Pope Francis: Government workers have a right to to refuse same-sex marriages

While Pope Francis was in the United States, he did his best to keep up his “cool dad” persona, avoiding addressing same-sex marriage and abortion for the most part, while prioritizing his more progressive messages on climate change and economic inequality.

But on his way out, Francis reminded everyone that he is, in fact, the head of the largest socially conservative religious institution in the world.

From MSN:

On the flight back to Rome, [Pope Francis] was asked if he supported individuals, including government officials, who refuse to abide by some laws, such as issuing marriage licenses to gays.

“Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a right,” Francis said.

While Pope Francis wasn’t specifically referring to Kim Davis, that’s the kind of case he was talking about, and that’s the context in which the question was asked.

As I’ve written before, this is the kind of answer we should expect Pope Francis to give on questions such as these. One man/one woman marriage, with sex reserved to missionary position for procreative purposes only, didn’t magically stop being Catholic social teaching when Pope Francis assumed the papacy. Nor did the idea that God’s law supersedes man’s law. So for Pope Francis to affirm that government employees with sincerely-held religious objections to what they consider unjust laws are not only allowed but correct to refuse to obey such laws is exactly what one would expect him to say on the subject.

But this also serves as a reminder for how big of a gap there is between the Catholic Church and modernity, and how little we need to take the Pope seriously on, well, anything. Forget the social doctrines that stand in stark contrast with secular, liberal democracy; even on the issues where progressives agree with the Pope, there are better, secular justifications for Pope Francis’s positions.

Take climate. As Michael Grunwald wrote yesterday in Politico, while the Pope didn’t say the words “climate change” in his address to Congress, he made frequent references to his 184-page encyclical, Laudato Si, of which climate change is the chief subject. And while Pope Francis (correctly) considers climate change one of the defining issues of our time, his framing of the problem — along with his suggestions for solutions — make little to no sense:

Pope Francis addresses Congress, screenshot via YouTube

Pope Francis addresses Congress, screenshot via YouTube

The pope may be right that we ought to spend less time on the Internet, have fewer abortions, and develop a deeper appreciation of natural beauty, but that kind of individual self-improvement is not going to significantly reduce our combustion of fossil fuels. And while the pope is certainly right to push for more Third World debt relief and less inequality, that could actually make emissions even worse; promoting long-overdue economic growth in the developing world would help it afford to burn more coal, gas and oil.

The truth about reducing emissions is not very spiritual at all. We need clean sources of energy to become cheaper than dirty sources of energy, so that they turn into the norm rather than the exception in a hurry. Then we will no longer contribute to the warming of the planet when we drive to the grocery store or keep ourselves cool or fly across the ocean to address joint sessions of Congress. Perhaps the pope has a point that “genuine care for our own lives and our relationship with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice, and faithfulness to others,” but emissions are really just a numbers game, and the key to lowering the numbers in a meaningful way is to make green electricity and transportation cost-competitive.

Or what about the death penalty? The Pope and I agree that, yes, the death penalty is bad. And while we also agree that it is bad on moral grounds — that forgiveness and hope are better than vengeance — that moral claim is contestable. You can make an argument that there are some crimes deserving of death, and that argument will be as irrefutable as it is subjective. However, what isn’t contestable are the secular, empirical claims that a) even the method of execution largely considered the most “humane” — lethal injection — is in fact extremely torturous and painful, b) the death penalty is far more expensive for the state than life imprisonment and c) most importantly, it inevitably leads to the state executing innocent people. Great aspirations to The Good aside, the religious and moral debates over capital punishment need to give way to secular considerations over whether it is sound public policy. The Pope has neither the interest nor the expertise to go there. We do.

At the end of the day, we shouldn’t be all that surprised when the same Pope who sorta-kinda defended the terrorists who perpetrated the Charlie Hebdo massacre because you can’t make fun of faith has some illiberal thoughts and feelings about whether government employees should be able to exercise their religion while performing their civic functions. His completely predictable preference for religious doctrine over the rule of law shows that we’d do better deciding these matters for ourselves, without the aid of a religious bureaucracy that relies on a 2000 year-old moral code.

But we knew that already.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • Mike_in_the_Tundra

    Who’s God? Why should that God say what all U.S. citizens should do? You didn’t really have to bother writing all those things. I read some of your posts, and basically that is what you wrote at WND. Did you copy and paste?

  • Jerry Krause

    First of all, I did not as you say Google a word or idea but was shown this blog; secondly, even before posting anything I was well aware of how old this discussion is. With that said, let us take a fact-filled look at this. The opening book of the Bible
    tells us: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24; cf. Matthew 19:4) Those are the first words; no others precede them, of marriage. According to the etymology (origin of words) dictionary the word “marriage” originated around 1300 meaning “action of marrying, entry into wedlock,” the “state or condition of being husband and wife, matrimony, wedlock.” The Hebrew word “wife,” according to Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, “connotes one who is a female human being.” The etymology dictionary concurs with that definition. Thus, we have both the creation and the definition of the word marriage; that without therefore would there be a man and a woman union referred to as marriage. Other sacraments or rituals may bring together people and in modern societies such unions may be referred to as a joining contract, lifetime partnership (accord, or couple), state bond, civil union, etc. But marriage is God-given and therefore a religious consideration; one that has been a tradition throughout America’s history. Thank you.

