Christianity,  News

The Obfuscation of Pope Francis

The Vatican press office has released a statement attempting to clarify the meaning of the Pope’s meeting with Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis. Here’s the statement in full:

The brief meeting between Mrs. Kim Davis and Pope Francis at the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, DC has continued to provoke comments and discussion. In order to contribute to an objective understanding of what transpired I am able to clarify the following points:

Pope Francis met with several dozen persons who had been invited by the Nunciature to greet him as he prepared to leave Washington for New York City. Such brief greetings occur on all papal visits and are due to the Pope’s characteristic kindness and availability. The only real audience granted by the Pope at the Nunciature was with one of his former students and his family.

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.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Kim Davis is the clerk who went to jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses in Rowan County, Kentucky. The Pope had previously stated that conscientious objection is a “human right” that applies to government officials. And his meeting with Kim Davis seemed to recognize her conscientious objection as a “human right” as well—especially since he encouraged her to “stay strong.”

But now this latest statement throws everything into confusion again. He says he doesn’t support Kim Davis’s position “in all of its particular and complex aspects.” That is quite the qualifier. Can Pope Francis have been any more ambiguous? One Vatican official has said there was “a sense of regret” that the pope had ever seen Kim Davis. The Vatican obviously wishes to distance itself from Davis, but then what are we to make of the Pope’s recent statements about conscientious objection?

Does the Pope wish to repudiate what Kim Davis did? Does the Pope respect conscientious objection as a human right so long as the conscientious objector isn’t Kim Davis? Does the Pope think she had a right to object but not a right to keep her job? Does the Pope agree that in this case it was right to throw Kim Davis in jail? Can one support conscientious objection as a “human right” while also supporting throwing conscientious objectors in jail?

But even more important than the questions about Davis’s particular case, what is the Pope communicating about gay marriage? Is he trying to encourage gay marriage supporters that maybe there is a place for them within the Roman Catholic Church after all? Or is he trying to hold his cards close to his vest and not intending to speak clearly one way or the other? Obviously Roman Catholic church doctrine can’t change, but is he moving toward some pastoral practice that will be more friendly to gay marriage supporters?

The bottom line is this. The Pope is not being clear, and that is the problem. As the Apostle Paul writes,

“But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” -2 Corinthians 4:2

Where is the open statement of the truth in Pope Francis’s words? Where is he addressing people’s consciences clearly with the truth of God?

I would have respected him more had he openly repudiated Kim Davis. But that is not what he has done. Instead, he’s left everyone casting about trying to figure out what he means. Is he trying to say nothing definitive in order to avoid offending anyone definitively? The apostle Paul has a word about that too (Galatians 1:10).

Obfuscation is not a pastoral virtue, but that is precisely what the Pope Francis seems to be doing.


UPDATE: To muddy the waters even more, CNN is now reporting on this line from the Vatican statement: “The only real audience granted by the Pope at the Nunciature was with one of his former students and his family.” It turns out that the “former student” is “a longtime friend from Argentina who has been in a same-sex relationship for 19 years.” CNN reports:

Yayo Grassi, an openly gay man, brought his partner, Iwan, as well several other friends to the Vatican Embassy on September 23 for a brief visit with the Pope. A video of the meeting shows Grassi and Francis greeting each other with a warm hug.

In an exclusive interview with CNN, Grassi declined to disclose details about the short visit, but said it was arranged personally by the Pope via email in the weeks ahead of Francis’ highly anticipated visit to the United States.

“Three weeks before the trip, he called me on the phone and said he would love to give me a hug,” Grassi said.

The meeting between Grassi and the Pope adds another intriguing twist to the strange aftermath of Francis’ first-ever trip to the United States. Since news broke on Tuesday of Francis’ meeting with Davis, conservatives have cheered the seemingly implicit endorsement, while liberals have questioned how much the Pope knew about her case.

In a statement on Friday, the Vatican said that the meeting with Davis was not intended as a show of support for her cause and said “the only real audience granted by the Pope at the nunciature (embassy) was with one of his former students and his family.”

“That was me,” Grassi said.

Grassi said that Pope Francis taught him in literature and psychology classes at Inmaculada Concepcion high school in Flores, Argentina, from 1964-1965.

Grassi said the Pope has long known that he is gay, but has never condemned his sexuality or his same-sex relationship. Grassi said he and Iwan (he declined to disclose his last name due to privacy concerns) also met Francis last year in Rome.

“He has never been judgmental,” Grassi said. “He has never said anything negative.”

“Obviously he is the pastor of the church and he has to follow the church’s teachings,” Grassi added. “But as a human being he understands all kinds of situations, and he is open to all kinds of people, including those with different sexual characteristics.”

Grassi said he believes the Pope was “misled” into meeting with Davis, who served six days in a Kentucky jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Joe Carter tweeted a wry comment on the meaning of all this:


  • Steven Mitchell

    Seems pretty clear to me he’s refraining from speaking on an issue about which he does not have all the information. I think that is to be lauded in a world where everyone is expected to have an opinion on everything, regardless of how much familiarity one has with the situation. For example, I certainly wouldn’t deign to speak on matters of Italian politics and law, would you? I can speak in generalities, but I wouldn’t clearly come down on one side or the other. That is not obfuscation; that is prudence.

    He has clearly spoken on the necessity of conscientious objection in general, but it’s frankly not his jurisdiction to spell out the proper legal response to a given instance — if for no other reason than, being something not described in Scripture (or Church tradition, since he’s Catholic), it’s something that Christians can reasonably disagree over.

    I would have thought him overstepping his bounds if he had come down on either side of it, both because he would be pronouncing a relatively naïve opinion on the matter, which would be to the benefit of no one, least of all civil discussion, and because it is outside of his role.

