I was disheartened, to say the least by yesterday’s headlines regarding Pope Francis’ meeting with Rowan County Clerk of Courts Kim Davis. And yet this meeting did not cause me to lose hope in his ability and intention to bring about significant changes in the Roman Catholic Church.
“Kim Davis, Kentucky Clerk, Is Said to Have Met Pope,” New York Times
“Pope Francis met privately with Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, Vatican confirms,” Washington Post
The first was posted on Facebook, the second sent to me in an email. The Facebook post came from Connie Schultz, author and columnist from Cleveland. She responded, “Kim Davis has now managed to poison the joy of so many who saw the Pope’s visit as a sign of hope. God’s work, you understand.” Her post was followed by an outpouring of disappointment, sadness, and some anger.
My initial post, in several places, was:
So far I have not read that he said the government should give in to her, only that she has a right to be a conscientious objector–which we all have the right to be. Of course being a conscientious objector carries with it the burden of making difficult decisions about what jobs one can do (ambulance driver) or not do (infantryman or, maybe, county clerk).
Let me be clear: this meeting was damaging to the work that Francis has been trying to do.
Some have suggested the meeting happened out of ignorance, on the part of Francis or his staff, that they did not know who Kim Davis is or about her standoff on gay marriage licenses. That seems a little far-fetched to me. Actually ignorance seems just about impossible as an excuse. Of course that may be a bit ethnocentric of me to think that the Pope followed the story, but it has been carried internationally.
Some have suggested more nefarious explanations. Maybe Kim Davis herself set the Pope up (highly unlikely–that’s like Honey Boo-Boo’s Mama calling up the White House and getting herself invited over for a beer in the Rose Garden: not happening). Perhaps the meeting was set up by Davis’ lawyers, their organization (Liberty Council), or other political champions. The most interesting current speculation is that the meeting was “an attempt by highly placed church leaders in the U.S. to diminish the impact of the Pope’s visit.”
I don’t know that we’ll ever know how the meeting between Pope Francis and Kim Davis came about. But he and his staff are going to have to do a lot of damage control in order to get past this incident.
Two articles with Roman Catholic origins have tried to put the meeting perspective. The first to appear came from Jesuit James Martin in America: The National Catholic Review, “The Pope and Kim Davis: Seven Points to Keep in Mind.” The second, “Kim Davis And The Trap For Pope Francis,” by Massimo Faggioli, was published by the Huffington Post.
The two articles have several things in common. First, in both articles, is the reminder that Popes meet with lots of people, some of their choosing and some chosen for them, and that meeting the Pope does not necessarily imply mutual endorsements. The gifts given to Kim Davis, two rosaries, are typical gifts given to people by the Pope. And the offers of prayers and the advice to “Stay strong” are standard language from a member of the clergy to someone facing personal challenges. Moreover both articles point out that what is known about the meeting came from Davis herself or her attorneys. So far the promised photos of Davis and the Pope together have not materialized.
Which brings me back to the reasons why this meeting did not cause me to lose all hope for reform.
First, because so much has already happened. Earlier this year, the Vatican abruptly ended its investigation into and episcopal supervision of American nuns. And in September the Pope announced reforms of the annulment process to make it more streamlines and accessible to divorced Catholics. This is part of the current effort, led by the Pope, to revisit issues regarding the family. The next major step in that process will be the opening of the Second Synod of Bishops on the family, which opens on October 4.
Second, I have a number of friends who are Catholic Brothers, Priests, or Nuns. The overwhelming sense I get from them is that things are changing. Not in big ways, perhaps, that are obvious to lay people or non-Catholics. But what is happening in terms of atmosphere and approach gives them hope for more to come.
Third, I used to be Catholic. Okay, perhaps I still am in the strictest sense–I was baptized and confirmed at the liberal Newman Center in Kent, Ohio while in graduate school. Father John warned me while I was going through classes that, “The rest of the Catholic Church is not like this.” He was right, of course. I finally parted with the Church when I got divorced. The annulment process was not appealing to me for a number of reasons.
But I made a conscious choice and that choice meant I could no longer take communion. I know there are lots of Catholics who go to communion although divorced, but I have always respected their rules, just as I have respected the rules of other religions (such as covering my head in the Grand Mosque in Cairo or in synagogues in Cleveland). Eventually I became a Unitarian Universalist. But I have sometimes felt the invitation being extended out to me as a lapsed Catholic to come back. Perhaps that was a tiny part of the motivation to meet with the much-divorced Kim Davis. Maybe that was a tiny part of her motivation. Yeah, I know: I’m probably giving her too much credit.
But here’s the thing: I believe in the power of human beings to eventually get things right. Sometimes after trying for a very long time to keep doing things the wrong way. I know that I have fallen into that category and will undoubtedly do so again. As a friend of mine often reminded me: “If you don’t learn the lesson you were supposed to the first time, you will be given another opportunity.” Countries and religious institutions are no different.
There are a lot of people who have been looking at Pope Francis in anticipation of disappointment. They are seizing on this meeting with Kim Davis to proclaim, “See! I told you so! He’s just like all the other popes!”
True–human and fallible. The Church–all churches, all religions–are human institutions and therefore intrinsically flawed and imperfect. Some horribly so at the present time. Sometimes they can only be redeemed by individuals for brief moments. But I’m willing to continue to hope that positive changes will continue to emerge under Pope Francis. I’m not holding my breath for women’s ordination. But it took two millennia to come this far. We’ll see what happens next.
Image from Wikimedia