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Pope Francis Met Kim Davis, Confounding the Culture Warriors Once Again

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Pope Francis had a clandestine meeting with Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis last Thursday in Washington, a Vatican spokesperson has confirmed to The New York Times. According to Davis and her lawyers, Francis met with her and her husband, Joe, for 15 minutes at the Vatican Embassy, where he hugged her, told her to "stay strong," and gave her a pair of blessed rosaries. Photographs were taken, attorney Mathew D. Staver told the Times, but none has been released to the public. As of Wednesday morning, the Vatican is refusing to comment further on the meeting.

In a sense, not knowing the details of the encounter is more illuminating than knowing. While the jury is out on whether or not Pope Francis really did, as Davis’s lawyers suggest, commend Davis for her courage in refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, the stakes of the meeting have become clear—and it's complicating opposing groups' tidy political narratives.

For conservatives, the possibility of papal approval of Davis’s project is surprising and exciting, no less because Francis is this particular Pope, one who has done a good job of reaching out to American liberals. Most of the comments on Breitbart’s unassuming recapitulation of the story suggest something to that effect: “Oh the Left is gonna have a collective heart attack with this news,” one individual observed; “and liberals were just flooding the media with love for the Pope,” another added gleefully, in advance of less repeatable thoughts. And yet, others were frustrated that the alleged meeting was carried out in private, surmising the secrecy was intended to preserve Francis’s favor in the eyes of the left.

Meanwhile, among progressives, emotional investment in the mysterious meeting seemed just as high. Left-leaning outlets reporting the story—before the Vatican's confirmation—emphasized that there is good reason to be skeptical of the story issuing from Davis’s legal camp: namely that they apparently falsely attributed a photograph of thousands of praying Peruvians to a prayer rally supposedly held in Davis’s honor during this year’s Values Voters Summit. The uncertainty of the photograph’s origin seriously compromised Davis’s’ lawyers’ story about the prayer rally occurring whatsoever, and the bad precedent seemed to have all but settled the issue for several prominent progressive religious commentators on Twitter. Fans of Francis seemed hesitant to accept the news without further confirmation, as it would mean the erstwhile cool Pope had provided encouragement to Kim Davis:

The story of Pope Francis secretly meeting Kim Davis to extend his warm wishes is a delectable story because it creates tension for all invested parties, threatening to destroy their narrative of who Francis is and what he is about. For the fervent Davis supporter and Francis hater, the meeting must be dismissed by going after the pontiff for allegedly carrying out the tete-a-tete in private—proof that he’s a coward who covets liberals’ esteem. For the fervent Davis hater and Francis supporter, the meeting must be dismissed by a rather enthusiastic skepticism that it ever took place to begin with. Otherwise Francis, for all his good-natured outreach and calls for inclusion, is just another bigot like Davis.

And yet, Francis’s actual position on all of these questions is already known. On the plane back to the Vatican last Monday, Pope Francis affirmed that he views conscientious objection as a human right. "I can't have in mind all the cases that can exist about conscientious objection,” the Pope said, “but yes, I can say that conscientious objection is a right that is a part of every human right. It is a right.” On several occasions, he has decried the “redefinition of marriage,” which he considers detrimental to the sanctity and security of the family; he also campaigned against same-sex marriage as a cardinal in Argentina. There isn’t any mystery here about what Pope Francis believes.

But there is nuance. Pope Francis maintains a conservative position on the morality of marriage, and he is concerned for Christians who find their practice constrained by law. But he has also emphasized openness toward LGBT Catholics, famously asking, when queried about gay Catholics, “Who am I to judge?” He has promoted a culture of encounter, the kind of freely available intimacy that allowed him to have a sit-down with Fidel Castro in the same week he rubbed elbows with American congressmen (and, potentially, shared a hug with Kim Davis). Francis has been somewhat unwilling to involve himself in the psychodrama of the American culture wars, parsing words and prioritizing subjects carefully so as to avoid becoming an emblem for either right or left.

Davis has been unable to achieve that kind of balance. Whoever you are, Kim Davis is either your beset champion or your bête noire. There is no middle ground. She isn’t really a person anymore, not in the sense that Francis emphasizes the term; she’s become an outsized character in the national imagination, with all the suffocating enormity accorded either to martyrs or tyrants. For the right, her humble ordinariness has become an extraordinary property; for progressives, it’s a manifestation of the hegemony of white, straight, Christian America.

But for Pope Francis, perhaps her presence is rather less numinous. Maybe he approached her, if he did, with the same spirit of encounter with which he approaches prisoners and nuns and dictators and congressmen and babies, viewing her as a person with at least one commendable quality to praise, and perhaps others less so. If Davis's attorneys’ account is true, then the decision of Francis’s camp to keep the meeting private speaks volumes about the Pope’s disinterest in falling in lockstep with either side of the entrenched Davis Affair, or at least suggests that his priorities are such that he did not want to see his speech to the United Nations on Friday subsumed by coverage of his brief encounter with Davis.

The reaction to this ambiguous 15-minute meeting illustrates that Francis is in danger of becoming, like Davis, a caricature in the great American Culture Wars, a position he seems almost desperate to avoid. It’s a fate that compromises his entire project—Popes are meant to be transcendent, after all. But it's a fate he can avoid by continuing to confuse us about where to place him in the American political binary.