How Do You Solve a Problem Like Pope Francis, Part 3

So, l'affaire de Kim Davis.  What to say?

Well, first, we should be a cautious about believing anything we hear about this story, as the timing of it is deeply suspicious.  Kim Davis's lawyer, Matt Staver, just recently had to admit he lied to the Values Voters Summit when he claimed that a 100,000 person rally in Peru was on behalf of his client, when in fact the rally occurred over a year ago, before anyone outside of Rowan County, Kentucky, had ever heard of Kim Davis.  This revelation of Davis's alleged meeting with the Pope certainly comes at the most convenient time for Mr. Staver, as it guarantees that the Peru debacle will be lost in the shuffle.  And it is now abundantly clear that Staver will make public, bald-faced lies in support of the public relations campaign surrounding his client.

There are also some details from reported story that create reasonable suspicion that this story is B.S.  Allegedly, the Pope spoke to Davis entirely in English, without a translator.  That's difficult to accept for two reasons.  First, as we have seen on his recent trip, Pope Francis's English is limited.  It is one thing to read a prepared speech (which can be written phonetically), it is another thing to have a spontaneous conversation with someone with no back-up in the form of a translator.  This is particularly true because Davis has a thick Eastern Kentucky accent, one that I suspect would be very difficult for a non-fluent speaker to decipher.  There is no logical reason not to have a translator present if you are the Pope, which leads to the suspicion that Staver is attempting to preemptively close off potential avenues for his B.S. story to be disproven.

If I had to make a bet, I would bet that this meeting never happened.  But, let us assume that it did happen, more or less as Staver tells us it did. What can we say then?

First, we should be careful to separate the messenger from the message.  The notion that individuals have conscience rights, including religious conscience rights, is one that has, or at least should have, general acceptance.  That Kim Davis is the least appealing possible vehicle for delivery of this message is beyond question, but it doesn't immediately invalidate the baseline message.

Now, as I have said before, I believe that we must interpret religious conscience exceptions in a very narrow way.  The reason I believe this, ultimately, is because opening the door to religious conscience exceptions either requires everyone to be able to opt out of everything they don't like for whatever reason (making law-making and governance impossible), or otherwise placing the government in the position of policing what are "genuine" examples of religious conscience and what are not (which is a fundamentally improper role for our ultimately secular government to play).  I became convinced of this view, by the way, by Catholic U.S. Supreme Court Justice (and legit conservative) Antonin Scalia in his opinion in a case from the 90s.  Be that as it may, while I would very strenuously argue that Kim Davis has absolutely no right to opt-out of her job of signing marriage certificates for same sex couples, I recognize that there are good-faith arguments on the other side of the line.  Endorsing greater religious conscience exceptions is not a position that puts someone beyond the pale.

 Second, we have to recognize that lurking in the background of the Davis story is the narrative of the Civil Rights Movement.
Fifty years ago, similar folks used similar rhetoric (including explicitly Christian rhetoric) and similar tactics to attempt to prevent African-Americans from exercising their right to vote and other related civil rights.  In the face of this strategy, our legal and political system decided that the consciences of white folks, particularly in the South, simply had to give way in the face of the assertion of the civil rights of a small, discrete minority.  Painfully, we as a country more or less reached a settlement on this issue, and it was in favor of civil rights and against conscience.

Like it or not, this basic narrative frames the movement for LGBT civil rights.  Kim Davis has become this generation's George Wallace--a symbol of resistance to the acknowledgement of the civil rights of others.  As such, the Kim Davis story is not simply about LGBT issues, but about reopening all of those old wounds.  Allowing her to opt-out of the current civil rights regime for LGBT people at least implicitly opens to door to other opting out with regard to African-Americans.

All of this is extremely nuanced, requiring the sort of awareness and knowledge that comes from living in a country and absorbing all of the subtle shadings and clues.  Knowledge that, by definition, Pope Francis does not possess.  It is deeply unfortunate that he would insert himself in this particular way at this particular time, as I am sure he would be horrified at the idea that his meeting with Kim Davis would somehow erode support for efforts to reduce racial discrimination.  But, in a sense, he has.  I wish he didn't do that in this time and in this place.  But, there you go.

Finally, this move (again, to the extent it happened) shows that we are in for a lot more turmoil and conflict surrounding these issues.  If you believe, as I do, that the Church needs to move toward a fundamental re-evaluation of how it understands sexuality, this incident shows that we are far away from that happy land.  For many, particularly in the LGBT community, this one action negates everything else Pope Francis may have done on his trip to the United States, and casts him with the forces of darkness.  While I do not personally hold that view, I understand that position.  Likewise, I can imagine that people who are on the fence of about leaving the Catholic Church might see this as a sign that nothing is actually going to change and that it was time to move on.  Again, I would encourage them to reconsider, but I would never begrudge them for making such a choice.  If looking a Pope Francis recalls the face of Kim Davis, and that face is too painful to accept, then I understand.

I believe that the Catholic Church will ultimately come around with regard to LGBT issues.  I believe this because I believe that LGBT people are expressing what is true about themselves, and that a Catholic Church founded on following the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life must inevitably come to recognize that truth.  But we have a long road still to travel, and many obstacles to overcome before we get there.  If this meeting did take place, it was one of those obstacles.


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