Like many practicing American Catholics, my family followed Pope Francis’ first visit to the United States closely. My father, a recently ordained deacon, had the honor of serving at Francis’ first mass in Washington, D.C., and my sister caught a picture of his modest Fiat passing her New York City apartment building. I am currently studying abroad, so I tracked the Pope’s journey from afar – constantly receiving texts from my siblings about his whereabouts and checking the news on my phone to read his statements to the large American crowds.
And like so many other Catholics, the Pope’s words and actions instilled much pride in me. I was proud of his advocacy for the rights and dignity of immigrants and the poor. I was excited by his strong stance on climate change and his push for action. And I was inspired by his ability to influence both left and right-leaning lawmakers, effectively navigating our increasingly polarized political sphere. It was refreshing to see Francis continue his emphasis on social justice back home, seemingly above the divisive political fray of our country. Francis argued for what he believed in, yet he remained tremendously inclusive. In my eyes, the visit was a major success.
On the night of Tuesday September 29, the press reported that Pope Francis met with Kim Davis for fifteen minutes in the Vatican embassy. After an initially ambiguous response to this allegation, the Vatican confirmed the meeting the following afternoon. On Thursday, the Holy See’s Press Office issued a statement providing details about the pope’s encounter. As it turns out, Mrs. Davis was one of dozens of people brought into a room to meet the Pope. There was not a private, one-on-one meeting as she and her lawyers claim.
Since the original story broke, there has been much debate over what message the Pope hoped to send by holding this meeting. Some suggested that it was an affirmation of his stance on religious freedom and conscientious objection, rather than an escalation of anti-gay sentiments. Others used the meeting to question Francis’ general sincerity — arguing that he is moving in wrong direction on LGBT issues. Many believed Francis signified a dramatic shift in the Church’s view of homosexuality in the wake of his 2013 comment, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has goodwill, who am I to judge?”
As a relatively liberal Catholic and supporter of LGBT rights, Francis’ decision to hold this meeting perplexes me. I certainly understand why many would be personally offended by the news of his recent visit with Davis. I can relate to the sense of dashed hopes for a more open Church. However, I want to offer another possible reading of what this meeting may represent.
Pope Francis’ public profile makes him an easy figure to politicize. His position as perhaps the most recognized religious leader worldwide brings with it many of the same responsibilities as political figures, the foremost being to guide public discourse to affect change. Most analyses of Francis’ actions, whether positive or negative, tend to focus on the specific message his actions are intended to convey to his followers. And as the utmost authority on Catholic social doctrine, the Pope exerts considerable influence on both the theological direction of the Church as an institution, and on the personal beliefs of Catholics worldwide. Yet, perhaps politicized interpretations of the Pope’s meeting with Mrs. Davis misses a more fundamental point. Perhaps we are stripping him of his most basic commitment: responding to God’s call to serve all who might come to his table.
What am I getting at?
In Luke 19: 1-10, Jesus visits the town of Jericho and stays with the hated local tax collector Zaccheus. The townspeople react with cynicism, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” Jesus responds by affirming Zaccheus’ salvation because he, “too, is a son of Abraham.”
Despite what pundits purport to know of the Pope’s visit, we cannot claim to understand Francis’ complete intentions. But perhaps Pope Francis saw Kim Davis as a figure similar to Zaccheus – one who abused the power that accompanied her position in government, but is nonetheless deserving of acknowledgement and salvation. Catholic Social Teaching tells us that God’s love is forgiving and extends to sinners. And while we might label Kim Davis a bigot, certainly the Church must affirm her worth as well.
Nonetheless, the symbolism remains a powerful reminder of the Church’s contentious relationship with the LGBTQ community. To the extent that Francis must reflect the purest forms of Catholic faith and doctrine, his actions deserves our scrutiny. Francis’ impact is considerable, and we should hold him accountable. But let us not forget the Pope’s first and most fundamental obligation: to follow Jesus as best he can, leading the Church by example.
We should provide Francis with that flexibility instead of jumping to quick conclusions on his stance within American culture wars.