Throughout his just-concluded visit to the U.S., Pope Francis was careful to avoid many of the hot-button social issues that have roiled American society. He repeatedly exhorted his bishops to take a more positive approach and not pick fights that would turn more people off than they would attract.
Now it turns out that even as he was preaching that message the pope met secretly with an icon of the culture wars: Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk and conservative Christian who was jailed for five days in early September for refusing to issue marriage licenses for gay couples because she said it conflicted with God’s law.
The meeting with Davis took place on September 24, just before Francis left Washington for New York, Davis’ lawyer said.
Mat Staver of the Liberty Counsel, which has been representing Davis, told CBS News that the Vatican contacted him a few days before the pope was to arrive on his historic visit, his first to the U.S., because Francis had been following Davis’ saga “and obviously is very concerned about religious freedom not just in the United States but worldwide.”
Despite the blanket media coverage of every move the pope made during his visit, which ended Sunday night, Staver said he worked with church officials to sneak Davis and her husband, Joe, into the Vatican Embassy in Washington, where Francis was staying.
They arrived in an SUV, he said, and Davis wore her distinctive long hair “in a different way because her hair is very recognizable from the mug shot.”
The meeting took place about 2:30 p.m., Staver said, and lasted between 10 and 15 minutes.
According to Inside the Vatican magazine, which first broke the story, the Argentine pope spoke in English with Davis and her husband, alone and without an interpreter or aides. Staver said he was not present either.
Davis told the magazine that Francis said to her, “Thank you for your courage.”
“I said, ‘Thank you, Holy Father,’” Davis reportedly said. “I had asked a monsignor earlier what was the proper way to greet the pope, and whether it would be appropriate for me to embrace him, and I had been told it would be OK to hug him. So I hugged him, and he hugged me back.
“It was an extraordinary moment. ‘Stay strong,’ he said to me. Then he gave me a rosary as a gift, and he gave one also to my husband, Joe. I broke into tears. I was deeply moved.
“Then he said to me, ‘Please pray for me.’ And I said to him, ‘Please pray for me also, Holy Father.’ And he assured me that he would pray for me.”
Inside the Vatican editor Robert Moynihan, who has covered the Vatican for years, said Davis recounted the meeting to him shortly after it took place.
The meeting would seem to be a stunning coda to the pope’s visit, which may be one reason why the Vatican on Wednesday seemed eager to avoid engaging it further.
After repeated requests for comment, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, would only say, “I do not deny that the meeting took place, but I have no other comments to add.”
Staver said the Vatican had promised to release photos of the pope and Davis.
Throughout the trip, Francis seemed to studiously avoid political land mines. He frequently mentioned religious freedom but in a different context and with a different tone from the sharper, more politicized rhetoric deployed by cultural conservatives in the U.S.
Also, even though Catholic leaders have made religious freedom a top priority, the Davis case has not been a banner issue for them because, as a government official sworn to uphold the law, her claims to conscientious objection and religious liberty are not seen as very strong.
Religious freedom advocates note that Davis is a government official herself who is sworn to uphold the law, and a conscientious objector would normally resign or find an accommodation to allow someone else to carry out that function.