The Pope’s Confounding Consistency

Pope Francis Credit Pool photo by Tony Gentile
Pope Francis Credit Pool photo by Tony Gentile

Has the cool pope left the building?

For days after the revelation that Pope Francis met the Kentucky county clerk and anti-gay-marriage activist Kim Davis during his visit to Washington, church officials would neither confirm nor deny that it had happened, allowing Ms. Davis’s claim that the pope “validates” her actions to stand.

Only on Friday did a Vatican spokesman say that the encounter “should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects.” Intended to “contribute to an objective understanding of what transpired,” the Vatican statement raised as many questions as it answered. Whether the pope knew in advance that he would be meeting Ms. Davis was shrouded in an almost confessional silence.

After a heady tour in which Francis had praised icons of the Catholic left like Dorothy Day before Congress, the Davis affair smacked of inconsistency and betrayal. Concerned pope watchers walked the formerly smitten back from the brink. In Esquire, Charles Pierce worried that the pontiff had been “swindled” into the meeting, while the National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters argued that mistakes were made, and the church should just admit it.

Others soft-pedaled the meeting’s significance. “Not to put too fine a point on it,” the Jesuit author James Martin quipped, “but Pope Francis also met Mark Wahlberg, and that does not mean that he liked ‘Ted.’ ”

Yet if in this analogy Mark Wahlberg is Kim Davis, and “Ted” is Ms. Davis’s refusal to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, it’s entirely possible that Pope Francis did like “Ted.” His past behavior suggests that he may have liked “Ted” a lot.

While it should go without saying that the leader of the Roman Catholic Church hews unflaggingly to its opposition to same-sex marriage, his previous comments that the church should “consider” civil unions and the warm welcome he gave to a same-sex couple in Washington raised the hopes of many. Before the world began to parse his every utterance, however, he went further on the issue than his current above-the-fray persona allows.

As recently as 2009, he dealt with the legal and political implications of same-sex marriage so unambiguously as to suggest there was nothing of a swindle or a mistake about his appointment with Ms. Davis. As Argentina’s legalization of same-sex marriage approached six years ago, the mayor of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri, currently a candidate for the presidency, declined to appeal when a judge’s ruling allowed the marriage of two men to proceed. The future Pope Francis, then archbishop of Buenos Aires, publicly objected to the mayor’s failure as a “guardian of the law.” “The Constitution and national codes cannot be modified by a judge,” he said. In such situations, he insisted, officials had a responsibility to act.

“It was the first time in 18 years as bishop that I criticized a government official,” he later said. Within church circles, he spoke more vehemently as the national same-sex marriage bill moved toward a vote. “Let us not be naïve,” he wrote in a letter to Carmelite nuns in his diocese. “This is not simply a political struggle, but it is an attempt to destroy God’s plan.”

No matter if in his meeting with Kim Davis we cast Pope Francis as a bumbling victim of his own lieutenants, or a back-room wheeler-dealer unwilling to come clean, in his past complaints about judges meddling in matters constitutional and divine, he already lent support to Ms. Davis’s cause no less than her loudest defender, Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and a Republican presidential candidate, who put the same idea this way: “Constitutionally, the courts cannot make a law.”

It is tempting to see in the pope’s varied messages during his first visit to the United States the ploys of a seasoned political fighter who knows that a move left on the climate and the economy gives him the space he needs to jab right on social issues. That may be part of it. As the future pope counseled, one should not be naïve. The Vatican was an old hand at international politics before this country was born.

Yet another interpretation is far more unsettling to our bifurcated culture: that Pope Francis is a man who sees more similarities than differences between Kim Davis and Dorothy Day.

During her protests against the war in Vietnam, Day, too, broke the law, and spoke openly about the need to do so. She professed her willingness to go to prison for her convictions, just as Mr. Huckabee did the day Ms. Davis was released from jail. While Day took action because of war and Ms. Davis did so because of marriage, in the pope’s view, his church’s struggle against same-sex marriage is “God’s war.”

Francis has said he sees the devil at work in the question of marriage equality; Ms. Davis has said her refusal to grant marriage licenses was “a heaven or hell decision.” Whatever sets them apart, what the pope and the county clerk ultimately have in common is more than a few moments together in Washington.

As his papacy continues, Francis will likely infuriate people on both sides of our political divide, but it won’t be because he’s fickle. Cool or uncool, the pope is consistency itself.

Peter Manseau is the author, most recently, of One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History.

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