  • Matt Privett

    Confusion — obfuscation — is of the devil and one of the foremost tools he has used in and amongst Roman Catholicism for well over a millennium. I’m surprised when there is clear, unequivocal declaration of biblical truth from that body. Nothing to be seen here.

  • Christiane Smith

    There are plenty of ‘conscientious objectors’ who have died in the line of duty in the military. Oh, they didn’t carry guns to defend themselves, no. They carried the comforts of religion to those wounded and dying in the midst of battle. They carried medical equipment to tend the wounded in the midst of battle. They were not ‘warriors’ in the sense of those who did carry weapons, but they did not shun the dangers that these warriors encountered. We honor these ‘objectors’ who served in the ways that their consciences allowed them to serve. We honor the price that many of them paid for their service to the wounded and the dying, often giving their own lives as the exchange for the privilege of serving.

    Perhaps it would be good to examine anew the support that is given by the Church to those who are ‘conscientious objectors’ in many various non-combat situations, as to the moral teaching behind this support as it relates to the dignity of the human person.

    ‘Culture warriors’ and ‘conscientious objectors’ are never to be confused as always being the same people. The culture warrior may serve special interests that are not at all moral. The conscience objector, on the other hand, is taking a personal moral stand, regardless of possible repercussions.

    My hope for Kim Davis is that she is no longer manipulated by the culture warriors on the right and vilified by the culture warriors on the left. She is a person deserving of dignity who has honored her own conscience. May she now be allowed peace. As to her ‘job’, may we hope for reasonable accommodations that allow her to continue to work.

  • Erin Ayres

    Thanks for this great article, Denny! Given the update, it seems the Pope and/or Vatican have progressed from obfuscation to equivocation.

    • Bob Wilson

      Wow, I hadn’t see this! Astonishing! Terry Mattingly at has spoken about this. No doubt these people are sincere but are they that gullible and that willing to chuck away any standards? Last election it was Newt Gingrich. I can only imagine what Trump is actually thinking!

  • Sandra Stewart

    It would appear that you have been lied to, again, presumably by her lawyer.
    This comes under the heading of one of the laws of unintended consequences, imperious immediacy of interest. In which someone wants the intended consequence of an action so much that he purposefully chooses to ignore the facts.

    “After days of speculation, the truth has finally come out: Pope Francis did not hold a private meeting to express his support for Kim Davis’s efforts to block gay marriage licenses.
    According to an official Vatican statement, Kim Davis was among “several dozen persons” attending a reception at the Vatican embassy, “the pope did not enter into the details of the situation,” and “his meeting with her should not be considered a form of support.”
    Moreover, it seems that the pope did not request Kim Davis be invited.
    According to press reports, one man was likely responsible for Davis’s invitation: Carlo Maria Vigano, a conservative church official who was appointed by Pope Benedict as Vatican ambassador to the United States (formally called the “apostolic nuncio”).”

  • Christiane Smith

    The thing is, this pope meets with ALL kinds of people under many different circumstances and in many different places. He prays with them, he asks them to pray for him. He is kind and expresses encouragement and compassion.

    From this, people are left free to draw their own conclusions about him, not realizing that when they are disappointed by him, those conclusions were often based on their own thinking: assumptions made, based on incomplete info and on a wish to see from this man some ‘agreement/support’ for their particular agendas.

    I would remind people that Francis is the kind of pope who knelt before a prisoner who is Muslim and washed her feet . . . he counts many among his friends and acquaintances who are not ‘welcomed’ among certain Christian communities because they are not respected and their differences are seen as ‘unacceptable’ . . . although I do know he is close friends with a well-known evangelical in Argentina, and with a Jewish rabbi

    Do you know where he hung out in Buenos Aires, when his time permitted?
    He was hanging out in the slums.
    If reporters go there today and ask the people about him, the people will bring out many photographs of him with their families, ministering, praying, and just being with them . . . maybe not the ‘nicest’ of companions, these slum people but that is where he was received with acceptance. . . now you know
    . . . so my advice is in order to avoid disappointment, do not look for ‘too much’ from him, instead why not just pray for him like he asked on the night he was selected as ‘pope’?

  • Christiane Smith

    thinking about Kim Davis and Pope Francis . . .

    and how the two ‘sides’ of the culture wars tugged and pulled and tried to get a ‘win’ where there was none to be had in the way that they wanted

    and I am reminded of a quote by Flannery O’Connor, this:
    “”The stories are hard (her Southern Gothic short stories) but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism… when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.”

    I suppose, looking at the no-win result of the infamous encounter between Ms. Davis and the Pope, that people can understand how it MIGHT have played out in a Francis-sort-of-way, given some good will and ‘heads-up’ from them that set up the fiasco. But on the whole, each ‘side’ bemoans its lost chance to get a ‘win’ in the war by using the Pope’s credibility, so I have to assume that both sides ‘had hold of the wrong horror’.

    I suppose reconciliation is not something that is a part of Christian ‘realism’ in the fundamentalist world. And I suppose among folks in the gay community, Francis must have seemed to have ‘let them down’ by appearing to ‘get on board’ with poor Kim who is herself more victim of manipulation than agent of change. . .

    I suspect also that in some better world than this, ‘the wrong horror’ would be seen by everyone involved in the light needed to recognize it, and having seen it for what it is, another outcome would have been possible in that encounter between Kim and Francis

    . . . the sadness is not so much the loss of what was possible as the failure to recognize the possibilities themselves had the pope known the facts of the case and Kim Davis not been under the influence of her ‘handlers’ . . .

    somehow, though, is very possible, Francis being Francis, that the story isn’t over quite yet . . . 🙂

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