Lessons Learned? Analyzing the Pope Francis-Kim Davis Controversy

Keeping up with Catholic LGBT news these last few weeks is not an easy feat. It seems that just a few moments after one story breaks, another is already in the making and now the Synod is underway.

Sampled below are some notable, thought-provoking, or just interesting commentaries related to the Kim Davis controversy and some lessons learned.

Initial criticism against Pope Francis over the Kim Davis affair has shifted to his handlers who apparently staged the encounter, specifically Apostolic Nuncio to the United States: Archbishop Carlo Vigano.

Charles Pierce’s piece for Esquire, which suggested early on that right wing activists had staged the meeting, was considered conspiratorial but now has been vindicated. If one wanted to undercut Pope Francis’ papal visit to the U.S. while scoring partisan points, Pierce laid out a plausible plan:

“Here’s what  I’d do. I’d arrange for the pope to meet Davis, but not as an American culture war celebrity, but as a devout Christian whose faith is under vague assault. . .I’d shuffle her through the process and she gets some vague words of encouragement from the pope, who otherwise doesn’t know her from any other hick who gets sent his way. I’d sit on the news for the entire rest of the pope’s trip, even enlisting Davis’s publicity-hungry legal team in that effort. . .

“Vigano is a Benedict loyalist. Robert Moynihan, whose newsletter, Inside The Vatican, got the story first, is an actual lifelong Ratzinger protégé. And the Vatican press office acted just the way I’d want it to act, if I were the guy setting this up. First, it issues a silly non-denial denial, and then it merely confirms that the meeting occurred. At which point, the office clams up, leaving the story festering out there in the news cycle, and leaving the pope out there in the American culture war to twist in the wind. And, if this scenario is in any way accurate, it had its desired effect.”

Given the Vatican’s confirmation that Pope Francis neither knew who Kim Davis was nor meant to lend support for her cause and that Fr. Thomas Rosica, another Vatican spokesperson, confirmed that it was Vigano’s office who invited Davis, calls are mounting for sanctions against the nuncio. More than 35,000 people have signed Faithful America’s petition calling for Vigano to be replaced at the nunciature.

This seems particularly relevant because, as Tom Gallagher of the National Catholic Reporter pointed out, the Liberty Counsel backing Kim Davis and seemingly instrumental in this scheme has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The New York Times speculated:

“The question now is did Archbishop Viganò, left to linger in the United States as a new administration has taken power in Rome, keep Pope Francis in the dark or simply underestimate the off-message media storm that a meeting with Ms. Davis would provoke. Or, after executing orders from Rome, has he once again found himself being hung out to dry at the end of his career. In January, Archbishop Viganò will turn 75, the age at which bishops must submit a formal request to the Vatican for permission to resign. These requests are not automatically accepted, and bishops often stay in their appointments long after. It seems unlikely, church analysts say, that Archbishop Viganò will be one of them.”

Harvard professor Harvey Cox wrote approvingly of the papal visit in The Boston Globe, while critical of those influences like Vigano which almost ruined it:

“This pope has a highly developed grasp of the importance of symbolism. . .But despite the inspiring clarity of his gestures during his sojourn here, our inept media and his ham-handed American stage managers almost managed to blur the important message he so earnestly wants to convey.”

Still, some remained troubled by Pope Francis’ involvement. Fordham doctoral student Jason Steidl wonders in a piece for The Huffington Post whether “just like that” the pope’s image should be rectified. He doubts that Francis’ outreach gestures “considered basic to human decency” really amount to change, even if the pope was a victim in the Kim Davis debacle:

“It’s time for progressive Catholics to recognize that, in spite of the pope’s gestures towards LGBT people, systematic sin and injustice runs much deeper that the pope’s pastoral style. Why do we keep fooling ourselves into believing that one pope can fix the deep-rooted problem of homophobia in the church? . . .

“It’s time we stop pretending that Pope Francis has fixed everything. He hasn’t. He can’t. The sooner we recognize how much work remains to be done addressing systematic sins of homophobia in the Catholic Church, the sooner we can begin the healing process.”

