to keep a secret of what has been called “the most significant meeting” of the Pope’s entire trip to the United States: his 15-minute encounter with Kentucky County Clerk, Kim Davis.
Why would the Church wish to hide such a symbolically important gesture from the public eye until after the Pope had returned to Rome? The meeting occurred on Thursday, September 24, and the news wasn’t released until Tuesday evening, September 29. Why the lag?
One answer could be that Vatican officials were embarrassed about the meeting and didn’t want to make it look like the Pope was weighing in on the contentious issue of gay marriage and supporting a figure who was standing up for her religious rights against the Supreme Court, which had ruled in June that same-sex marriage was now the law of the land.
If that were the case, however, the Vatican wouldn’t have released the news at all, not even after the Pope returned to Rome. If they were clever enough to keep it secret for nearly a week, they could have made sure it never got out.
Moreover, though the Pope’s meeting with Davis was first and foremost a pastoral act, aimed at encouraging her and strengthening her resolve, it was also a political gesture, with a very clear meaning in today’s cultural climate. That act would only make sense if it were intended to be revealed.
As John Allen has noted, that gesture has in fact “significantly strengthened the hand of the U.S. bishops and other voices in American debates defending religious freedom.”
Davis’ lawyer Mat Staver said, in fact, that the news wasn’t “leaked” Tuesday, but rather released with the Vatican’s permission, and that both Davis and the Vatican had agreed that it would be better to wait until the Pope had finished his trip.
“We did not want to release the information up to this time, nor did the Vatican, because the Vatican wanted to focus its message on a lot of issues, and at the right time we ultimately released the information and the Vatican gave us the opportunity to do so,” Staver said.
Staver said that they feared the story would overshadow the “broader message” that Francis wanted to bring to the U.S.
On the Vatican’s part, a spokesman said Wednesday, “I do not deny that the meeting took place, but I have no comments to add,” which is one way of confirming the story as reported.
Other reports noted that the Vatican does not customarily offer information on private meetings with the Pope, which this was.
Vatican journalist Robert Moynihan, who broke the story of the Pope’s meeting with Davis, suggested that the Vatican wished to avoid the “politicization” of a “pastoral trip,” since the Pope had several important messages he wanted to drive home during his visit, and news such as this with a political edge could have sidetracked the narrative the Pope was looking for.
In a conversation with journalists on the papal plane regarding the Kim Davis case, Pope Francis came down firmly on the side of government employees in their right to conscientious objection on the basis of their religious convictions.
Terry Moran of ABC asked the Pope whether he supports individuals—including government officials—who say they cannot in good conscience abide by some laws or discharge their duties as state officials, such as issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Francis replied that “conscientious objection is a right” that must be respected and “if someone does not allow others to object on the basis of conscience, he denies a right.”
“There should be room for conscientious objection in every juridical structure,” he said, “because it is a right, a human right. Otherwise we would wind up in a situation where we pick and choose which rights we will honor, saying ‘this right that has merit, this one does not.’”
When pressed whether that right extends to government officials in the exercise of their office as well, Pope Francis replied: “It is a human right and if a government official is a human being, he has that right. It is a human right.”
When the Pope visited Davis, who spent five days in jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, he embraced her, thanking her for her courage and urging her to “be strong.”
“Just knowing the pope is on track with what we’re doing, and agreeing, you know, kind of validates everything,” Davis told ABC News Wednesday morning.
She adds, “I’ve weighed the cost, and I’m prepared to do whatever it takes.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome