UPDATED:The “say it isn’t so” moment arrived a few days after Pope Francis departed from the United States following a six-day whirlwind tour that took him from Capitol Hill to soup kitchens.
The popularity of the first pope from the Americas soared to rock star heights during those days in late September, but then came news of the pope’s meeting with anti-gay Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis.
Among many progressives, Francis’ star fell, only to begin to ascend again after the Vatican indicated the Davis’ team had greatly exaggerated the significance of her meeting with Francis and that he had given priority to a private meeting with a gay couple.
Davis, earlier this fall, went to jail for a few days for contempt of court. She was violating the U.S. Constitution, flouting federal court orders and ignoring her oath of office by refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in Rowan County, Kentucky.
The Vatican has distanced the pontiff from claims that the pope endorsed Davis’ stand on same-sex marriage. In a statement, the Vatican said the only “real audience” Francis had in Washington was with a small group that included a gay couple.
“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,” said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.
“The only real audience granted by the pope at the nunciature was with one of his former students and his family,” Lombardi added. The man, Yayo Grassi, is an openly gay Argentine caterer who lives in Washington. In a video posted online, Grassi is shown entering the Vatican’s embassy, embracing his former teacher and introducing Francis to his longtime partner.
The disclosures changed the narrative of Davis’ encounter, making clear that Francis wanted another, more significant “audience” to come to light.
“It is heartening news that Pope Francis met privately with his friend and former student, Yayo Grassi, and his partner of 19 years, Iwan. It now not only appears that the pope’s encounter with Kim Davis has been mischaracterized, but that Pope Francis embraced these longtime friends,” said Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin.
A three-time divorcée, Davis became a hero on the evangelical right for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay people, saying that to do so would violate her Christian beliefs. The story of her encounter with the pope was trumpeted by her handlers as signaling Francis’ support for her actions.
“He held out his hand to her and she grasped his hand,” Davis attorney Mat Staver, co-founder of the right-wing law firm Liberty Counsel, told the press. “He asked her to pray for him and she said she would,” Staver said. “She asked the pope to pray for her and he said he would.”
That is the pope’s custom with everyone he meets.
Davis had been in Washington, D.C., to receive a hero’s welcome at the Values Voters Summit presented by the Family Research Council, an extremist group that denigrates LGBT people.
Staver said the pope thanked Davis for her courage, told her to “stay strong” and hugged her.
Francis was asked about conscientious objection during a news conference held on his plane departing for Rome. He told reporters he couldn’t know the details of particular cases, but that conscientious objection “is a right. And if a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right.”
LGBT civil rights advocate and Catholic Stephanie Kurcheck of Racine said she could admire conscientious objectors but she could not abide those who discriminate against others.
“Kim Davis is not like Gandhi or Martin Luther King,” she said. “She’s no different from the white racists who used religion to defend segregation. And I’m deeply disappointed in this pope for not seeing that.”