Damage Done? Another Look at Kim Davis and the Pope

Current Events

A fifteen-minute glad-handing has overshadowed Pope Francis’ US visit and the Vatican Synod on the Family, but the responses indicate the damage may not be permanent.

Over the past week or so, bloggers, columnists, editors, and all manner of other journalists have continued to opine on the various aspects of Pope Francis’ US visit, particularly on the Pope’s confirmed meeting with Kim Davis, best known for defying a court order to provide marriage licenses for same-sex couples.

For the majority of onlookers and commentators, meeting with Kim Davis undermined the pastoral message of friendship, dialogue and kindness Francis emphasized. For others, it indicated support for a conservative rallying point, especially for those who were dismayed at his limited, almost oblique statements on abortion and the value of the family.

For many—Catholics and non-Catholics alike—the themes of Pope Francis’ US speeches proved a welcome difference from the often heavy-handed doctrinalism that has contributed to the intractability and gridlock of the culture wars. For those conservatives who maintain a ‘culture warrior’ stance, however, the Pope’s words left them without much of a handhold.

The Pope’s meeting with Kim Davis seemed to give them this grasping point. Now, even after Vatican spokesman Frederico Lombardi released a statement expressly saying, ‘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’ (October 2, 2015), several conservative sites and journalists have fixated on the Pope’s statement supporting conscientious objection made during his in-flight press conference on September 28, 2015.

This focus is due in part to the continued need to find an ally in Pope Francis. After all, the Catholic Church and its hierarchy—particularly the traditionalist contingent of bishops in the US and elsewhere—have appeared to be straightforward supporters of conservative agendas.

And now this seems to be changing—although it is important to note at this juncture that the Catholic Church has not changed (nor is it likely to change) its doctrinal stances on these issues, and Francis himself does not disagree with these doctrines.   Francis is presenting a vision that de-emphasizes the Church’s stance on abortion and gay marriage and emphasizes its stance on the death penalty, immigration reform, and the need to protect the environment.

And that seems to destabilize the familiarity of the Catholic Church and the papacy, even if, in many eyes, that familiarity only bred contempt.

This desire for a reliable handhold is not limited to the conservatives only. Due to the polarized nature of the American political scene, many liberals are also scratching their heads as to what Francis stands for, and for some, the Kim Davis meeting seemed to confirm that Francis was playing a savvy political game, saying one thing and believing (nay—showing so with a meeting!) something else.

But if the Kim Davis incident and its fallout show us anything, it’s that Francis will not be so easily pigeon-holed.

During his US visit, Francis continued to emphasize a stance he has not deviated from since the beginning of his papacy: that to truly act encountering one another not just ideologically, but interpersonally. In shaping that encounter, we cannot rely solely on ideology; we cannot judge people from the safe distance of abstraction, but must actually live among them, and in living among them, to not place judgments upon people apart from their lives.

As Chicago Archbishop Joseph Cupich put it at a CUA conference in June 2014:

Living in the world of ideas only, without being tethered to reality, is a particular risk for leaders in the West and especially in the U.S. We can become quite content to quote statistics, sift through and interpret data, categorize populations, all the while remaining indifferent to and unaware of the needs of real people . . . Francis is saying that politicians and policy makers need to know the smell of the sheep, otherwise their objectives will be more ideal than real, and reality will be masked in empty rhetoric using  “a rationality foreign to most people.”

The confusion over the meeting with Kim Davis revealed something quite important that we in America have not quite absorbed. When Francis meets people, whether they were ushered into the Vatican Embassy through the machinations of Vatican politics—as Davis seems to have been—or if he met them just because they were old friends—as Yayo Grassi is—he encounters them as human beings, not political symbols, dangerous or otherwise.

Kim Davis’ subsequent use of the meeting to give her cause political and religious weight has no bearing on how Pope Francis did—or, I would argue—would subsequently choose to—treat her. To him, his encounter with her should invest her with as much human dignity as he gives to his old friend Yayo Grassi as well as the latter’s partner, Iwan Bagus.

Indeed, he would seek to encounter everyone with the same warmth, with the same pastoral desire of drawing them closer to God. That is the only form of judgment Francis uses with respect to people; he will not treat them solely instrumentally, and to use an individual for political ends—as Kim Davis is using the Pope—is one method of treating them instrumentally.

Pope Francis is in the business of treating people as ends—as valuable (indeed, invaluable) in and of themselves.

So, did the Pope’s meeting with Kim Davis do lasting damage to his image, his aims?

No. Not if we really listen to what the pope is saying through his actions. Rather, it should show us that we should encounter people face-to-face, without the veil of ideological polarization. Then, maybe, just maybe, we might accomplish something lasting.

Petra Elaine Turner is a Doctoral Candidate in Philosophical Theology in the Program of Theology Ethics and Culture at the University of Virginia’s Religious Studies Department. She is currently completing her dissertation, which employs contemporary French phenomenology to raise up the experiential aspects of Augustine’s understanding of faith.

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