Christianity,  Politics

Pope Francis supports right of Kentucky Clerk to withhold marriage licenses

Earlier today on the flight back to Rome, Pope Francis answered questions from reporters about a variety of issues. In one fascinating segment, ABC News’s Terry Moran had this exchange with the Pope—an exchange that seems to imply papal support for the conservative side of a recent religious liberty controversy concerning gay marriage:

Terry Moran, ABC News:
Holy Father, thank you, thank you very much and thank you to the Vatican staff as well. Holy Father, you visited the Little Sisters of the Poor and we were told that you wanted to show your support for them and their case in the courts. And, Holy Father, do you also support those individuals, including government officials, who say they cannot in good conscience, their own personal conscience, abide by some laws or discharge their duties as government officials, for example in issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples. Do you support those kinds of claims of religious liberty?

Pope Francis:
I can’t have in mind all cases that can exist about conscience objection. But, yes, I can say the conscientious objection is a right that is a part of every human right. It is a right. And if a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right.Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a right, a human right. Otherwise we would end up in a situation where we select what is a right, saying ‘this right that has merit, this one does not.’ It (conscientious objection) is a human right. It always moved me when I read, and I read it many times, when I read the “Chanson de Roland” when the people were all in line and before them was the baptismal font and they had to choose between the baptismal font or the sword. They had to choose. They weren’t permitted conscientious objection. It is a right and if we want to make peace we have to respect all rights.

Terry Moran, ABC News:
Would that include government officials as well?

Pope Francis:
It is a human right and if a government official is a human person, he has that right. It is a human right.

The Pope doesn’t mention Kim Davis by name, but the questioner certainly seemed to have the Kentucky County Clerk in mind when asking the question. Kim Davis is the Clerk who recently went to jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses in Rowan County Kentucky. And it appears that Pope Francis is saying that folks like her have a “human right” to do precisely what she did without being punished for it.

As far as Pope’s are concerned, Pope Francis is the progressive’s dream Pope. But the Pope’s liberal admirers are not going to like this. My hunch is that Pope Francis did not know the particular background to the reporter’s question. I wonder if he would have answered in the same way if he had known? As it is, however, the Pope has landed on the side of Kim Davis. And that’s really something.

UPDATE, 9/30/15: The report below just came out last night and certainly clarifies the background of the comments that Pope Francis made to Terry Moran.


  • dr. james willingham

    I certainly do appreciate the Pope’s remarks about conscientious objectors and the implication concerning the government clerk in Kentucky even though she was not mentioned by name. It does seem as if, at least at times, that the Vatican and Roman Catholics are beginning to adopt some Baptist views which have meant so much to or for liberty in the modern era.

  • James Stanton

    I think the Pope is at least half right. I think Kim Davis does have a right to refuse to issue marriage licenses that infringe on her religious conscience. I don’t agree that she has a right not to be held accountable (perhaps punished) for that refusal if she’s held to be acting in contempt of court.

    If you believe that Kim Davis’ religious liberty is being infringed upon then you should at least consider whether she is legally inflicting harm on residents in her county by refusing to serve them. That is also a liberty issue.

    Lastly, the Pope has a lot of admirers who are both economically progressive and socially conservative. There’s a few of us here who fit that description. It’s too bad we are more or less politically homeless or stuck with terrible options.

    • Christiane Smith

      I know that Francis would stand beside Kim Davis in her decision to obey her conscience, yes. I think he would hope that authorities could find some ‘accommodation’ for her so that she could keep her job. I do think he would understand that when any Christian person takes a stand as a conscientious objector, he or she may also be subject to restrictions and penalties as a result.

      The pay-off of taking a moral conscientious stand is peace ‘of heart’, not getting one’s own way.

        • Christiane Smith

          Hi DENNY,
          I stated that I believed Pope Francis would hope that authorities could find some ‘accommodation’ for her so that she could keep her job.

