The Vatican downplays Pope Francis’s meeting with Kim Davis

American liberals were shocked and appalled when they heard that Pope Francis met with Kim Davis while he was in the country last week. And with good reason: While the Pope doesn’t disagree with Kim Davis about all that much with respect to same-sex marriage and religious belief’s supersession of irreligious laws, deep down we all hoped that Pope Francis would put his deeply held religious beliefs aside for a few days and be a political figure — one whose top legislative priorities are action on climate change and economic inequality.

Given the tone of the Pope’s address to Congress, it appeared that we liberals got what we wanted: No explicit references to abortion and same-sex marriage, contrasted with a strong warning against the excesses of capitalism. We may not agree with the Pope on everything, but at least he prioritized the stuff we cared about.

This train of thought ignored much of the rest of Pope Francis’s trip. In particular, it ignored his meting with Little Sisters of the Poor, whose fight against contraception is a not-too-distant cousin of Kim Davis’s fight against same-sex marriage, and his endorsement of conscientious objection in the name of religious belief while leaving the country. We wanted to believe that, while in America, Pope Francis would be assertively political about economics while being religious on social issues; some of us missed that he’s both on both.

We also may have underestimated the full political context of Kim Davis’s audience, in no small part due to the fact that the Vatican took practically all week to say anything other than the fact that the meeting took place. In the wake of the news breaking that the Pope granted Kim Davis an audience, she did nothing but fan the flames, turning her audience into an endorsement by saying, “He told me before he left, he said, ‘stay strong.’ That was a great encouragement. Just knowing that the Pope is on track with what we’re doing, it kind of validates everything to have someone of that stature.” Today, finally, the Vatican has come out to tell her to slow her roll, writing in a statement:

Pope Francis addresses Congress, screenshot via YouTube

Pope Francis addresses Congress, screenshot via YouTube

Pope Francis met with several dozen persons who had been invited by the Nunciature to greet him as he prepared to leave Washington for New York City. Such brief greetings occur on all papal visits and are due to the Pope’s characteristic kindness and availability. The only real audience granted by the Pope at the Nunciature was with one of his former students and his family.

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.

UPDATE: Turns out the “only real audience” Pope Francis granted was to a same-sex couple.

Keep in mind, this isn’t exactly a repudiation of Davis. The statement says that the meeting shouldn’t be construed as a form of support, but it also doesn’t say that the Pope disagrees with her outright. This isn’t the Vatican telling Kim Davis she’s wrong; it’s just the Vatican telling her and everyone who agrees with her to chill out, reiterating what plenty of people said when the meeting first came to light: The Pope meets with plenty of people, and we shouldn’t assume that meetings equal endorsements. As Catholic writer James Martin wrote earlier this week, “Not to put too fine a point on it, but Pope Francis also met Mark Wahlberg, and that does not mean that he liked ‘Ted,'” one of Wahlberg’s more recent and less-acclaimed films.

But the Vatican’s statement today doesn’t change the fact that Pope Francis placed himself squarely in Kim Davis’s camp independent from their meeting. And it also doesn’t change the fact that she still got an invite over literally millions of more-deserving people who were in the Washington, D.C. metro area at the time. Even if the Nunciature and not the Pope invited her, and even if the meeting was brief and vague instead of personal and specific, none of that changes anything about the Pope’s positions on the issues at hand, and it is still a black mark on what was otherwise a successful visit.

Because if there’s one thing the Vatican should have learned this week, it’s that alliances with the American Evangelical movement aren’t as useful as they used to be. American Protestants today are an odd bunch, and for political purposes it’s best to keep them at arms length. This fact was laid bare following the Vatican’s statement today when Liberty Counsel’s Matt Staver made the rather absurd claim that no one from Kim Davis-land ever said the Pope had endorsed them. This from the group that shouted to high heaven that they had been granted an audience with the Pope, positively giddy that “the Pope is on track with what we’re doing.” To do such a rapid about face, only days after being exposed for having lied about Kim Davis being an international superstar, further solidifies the point that they are deranged, fact-free hucksters. From the Vatican’s point of view, they are toxic as hell and you shouldn’t get within two degrees of separation from them.

It’s hard to believe it took them this long to figure that out.

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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