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Poop in the Papal Punchbowl

The glow is fading from the Pope’s whirlwind visit to the United States and not simply because attention has quickly reverted to the chaotic entertainment channel known as the Republican Party where the true believers are dancing over the grave of John Boehner.  No, the glow is fading because word has filtered out of the Vatican that Pope Francis held a private meeting with Kim Davis and her husband.  Davis is the county clerk in Kentucky who went to jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same gender couples.

After a trip marked by a carefully orchestrated array of moving and powerful symbolic gestures aimed at demonstrating the open generosity of the church for the vulnerable and marginalized – lunch with homeless people in Washington, a visit to an immigrant parish in New York, time with prisoners in Philadelphia, meeting with victims of sexual abuse, stopping a motorcade to receive a letter from the daughter of undocumented immigrants – this meeting seems, well, nuts. 

It is well known, of course, that the Vatican and a good percentage of American bishops are deeply concerned with the promotion of religious liberty.  Religious persecution is, of course, a serious challenge in many places around the world, though in the United States the issue of religious liberty tends to be less of a life and death matter.  Here bishops are more eager to defend their right to hire and fire employees of their health, welfare, and educational institutions without the burden of federal and state employment laws intervening.  (Read persons in open same sex relationships.)  And others are hoping to avoid even the slightest complicity in providing full reproductive health care to women – Catholic or otherwise – in their employ.  But Kim Davis?

Perhaps the Pope wanted to lift up his encouragement to the church to demonstrate greater hospitality to divorced people of whom Davis is a notable example, having been divorced three times. More likely he wanted to stroke the bruised feelings of the John Paul II and Benedict era bishops and their allies who still dominate the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and who worry that all this papal talk about the poor is distracting from their priorities around sex, marriage, and religious freedom (which, of course, is the banner under which they want to defend their views on sex and marriage).  If this is the case, he might have found a more inspiring hero than Kim Davis.

Davis hardly fits the profile of the persecuted religious minority.  She is a conservative Protestant in the Bible belt.  She abhors gay marriage in a region that’s not really sure it likes single gay people.  She receives free legal counsel from the well-funded Liberty Counsel, a so-called Christian litigation firm.  She has U. S. Senators and presidential candidates flocking to her side.  And, rather than standing on principle and resigning her government position, she expects to be paid by the government (that is by tax payers like you and me) for denying legal rights to persons the government is constitutionally obligated to protect.    Kim Davis is hardly the image of a Christian martyr in the clutches of a pagan emperor.  Is this really what Francis wants to be aligned with?

The fumbling of the Vatican communications office – “We’re not confirming” became “we’re neither confirming nor denying” became “we’re not denying but will have no further comment” suggests that the wisdom of the visit hadn’t been well thought out.  Having deftly navigated the highly politicized environment of the United States, the Pope managed to drive his American pilgrimage off the rails in a manner worthy of Benjamin Netanyahu seeking to intervene in U.S. presidential politics or foreign policy.

The happy memories of the papal party now have become a hangover.  Gays and lesbians have had their worst fears reinforced, especially those Catholics who dared to hope things might be different.  Progressive and moderate Catholics, weary of the recent preoccupations of the church and amazed by the remarkable rehabilitation of long marginalized figures like Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton will be, at best, bewildered.  The old guard in the church will chortle at the comeuppance dumped on their new reform minded episcopal colleagues.  Worst of all, the mean spirited voices of exclusion and bigotry in the country will believe they have been blessed by the Pope and his church.  Is this really what Francis wants?

Of course, like any charismatic leader the Pope is a much more complex figure than his admirers and detractors want to make of him.  No one should expect basic Catholic doctrine to change under him and more than anything else he appears to be clueless about women.  But in a papacy marked by such a refreshing tone, striking use of symbolism, and redirection of theological focus, news of this meeting is an unpleasant discovery in the papal punch bowl. 

                         John H. Thomas

                         October 1, 2015


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