Even as the Synod of Bishops on the family gets under way in Rome -- with discussions of divorce and gay rights in the air -- it's impossible for Pope Francis and his handlers to avoid talks about you know what and you know who.
Issues of religious liberty and gay marriage -- incarnate in the form of Kim Davis of Kentucky -- remain the glowing Kryptonite in the room for mainstream journalists and the Vatican public-relations team trying to deal with them.
Check out the top of today's John L. Allen, Jr., Crux story from the Vatican. With all of the global intrigue, what takes top billing?
ROME -- In the wake of bitter controversy surrounding a private meeting with Kentucky clerk Kim Davis during his trip to the United States last week, Pope Francis has a chance beginning Sunday to get back “on message” with the opening of a Synod of Bishops on the family in Rome.
The Oct. 4-25 summit of prelates from around the world is a critically important moment for the pontiff, one he’s been building toward for more than a year. If past is prologue, however, he may face a stiff challenge in steering it toward his desired outcome.
On Friday, the Vatican issued a brief statement on the encounter with Davis, saying it was not intended to endorse her position “in all its particular and complex aspects.”
Whatever one makes of how the meeting happened, or what it ultimately says about Francis’ views -- and theories on both matters abound -- the big picture remains intact and works to validate a fairly firm conclusion about this pope. To wit, Francis is positioned squarely in the middle of what Americans have come to know as the “culture wars.”
It really helps to back up a day or so and read the earlier Allen analysis of the Davis hug fallout.
The key to this Allen essay, for journalists covering this story, is not what did or did not happen between the pope and the county clerk from Kentucky. For those interested in content -- doctrinal and political, in this case -- what really matters is what Pope Francis said on that flight back to Rome from America (transcript here, once again).
Thus the headline on Allen's commentary: "The Vatican must speak on conscientious objection."
It is important, as the Crux scribe notes, that the Vatican put out that distancing statement about the Davis meeting, saying that Pope Francis did not mean to back Davis’ position “in all its particular and complex aspects.” However, what does that mean? Hold that thought, because we will come back to that point.
The bottom line, for Allen:
Aside from Machiavellian subplots and political spin, there is one serious conclusion to be drawn from the mess: There is now an urgent need for the Catholic Church to elaborate on precisely how it understands the right, and the limits, of conscientious objection.
Francis said on the papal plane returning to Rome that conscientious objection is a “human right,” including for government officials. Taken in tandem with news of the Davis meeting, many observers assumed he was talking about her stance in Kentucky.
In light of Friday’s statement, that conclusion now seems unfounded.
But then again:
One could argue that people in Davis’ position should be entitled to an exemption from personal involvement in implementing a law they regard as immoral, since otherwise large numbers of people of faith might effectively be disqualified from public service. Obviously Francis’ strong rhetoric on religious freedom generally while he was in the country cuts in this direction.
That’s different, however, from saying that public officials on their own ought to be able to deny people services, such as the issuance of marriage licenses, to which they’re entitled.
However, there is a problem.
When the Vatican says it does not support Davis’ position “in all its particular and complex aspects," what precisely is it thinking is the position being argued by Davis and her legal team? Is the real issue that the Vatican is trying to distance itself from the public image of Davis and her supporters, or from the actual content of the legal points made by her lawyers? What is the true source of her public image?
Thus, I wrote Allen an email and noted the following:
Part of the problem is that Davis has two sets of supporters.
One set truly is trying, still, to oppose and stop gay marriage rights from being used. They are cheering for her and consider her a hero.
The problem is that Davis and her actual legal team are saying and DOING something else. They are seeking a legal solution similar to North Carolina laws and she/they have endorsed compromises that would both honor Obergefell -- in new Kentucky laws drafted to do that -- and allow a conscientious objector status to those who believe that they, personally, cannot endorse or symbolically take part in gay marriages.
So is the pope's point to distance himself from Davis' actual stance on the issue, or distance himself from the media image of her stance crafted by the far right and by the secular news media?
Allen responded, in part, that "what I meant was the latter option you identify, not the former."
In other words, Rome is having to deal with the reality of how the Davis case is being presented to the public by both her worst friends and her worst enemies.
At this point, it doesn't really matter what Davis is actually advocating -- which is a centrist compromise that would allow gay marriages to proceed without hassles, but without individual public officials such as herself, people with openly stated conflicts of interest, from being required to endorse them.
In other words, Davis is asking for conscientious objector status.
Meanwhile, the pope has clearly spoken out in favor of conscientious objector status, for citizens and even government officials caught in doctrinal clashes between their own faith and the new same-sex marriage laws of the state. As I wrote in my Universal column this past week:
Terry Moran of ABC News asked if Francis supported individuals "who say they cannot in good conscience … abide by some laws or discharge their duties as government officials, for example in issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples?"
Pope Francis said he could not address all such cases, thus avoiding a reference to Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who secretly met with the pope in Washington, D.C.
"If a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right," said Francis. "Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a right, a human right. Otherwise we would end up in a situation where we select what is a right, saying 'this right has merit, this one does not.' …
"If a government official is a human person, he has that right."
So, again, is the Vatican trying to distance itself from the content of the Davis argument or from the public image of Davis and her stance created by the extreme right-wing and by the incomplete or often inaccurate reports produced, day after day, by the news media?
Does the Vatican dare respond to Allen's challenge? At this point, the pope's handlers have seen the reality, which is that many journalists have little or no interest in accurately reporting the views of traditional religious believers who are trying to find a way to remain active in the American public square.
Why? Traditional forms of religious faith are now considered deadly. They are Kryptonite.