          He would understand that she is bound to obey the voice of her conscience regardless of the ‘outcome’, and he would know that Christian ‘witness’ sometimes results in being persecuted, being imprisoned, and worse. Those ‘troubles’ we can expect in THIS world, we have been told by Our Lord as recorded in sacred Scripture.

          A jail cell cannot never deprive a Christian of the freedom that is found in Christ. Even St. Peter knew this, when after the great earthquake that opened his prison door, he stopped his Roman jailer from falling on his sword by saying , ‘we are all here’. It was this witness, that led to the jailer’s conversion to Christ.

          Pope Francis knows that what the ‘authorities’ do or what they will accommodate is not what a person of conscience is influenced by. He does know that a patient moral witness to those authorities is more powerful than the bars and locked doors of a jail.

            • Christiane Smith

              As far as I am aware, Pope Francis is not familiar with the actual case of Kim Davis, or the circumstances of her incarceration in jail; but if there was any ‘support’ on HIS part to be given in her situation, I can tell you that he would likely go and visit WITH her in prison, and pray WITH her. I say this because of what Francis said to the prisoners he visited in Philadephia, this:
              ” I am here as a pastor, but above all as a brother, to share your situation and to make it my own. I have come so that we can pray together and offer our God everything that causes us pain, but also everything that gives us hope, so that we can receive from him the power of the resurrection.”

              That is what I do understand about the kind of support he would show to those involved in Kim Davis’s situation. If she were jailed, he would be there, too.

              • Denny Burk

                Christiane, I’m sure he would offer that kind of support too. But that’s not my question. I’m asking if you think Francis supports jailing citizens for their conscientious objections to the state’s marriage policy. That’s the salient moral question that he weighed-in on but that you seem to think he hasn’t weighed-in on.

                • Christiane Smith

                  Hi DENNY,
                  I think this is what he focused on:
                  “”And if a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right,”
                  The position of ‘conscientious objector’ IS seen by Pope Francis as a basic human right.

                  As to how the Christian is then treated by the world, I can say that, a sojourner’s hope transcends our immediate experiences and finds its anchor in a place beyond this world.

                  This excerpt about the early Christians is an insight into Catholic thinking, DENNY, which helps explain a little better, I hope:

                  “They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. . . . . . Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they, rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. ” (from a letter to Diognetus)

                  A different perspective, yes.
                  “Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart;
                  it transcends the world that is immediately experienced,
                  and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons
                  . . . It is not the conviction that something will turn out well,
                  but the certainty that something makes sense,
                  regardless of how it turns out.”
                  (Vaclav Havel)

  • Christiane Smith

    Kim Davis’ crisis of conscience reminds me of a very old prayer:

    “. . . Show me the way and make me ready to follow it.
    It is dangerous to delay, yet perilous to go forward.
    Answer my petition and show me the way.
    I come to You as the wounded go to the physician in search of aid.
    Give peace, O Lord, to my heart. ”

    Birgitta of Sweden (1303-1373)

  • Chris Ryan

    I don’t know if that’s the conservative position or not. Last poll I saw, most conservatives thought Davis should issue the marriage license. That being said, I think there would be broad support for a conscientious objector opt out. So long as people get their marriage licenses I don’t think it matters if Kim Davis is the one who signs it, or one of her deputies does. I’ve long advocated such a compromise (the Mormons worked out such a compromise in Utah) but to get it Christian conservatives will have to reach out to the other side and negotiate such a compromise. Based on your and Russel Moore’s opposition to the “Utah Compromise” I’m skeptical such a deal will be struck. The problem with that is that the time is fast approaching–as we saw when Cruz was booed on Colbert last week–when opposition to anti-discrimination laws will be seen as anachronistic as Bob Jones University’s opposition to interracial dating. Such an event would undermine our evangelization because we’ll be lumped together with the Westboro Baptists of the world. Moreover, an angry secular population is likely to then oppose any attempts to carve out objector protections. We don’t have to change our definition of marriage in order to do this, we need only agree with the LGBT community upon rules for a civil society.