  • Mike_in_the_Tundra

    Where to begin? Where to begin?

    First a piece of general advice – when you google a word or an idea, be certain you don’t end up on a blog discussion that is two weeks old.

    Second – the word “forever” lost your argument in this sentence, “The word “marriage” has a long tradition and in fact has been around forever to mean a union between a man and a woman; its roots are deep both socially and in faith.”

    There was a time that the LGBT folk might well have accepted civil unions, but there were too many political leaders that wouldn’t accept that. That left only one way to go – through the court system. That required using the word “marriage”.

    I’m glad you feel God created marriage, but whose God? BTW – I am a person of faith (Christian), and I do not believe marriage only exists between a man and a woman. Please don’t speak for all of us, unless God has appointed you as his spokesman.

    The U.S. Constitution and the The Bible are two separate pieces of writing. The Constitution covers all citizens of the U.S.A., The Bible doesn’t.

  • Jerry Krause

    The problem and needed correctness begins with what the word “marriage” means. It is not unheard of that with time the meaning of a word can change; nonetheless, every word in its present has two distinct meanings: The “denotative” meaning which is what the word refers to; and the “connotative” meaning which has to do with what the word means to a person, based on that person’s experiences and emotional reactions that associates with the word. The word “marriage” has a long tradition and in fact has been around forever to mean a union between a man and a woman; its roots are deep both socially and in faith. Even so, the gay community wants to redefine and change its meaning to mean something else. It does not matter that under a different word they can have all the same civil protections that a marriage has. However, especially for people of faith “marriage” carries with it both a denotative and connotative meaning (man and woman) that cannot be changed over night or ever (God created marriage and therefore His Word never changes). The gay community objects to today’s youth using the word gay in saying “that is so gay” to mean rubbish; even while they themselves want to redefine and change the word marriage.

  • Badgerite

    I like the emphasis of this Pope on the teachings of Christ as opposed to the Old Testament, but when it comes to this issue, there is no maybe. Discrimination against gays is not only a violation of our most sacred national credo, the US Constitution, but it is also morally wrong. It is to harm someone who does you no harm and for no good reason.

  • A couple of points: Francis is the head of an institution that does not believe in the separation of church and state, so of course, he’s going to advocate the supremacy of “conscience” over law, as long as the conscientious objection is in accord with Church teaching.

    And, as others have pointed out, he’s telling half the story: it’s not just Davis refusing to issue licenses herself, but not allowing her deputies to issue licenses. That’s a step beyond “conscientious objection” and it’s a clear violation of the Establishment Clause, although I think we have to take account of his probable ignorance of American law (and see above under “separation of church and state”). And do note that he’s dodging the specifics of that case by speaking in general terms, although there’s no doubt as to the reference he’s making. It’s called “plausible deniability.”

    As for Francis’ sincerity regarding his more “liberal” comments: he’s as much subject to political pressure as any other head of a large institution (or government), and while he may offer the occasional sop to real human values, he has to be careful not to alienate the more conservative elements in the hierarchy. His main value, if he’s successful, I think will lie in changing the Church’s focus from “social issues” regarding sexuality to the real social issues of poverty, hunger, the environment, and the like. It’s not going to be easy, considering that he’s dealing with people who, for example, threatened to close all of the church’s social service facilities — soup kitchens, homeless shelters, etc. — if D.C. legalized recognition of same-sex marriage. These are not generous, compassionate people and there are limits on what he can do to neutralize them.

  • dave3137

    Our courts offered Davis the opportunity to recuse herself, provided she authorized other personnel in her office to issue the licenses. She refused, and ended up in contempt for THAT reason, not her original personal refusal. We have often honored conscientious objection — as in those who objected for religious reasons to serve as combat soldiers. In retrospect, at least, we honor the civil disobedience of many in the Civil Rights movement — which is the active manifestation of conscientious objection. You have no justification for making the statement: “His completely
    predictable preference for religious doctrine over the rule of law
    shows…” The Pope, regardless of the “context in which the question was asked” was speaking of a moral principle which judicial systems should all take into account. Ours did. Kim Davis refused the “accommodation” that the LAW offered her. To the extent that we choose to narrow a broad legal/moral principle to one very specific matter, we sound a whole lot like we’re trying to out-FOX FOX or beat Rush to the draw. (I speak, by the way, as a gay man and a long-since lapsed Catholic.)

  • Tim

    Well if it’s any consolation her fruitcake sect probably view the Pope as the anti-Christ. You got to love the Fundies

  • 2karmanot

    Well, my guess is that he would have to retire with his lover and follow the example of the last Pope Ratzo.

  • nicho

    But Pope Francis the Fraud just said it’s OK to act on your own conscience.

  • Doug105

    Always Remember this is the same guy who said

    Pope Francis On Charlie Hebdo: ‘You Cannot Insult The Faith Of Others’
    This is just one long PR stunt/performance art from the church that taught you a new meaning to “loving the children”.

