What?!? Pope Francis (again) backs right to conscientious objection for believers

Time for a pop quiz on some facts linked to a major religion-news event from last year.

OK, gentle readers, do you remember Kim Davis?

That's a dumb question. Of course you remember the infamous Kentucky county clerk who, citing a faith-based conflict of interest, asked that other state officials be allowed to sign marriage licenses for same-sex couples, in her place.

Next question: Do you remember that whole Pope Francis visiting America thing? It was a blitz of headlines that lasted for days. Then, on the flight back home to Rome, the pope was asked a question about Christians (wink, wink) being allowed to decline to cooperate with same-sex union rites. In an "On Religion" column at that time, I noted the crucial Francis remarks:

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."
Rather than discuss current events, the pope added: "It always moved me when I read, and I read it many times, … the Chancon Roland, when the people were all in line and before them was the baptismal font -- the baptismal font or the sword. And, they had to choose. They weren't permitted conscientious objection. It is a right and if we want to make peace we have to respect all rights."

Now, remember that meeting between Davis and Pope Francis? Of course you do and, in the months since then, you may recall that there has been consistent news coverage of the fact that the Vatican ambassador to the United States who was identified as the man responsible for that meetings was, as a result, allegedly poised to get the heave ho.

Now, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò has retired and, thus, been replaced. Here is what that looks like in a short story in The Washington Post. No surprise, of course, that Davis made it into the headline: "Pope Francis picks new ambassador to U.S., replacing the one who invited Kim Davis."

The obvious implication is cause and effect. Correct?

Archbishop Christophe Pierre, a French priest who is currently serving as the Vatican’s ambassador to Mexico, will move to Washington to represent the Holy See in the United States, the Vatican announced on Tuesday.

Pierre had been rumored to be Pope Francis’s choice to replace Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who has proven to be a controversial ambassador.

The Vatican said Tuesday that Viganò is stepping down because he has reached the age of retirement. Viganò drew attention in September when he invited controversial Kentucky clerk Kim Davis to meet Francis during the pontiff’s visit to the United States.

The Vatican said at the time that the unexpected visit was planned by Viganò, who had been known to speak against same-sex marriage more forcefully than others in the church.

A Catholic media professional sent me an email noting that, under Vatican policy, Archbishop Vigano submitted a retirement letter when he turned 75. Thus, as is normal, he retired.

Would it have been a political signal of some kind if he had turned in this letter BEFORE he turned 75? One could make that case. But what does it mean when an ambassador retires at precisely the normal time?

Meanwhile, what is this statement about Vigano -- who has had a long, long career -- suddenly been seen as too vocal in defense of a church doctrine (as opposed to his replacement)? As the reader noted: "Is there any evidence anywhere -- even the slightest shred of it -- that Archbishop Pierre is a supporter of same-sex "marriage"?

Meanwhile, has the pope does anything to suggest that he does not, in fact, support calls for religious believers to be granted some kind of conscientious objection rights by the state?

That brings us to a very relevant Crux report on this topic.

ROME -- Pope Francis on Tuesday warned against an “educated persecution” of Christians today, saying Christians are not only under threat by those trying to kill them, but also by those who want to limit their freedom and their right to conscientious objection.
“There’s a persecution of which not much is being said,” Francis said during his daily morning Mass in Santa Marta, the Vatican residence where he lives. It’s a persecution, he said, “cross-dressed as culture, cross-dressed as modernity, cross-dressed as progress.”

That is certainly a blunt, provocative image. Continuing:

The pope said this “educated” persecution occurs not when a person “confesses the name of Christ, but for wanting to have and to manifest the values of a Son of God.”
“We see every day that the powerful countries create laws that force us to go through this path … a nation that doesn’t follow these modern laws, these cultures, or that at least doesn’t want to have them in its laws, is accused, is politely persecuted,” Francis said.
“It’s a persecution that robs man of his freedom, even from conscientious objection!” he added.

Once again, there is no clear way to link this to the whole Kim Davis affair, rather like the fact that there is no clear, on-the-record way to link the ambassador's standard 75th birthday retirement letter to the Davis media storm. The Crux story connects this new Pope Francis statement to another highly relevant religious liberty issue:

Days before, also during his visit to the United States, Francis paid an unscheduled visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor, in what his spokesman later said was a show of support for the nuns’ demands for a “conscience” exemption to the contraception mandates imposed as part of the Obama administration’s health care reform.

However, it is clear that Francis is not backing away from the whole issue of religious liberty, or in the United States, the free exercise of religious beliefs (the ability "manifest" beliefs in daily life).

So, at this point, is it clear that the pope wanted to punish Archbishop Vigano, or some members of the American press? Let me stress that this is a valid subject for coverage. However, if would be nice to see some on the record sources and quotes -- on both sides.

EDITOR'S NOTE: I was well into writing this piece when I learned that Robert "Inside the Vatican" Moynihan -- who broke the original Davis-meets-pope story -- is about to publish a lengthy piece on this same topic. Watch for it here. I will update the link when it becomes available.

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