  • Robert Karl

    Pope Francis is “progressive” ?? Using these labels do not really mean anything and are misplaced. Francis is a Christian of the Catholic faith. What has he done or said which goes against that. Nothing.

  • Curt Day

    Have to disagree with the Pope on this one. If Davis cannot protect the legal rights of all whom she serves, then she should get another job. For how would one handle an influx of Quakers, or even a single one, who signed up for the Marines? Should we allow them to refuse to obey legal orders because of conscience? Or going back in history, should we have permitted those who could find religious reasons for supporting Jim Crow exemptions so that they could practice the discrimination it fostered?

  • Patrick Joseph

    Hi Denny,

    I very much appreciate this site, your charity toward all and particularly your fearlessness when it comes to the topics you choose. I am a Catholic who reads and enjoys your site very much. Your recent posts on Pope Francis interested me very much, as did the comments from other readers. I am writing this (I hope) to clarify some things about Church teachings that may not be particularly clear to many of your readers. I also add some of my own observations about Pope Francis.

    1. The Catholic Church teaches the moral evil of every procured abortion (CCC 2271). Pope Francis has done nothing to change this. In fact, he cannot do anything to change this. Moreover, he has affirmed this teaching.
    2. The Church likewise teaches a consistent ethic of life. This includes what is known as the “preferential option for the poor.”
    3. When it comes to translating these teachings into political action, it gets very tricky. There are some who believe neither party will do anything about abortion, so other issues effectively become more important in one’s vote. Some believe generally big government solutions are the best way to help the poor. But this is a political judgment. It may be grounded in Church teaching, but it is not dictated by Church teaching.
    4. Others believe generally that big government solutions are not in the long-term best interests of anyone, particularly the poor. They are not bound to vote for big government solutions; in fact, if this is their considered view, they are bound to vote against them.
    5. Catholics are bound to follow the teaching on abortion and on the preferential option for the poor, but how this relates to one’s vote and what one choses to emphasize is left to our informed consciences.
    6. The Pope and the other bishops must make political judgments, as well. While Catholics are to give these judgments great respect and consideration, they are not bound by them.
    7. The relevant teaching on Kim Davis’s situation appears to be found in Para 1907 of the CCC. (Public authorities are bound to respect the inalienable rights of their citizens, including freedom of conscience and religion). It seems clear to me from what I know about Ms. Davis’s situation, that jailing a person in Ms. Davis’s situation is improperly violating her freedom of religion; I would be shocked if the Pope did not agree with this. On the other hand, I believe it is possible for a person of good conscience to believe the state’s right to apply laws equally allows the state to morally act in the manner that it did. (An article I read this morning indicates Pope Francis actually met with Ms. Davis while he was here; this is consistent with what I believe to be his views).
    8. Most controversial political circumstances are like Ms. Davis’s where there are two (or more)legitimate rights or principles that conflict with one another (legalized abortion is a rare exception). Popes and bishops must, however, weigh in on many of these questions, if only to remind us of the principles upon which we should decide the issues. (Oftentimes, they do far more than that). In doing so, they (by necessity) use their prudential judgment on how the Church’s teaching applies to a particular situation. These are the types of judgments that Catholics are to give serious consideration to, but Catholics are free to disagree after having given that consideration, as well.
    9. Pope Francis most definitely believes Jesus is the answer to all questions. “In [Jesus] [God] has said everything; there will be no other word than this one.” (CCC 65). But he likewise uses his judgment to build bridges (or try to) as his audience is broader than just Christians. In the same way, he believes the Fullness of Truth resides in the Catholic Church, but he would almost certainly not lead with this in addressing Protestants. (On either of these topics, he may or may not be correct that he is taking the proper course in attending to souls, but these courses of action seem prudent to me).

    Thank you for the opportunity to comment. I welcome correction from anyone if I have said anything inaccurate.

  • Robert Karl

    The attorney for Kim Davis has confirmed that Pope Francis and Ms. Davis met at the Embassy of the Vatican in DC and he prayed her for her courageous actions and prayed with her.

    Viva el Papa

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