  • FLL

    The Pope is using the term conscientious objector incorrectly. As Becca notes below, the term refers to a situation where one is compelled to do something objectionable, such as serving in the armed forces. The term does not include people who run for public office with the intention of lying when they take their oath of office to defend the Constitution. In the case of a young man who is drafted into the military, he can say “I was just minding my own business when the government came and tried to force me to serve in the military.” Kim Davis was not just minding her own business. She chose to run for a four-year term as county clerk in a year when everyone knew that marriage-equality cases were making their way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Kim Davis knew very well that the Supreme Court could (and probably would) rule in favor of marriage equality during the term of office she was running for. Kim Davis’ actions were deliberate, deceitful and treacherous, and they do not qualify as being a conscientious objector. In this instance, Pope Francis fails his first-year college critical thinking course.

  • Defrocking is the usual punishment for what the RCC deems an extreme violation of Catholic doctrine and disobedience against the hierarchy. Excommunication is also possible.

  • nicho

    I’ve been trying to figure out what would happen to a Catholic priest who decided to follow his conscience and start marrying same-sex couples. I’m guessing retribution would be swift — and not very pretty.

  • Exactly so. What’s more, the ‘religious accommodation’ Davis has been demanding has been to collect 100% of her salary and benefits for doing less than 100% of her job…and forcing all of her employees to do the same. All in the name of illegally abridging the civil rights of others.

  • nicho

    Conscientious objectors have to pay the price — that’s how it works. You’re free to refuse — and we’re free to impose sanctions on you for refusing.

    If your job requires you to do something you find morally wrong, the only real response is to quit your job. Anything else is immoral. Kim Davis is taking money under false pretenses. She is not a martyr. She is a thief.

  • does not partake in the reverse cowgirl.

    Maybe it’s the “reverse” part that’s the problem. That would apply to The Gay also. And doggie.

  • 2patricius2

    Excellent comments, as usual, Becca. Conscientious objection and religious freedom do not include the license to trample over the religious freedoms and civil rights of other people. This is one case among many in which the civil government is way ahead of many religions. The civil government, at its best, looks out for the rights of all the citizens, and protects the rights of those who are unjustly treated. Kim Davis has not been unjustly treated. She, however, has unjustly treated her employees (by standing in the way of their doing their jobs) and the couples who have come to her office to receive the licenses to which they have a right.

  • Yes, a person has a right not to do something they find personally objectionable… and the employer has a right to fire them, whether we’re talking about a public or private sector job.

    Conscientious objection is applicable only when one is compelled — such as through a national draft — to take on a job one would otherwise not choose.

    I mean, yes, absolutely: If a person truly doesn’t want to issue marriage licenses to gay couples or divorced ones or non-Catholics or whatever, no one can force them to. HOWEVER, this same person doesn’t have a right to draw the salary that would otherwise go to someone who would not discriminate illegally.

    That right there is the core of the dispute with Kim Davis, since this issue is apparently about her. It’s not that she’s being forced to do something she feels strongly she shouldn’t. It’s that she’s won’t get out of the way and let anybody else do it. As we noted last week from that interview where she said she won’t resign because if she does, according to her, “I lose my voice.”

    This makes it not a matter of personal conscience but basically anti-gay activism. Not of refusing to do what she, Davis, feels she shouldn’t, but preventing others from doing as THEY would prefer…which is to follow the law. Truly, what would we do if it was an Ultra Orthodox Jewish DMV clerk who said they would not issue driver’s licenses to women or anybody who will not vow to him never to drive on the Sabbath? Or a Hindu gov’t employee who refused to issue a building permit for any planned restaurant that plans to serve beef? Or how about the fundamentalist Christian who goes ahead and puts a “No Colored” sign back in his store window, because hey, he has “a sincerely held belief” that the races ought not to mix?

  • woodroad34

    Then I suppose you could work for the Vatican and denounce all their policies as an act of conscious.

  • “For God so loved the World that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life – as long as he hates the gay and does not partake in the reverse cowgirl.”

  • 2karmanot

    This whole, enormously expensive PR campaign is first and foremost a stunt to divert attention to the sexual and financial scandals that have belabored the Vatican’s halo of holiness. Mr. Pope kissing immigrant stunt babies, and appropriating the loving drag persona of the original St. Francis is typical Catholic theater. Remember, among all the glorious music and pomp and circumstance the old SOB canonized a missionary priest who practiced genocide, slavery and torture of native Americans in California. While he droned on about poverty and suffering, riding around in a humble auto, and reaching out to thousands of brainwashed devotees, his events cost millions of dollars and he flew back to the Vatican, one of the last remaining absolute monarchies in the world. Oh, did I mention he loathes GLTB individuals and their families. Sorry, folks this typical Catholic flim-flam is just the same old, same old. pppppfffftttttt

  • Indigo

    I hope no one is surprised.

  • I did not expect him to bat 1000. I’ll take the majority of what he says and overall this is a big blow for the conservatives – overall.

  • sex reserved to missionary position

    Are there verses in the Bible that specifically forbid reverse cowgirl?

  • douglas01

    Does that same standard apply to Cardinals who do not obey Vatican law? I’ll bet not.

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