That was my first thought -- and I wasn't alone -- when news broke late Tuesday, via Inside the Vatican magazine, that Pope Francis met privately with Kim Davis during his U.S. trip:
How did we get here?
Back up just a couple of days: Aboard the papal plane on his return to Rome, Francis said it is the “human right” of government officials to say they cannot discharge duties that they believe go against their conscience:
When Francis said that, major news organizations reported it was unclear whether Francis was familiar with Davis' case.
The pontiff made his remarks on his return flight from the United States, in response to a question from ABC’s Terry Moran, who mentioned issuing marriage licenses to gay couples as an example.
It was unclear if the pope knew of Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who earlier this year refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Davis, an Apostolic Christian, argued that granting a license to a gay couple would violate her religious beliefs. Davis was held in contempt and jailed for five days.
“Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a right, a human right,” the pope said. “Otherwise we would end up in a situation where we select what is a right, saying ‘this right that has merit, this one does not.’ It is a human right.”
Now, we suddenly have gone from "Has the pope heard of her?" to "He (reportedly) met with her!" In news terms, that is quite a leap. Will the headlines follow?:
So did the meeting happen or not? And if so, some -- including Godbeat veteran extraordinaire Bob Smietana, now with Christianity Today -- wanted to see pictures, even as name-brand newsrooms began running with the story:
The matter is complicated by the Vatican's apparent reluctance to say much about the meeting, but The New York Times and others soon reported non-denial confirmation from the Vatican, pointing to the accuracy of Inside the Vatican sources:
What to make of the meeting and the Vatican's (lack of) response?
Ross Douthat, conservative columnist for The New York Times, speculates:
Meanwhile, David Gibson, the award-winning, progressive Catholic national columnist and correspondent for Religion News Service, describes the meeting as a "stunning coda" to the pope's U.S. visit:
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, declining to either confirm or deny that the meeting took place.
Staver said the Vatican had promised to release photos of the pope and Davis on Wednesday.
Throughout the trip, Francis seemed to studiously avoid political landmines and repeatedly urged his bishops to avoid harsh language and culture war battles — and the Kim Davis case has been one of the year’s biggest rallying cries for the religious right.
Francis 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.
The Francis-Davis meeting is a fascinating development, indeed. But what does it mean, in the larger context of a visit in which the pope -- in two major addresses -- tackled religious liberty issues. Also, what was one of the other unannounced, off-the-press-agenda meetings during his visit to the media-heavy Acela zone? That meeting with the Little Sisters of the Poor, the order at the heart of the religious liberty fights over the Health and Human Services mandates.
Check back later today for further analysis of the mainstream coverage from our own tmatt. There will surely be summary pieces by then, including the inevitable thumbsucker analysis material.