Throughout his six-day visit to the U.S., Pope Francis was careful to avoid or downplay many of the hot-button social issues that have roiled American society, and he repeatedly exhorted his own bishops to take a more positive approach and not pick fights that would turn more people off than they would attract.
Yet 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 six 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 Sept. 24, just before Francis left Washington for New York, Davis’ lawyer confirmed late Sept. 29.
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 the Vatican 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 hid 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 also not present.
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 okay 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, just before the pope flew to New York for the second leg of his historic six-day visit to the U.S.
Church officials in Rome and the U.S. were not immediately available for comment but Staver told CBS that the information was released with the Vatican’s permission.
“We did not want to release the information up to this time, nor did the Vatican, because the Vatican wanted to focus its message on a lot of issues (during the papal visit), and at the right time we ultimately released the information and the Vatican gave us the opportunity to do so,” Staver said.
He said that while Davis’ team wanted to broadcast news of the meeting right away, they also knew it would overshadow the “broader message” Francis wanted to bring to the U.S. Francis returned to the Vatican early Monday morning.
“The pope’s visit to the United States I think was very successful and he got his messages out, and his themes out, and he’s laid those out, and we’ve had a couple of days for those to resonate and to percolate through out the country, and frankly throughout the world,” Staver said.
“And I think now is a good time to get the additional message” out, he added.
Staver said that the meeting with Davis showed not only that Francis is concerned about religious freedom, but that the message was “completely embedded in what he said” during the trip.
“I think now you’re seeing some of the specifics where he actually took specific action to meet with some of those people, like Kim Davis, who were part of his overall message.”
Davis and her husband had come to Washington last week to receive a “Cost of Discipleship” award on Sept. 25 from the Family Research Council, a leading conservative Christian advocacy group, in recognition of her stand against gay marriage.
Davis, 49, whose mother is Catholic, identifies as an Apostolic Christian, a Pentecostal denomination. She has been married four times but had a religious awakening several years ago.
A federal judge jailed Davis earlier this month over her refusal to issue marriage licenses with her name on them to same-sex couples in her county. Davis also refused to allow clerks in her office to issue licenses. She cited the Bible as the basis of her opposition, saying God’s law superseded secular law.
Davis was released after six days in jail and, in a compromise, has allowed licenses to be issued without her name and with her title removed. Each license includes a statement saying it is issued “pursuant to a court order.”
If confirmed, the meeting would be a stunning coda to the pope’s visit.
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.
On the flight back to Rome, Francis met for nearly an hour with reporters; without mentioning Davis by name, Terry Moran of ABC News asked him if he would support people, including government officials, “who say they cannot in good conscience, their own personal conscience, abide by some laws or discharge their duties as government officials, for example in issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples.”
Francis said he could not address all cases but said that “conscientious objection is a right that is a part of every human right. It is a right. And if a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right.”
Conservatives quickly pounced on the remarks as a papal endorsement of Davis’ cause while others argued that it was not clear that Francis was referring to Davis or knew about her case.
Staver said it should now be clear that the pope was referring to Davis and her cause.
Others also noted that the pontiff was referring to a right to conscientious objection, which is somewhat different from the claims Davis is making: she says she should be able to keep her government job and while not fulfilling part of the law because of her beliefs.
Writing at Religion News Service, Jacob Lupfer said Davis’ claims actually undermined traditional religious freedom claims.
“Magistrates who serve all comers are the last people we should expect to get high and mighty about the sacred meaning of marriage,” Lupfer wrote.
“I am a strong supporter of religious freedom. But Davis’ claim is a huge overreach. If you have strong views about sacred marriage, perhaps a courthouse wedding clerk is not the job for you.”