(Photo composite: Yahoo News, photos: Riccardo De Luca/AP, Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
This is what it sounds like when a pope gets mad.
On Friday, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi released an extraordinary statement, personally approved by Pope Francis, debunking nearly everything that has been reported this week about a meeting between the pope and Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who has refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The private meeting between Davis, her husband, Joe, and the pope, which Davis’ attorney says took place at the Apostolic Nunciature (Vatican Embassy) in Washington, D.C. last Thursday? It didn’t happen. Instead, Davis was one of “several dozen persons who had been invited by the Nunciature to greet [Pope Francis] as he prepared to leave Washington for New York City,” Lombardi said in the statement.
The statement stressed that “the only real audience” — private meeting— “granted by the Pope at the Nunciature was with one of his former students and his family.” As CNN reported Friday afternoon, that student, Yayo Grassi, happens to be an openly gay man who brought along his partner of 19 years. “Three weeks before the trip, [Pope Francis] called me on the phone and said he would love to give me a hug,” Grassi told CNN.
The idea that Pope Francis has been following Kim Davis’ case and requested a meeting with her? (“I’m just a nobody,” Davis told ABC News after her lawyer began asserting that she had met privately with the pope. “It was really humbling to think he would want to meet or know me.”) Not so. Father Tom Rosica, who assists the Vatican press office with English-language media, told the National Catholic Reporter that the encounter was not organized by staff at the Vatican, and might have been at the initiative of the Vatican’s ambassador to the U.S., Archbishop Carlo Viganò.
And the assertion that any meeting between Davis and the pope reflected the Holy Father’s support for her case? (Davis also told ABC: “Just knowing the pope is on track with what we’re doing and agreeing, you know, kind of validates everything.”) The statement is especially clear on this point: “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.”
Perhaps the most stinging line in the statement was this: “Such brief greetings occur on all papal visits and are due to the Pope’s characteristic kindness.” Translation? He was only being nice. And woe to those who take advantage of that kindness for their own purposes.
While the controversy stirred up this week has focused on the surprise of Pope Francis meeting with Davis, the two figures really at the center of this story are her lawyer, Mat Staver of the conservative legal group Liberty Counsel, and Viganò, who has served as the Vatican’s ambassador in Washington since 2011.
As of Friday morning, Staver was sticking to his story, telling the Associated Press that Davis did indeed meet privately with the pope. By his own admission, Staver was not at the nunciature for the encounter, but he disputes the Vatican’s characterization, a characterization approved by Pope Francis, who was obviously in attendance.
That’s not out of character for Staver, who was forced to admit last week that a photo he presented at the Values Voters Summit, which he claimed showed a 100,000-person prayer rally to support Davis in Peru, was taken in 2014 and did not, in fact, have anything to do with Davis.
Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015. (Photo: AP/Riccardo De Luca)
As for Viganò, he has gotten involved with the marriage debate during his time in the U.S., attending the annual March for Marriage in Washington and allowing his presence there to be proclaimed as “signif[ying] the presence and support of Pope Francis for what we are doing.” He has also accused Catholic Democrats of intentionally dividing and weakening the church, and defines religious freedom as “the exercise of fidelity to God and His Holy Church without compromise” — not the most common understanding of the concept.
There’s no question that Pope Francis strongly supports the cause of religious freedom — he voiced that opinion in his remarks at the White House, to Congress, and at Independence Hall last week. He has also been open his opposition to same-sex marriage, telling members of Congress: “Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family.”
But the pope also spent much of his visit to the United States calling on his brother bishops to shift away from divisive political fights. Unlike many religious organizations, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has shied away from supporting Davis. The pope’s entire tour last week was very carefully choreographed, with Francis consciously adopting a gentle tone when addressing critics.
It’s significant that the pope already met with individuals closely connected to a religious liberty case last week when he paid a visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor, who have objected to filling out a form that would exempt them from providing contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Details about that meeting, along with photographs, were released to reporters just hours after it took place.
So it seemed unlikely that Pope Francis would either try to pull off a clandestine encounter with Kim Davis or purposely arrange a meeting that would be sure to drop him smack into the middle of ongoing U.S. culture wars.
The only question remaining after the Vatican’s smackdown statement on Friday is: What next?
Prior to embarking on his travel in September, Francis gave two revealing radio interviews in which he revealed frustration at people who have used him for “utilitarian friendship” since he became pope. He surely cannot be pleased about being made an unwitting pawn in a domestic political fight here.
News also surfaced this week of the pope’s annoyance with Ignazio Marino, the mayor of Rome, who showed up uninvited at last week’s World Meeting of Families. The hosts of an Italian radio show prank-called Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, who organized the Philadelphia gathering, and talked him into dishing about the pope’s reaction. “[Marino] crashed the party,” said Paglia. “The pope is furious.” The archbishop went on to elaborate: “When Marino was there, he insisted to see him [again and again], and this annoyed the pope tremendously.”
In addition to his smiling, pastoral exterior, Pope Francis is a very political creature — as is anyone who rises to his position. If he gets angry about someone simply showing up at an event uninvited, it’s hard to imagine the papal fury over a stunt that threatens to overshadow an otherwise highly successful U.S. tour.