More incisively, Jamie Manson of the National Catholic Reporter asked when does hope become denial and whether Catholics are “truly listening to the full context” when Pope Francis speaks:

“I remain hopeful justice will come someday, but I think it is important to accept the reality that the residual effects of a patriarchal, homophobic, clerical formation can still dwell within a man who is otherwise committed to justice and deeply pastoral. . .

“How do we remain people of hope with a deep admiration for much of what the pope says and does while also not losing our prophetic edge in fighting for true justice for women, LGBT people, sexual abuse survivors and those suffering from lack of access to contraception?”

Having experienced Pope Francis’ charismatic draw in person twice now, I know that the path of least resistance is to believe change is coming from this man and cede to the frenzy around him. However, the path for LGBT advocates is the more challenging both/and model suggested by Manson. We must both celebrate Pope Francis’ goodness when appropriate and ensure we do not lose our voices as loving critics and critical lovers of a church still inflicting deep harm. What does a frenetic few weeks of Catholic LGBT news teach us moving forward? I identify three lessons, aware there are definitely more.

First, Pope Francis’ ministry requires a slower evaluation than the 24-hour news cycle might allow and we must get comfortable sitting with ambiguity rather than casting immediate judgement. This allows his words and actions to be read in the broader contexts of his papacy, his life, and larger ecclesial, cultural, political and/or social narratives at play. The highs may not be as high, but the lows will likely not be as low and it will help LGBT advocates keep a balanced appraisal of this pontiff. This is true also for the Synod studying family life that is now underway in Rome.

Two, repeating a point already made on this blog by Francis DeBernardo, the Vatican must be more transparent and forthright in explaining Pope Francis’ ministry. Dodging today’s media realities hurts everyone and as DeBernardo told The Advocate:

“The time for vagueness, ambiguity, and secret meetings is over. Pope Francis needs to state clearly where he stands in regard to the inclusion of LGBT people in the church and society.”

While I’m not often one to agree with Crux’s John Allen, Jr., I do agree with his assessment that part of the Kim Davis fiasco was also, in part, simply poor communications work by Vatican officials. Even adept analysis, like that of National Catholic Reporter‘s Joshua McElwee, is insufficient to clarify important points because information has not been forthcoming. News that Pope Francis met privately with a same-sex couple lessened the sting, but it need never have stung if Fr. Federico Lombardi immediately clarified the Kim Davis encounter.

Third, with enough time and clarity, Catholics concerned with LGBT justice must be honest in our appraisals about Pope Francis. He is certainly doing tremendous good, creating space for conversations and breaking ground for change, but he is also flawed. If he is, for instance, becoming more welcoming of LGBT Catholics, we cannot forget those Francis marginalized during his U.S. visit – women, victims of clergy sexual abuse, indigenous people. Intersectionality demands that when we say we want a church that is “home for all,” to use the pope’s expression, we really mean for all.

A tangential footnote for those interested: Many conversations have popped up about conscientious objection. This tenet of Christian life has been promoted by anti-militarism/pacifist Catholics in the U.S. years before religious liberty became a right wing cause célèbre. You can read Ellen Boegel’s write up in America about whether Kim Davis is a conscientious objector (spoiler: she is not).

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

6 thoughts on “Lessons Learned? Analyzing the Pope Francis-Kim Davis Controversy

  1. mauricegmp October 15, 2015 / 2:18 pm

    Thanks to you for the insightful and balanced briefings during the Synod. Perhaps you should be hired as the next nuncio!

  2. bjmonda October 15, 2015 / 4:13 pm

    This is a great article. Good going Bob. Very insightful and well written. Thanks

  3. Susanne M cassidy October 15, 2015 / 4:58 pm

    Great piece Bob, really helped to put some perspective on the issue and event. I think the nuncio needs to go! However once again the indiscretion of the hierarchy seems to have backfired on them.

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