Too many American progressives have pinned unrealistic hopes on Francis being a breath of fresh air, a new kind of Pope, a man of the people, a liberal, a magician who could not only singlehandedly reform a byzantine institution but miraculously quell the American culture wars with his winsome ways.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard progressives, even ardent secularists, sigh with admiration, “I love that guy.” Which is fine. There are things to love about him. But he is a religious leader of a religious institution whose framework for seeing the world defies contemporary American political categories. He’s not a liberal. He’s not a conservative. He’s a Catholic.
The catechism of the Catholic Church declares “homosexual acts” to be “intrinsically disordered” and “contrary to natural law,” even as it also states that “men and women with deep-seated homosexual tendencies” should be “accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” Francis’s actions have been consistent with this teaching, on the one hand opposing any change in Catholic doctrine on homosexuality, but on the other according gay people—for instance, Mo Rocca—some basic respect.
Many of Francis’s pronouncements are opaque, but it is hard not to see what he meant when, in his speech to Congress last week, he worried that “fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family.” Sure, there are other issues that concern Catholics about “the very basis of marriage,” like pre- and extra-marital sex and divorce, but same-sex marriage is unquestionably part of that equation, too.
Francis also made pointed comments about religious freedom, the heart of the claim that Davis should be permitted to deny same-sex couples marriage licenses. He paid an unexpected visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor, the order of nuns that has engaged in protracted litigation with the Obama administration over whether signing a form exempting the group from providing contraception coverage violates their religious liberty. Francis also praised the American bishops, who have planted their feet firmly in the culture wars with campaigns to oppose LGBT and reproductive rights in the guise of religious freedom, for “remind[ing] us all. . . to be vigilant. . . to preserve and defend [religious liberty] from everything that would threaten and compromise it.”
American evangelicals, not Catholics, played a front-and-center role in turning Davis into a conservative celebrity, from her lawyer Mat Staver to her chief cheerleader from the Republican presidential field, Mike Huckabee. But it was revealing when Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Atlantic’s Emma Green, “[I]n Kentucky, I had said that I’m not a lawyer or a politician, but I had certainly hoped that room could be made for people of conscience.” It’s a Francis-like statement: above the fray of daily politics, but a clear statement of support for Davis’s position.
There are three general theories of how the papal meeting with Davis came about. One is that because papal trips are meticulously planned and organized, Francis knew full well who he was meeting with, but the meeting was omitted from his public schedule so as not to detract from the mostly positive press coverage of his visit. Another is that he merely believed Davis to be one of several unremarkable people brought to meet him, and had no real idea who she was or her role in the American culture wars.
A third, more ominously laid out by Charles Pierce, is essentially that Francis was punked by conservative enemies within the Vatican seeking to deliberately undermine both Francis himself and the liberal sheen his papacy has taken on.
Even if Francis was in the dark about who Davis was, and even if he was the victim of conniving internal enemies, giving the humble county clerk a hug and a rosary is consistent with the Francis way. As he said on his plane back to Rome on Sunday, three days after he met Davis and one day before the meeting was made public, “conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a right, a human right.” There has been a lot of parsing of those words, too. But once again, there’s a simple explanation: There Francis goes again, being Catholic.
Sarah Posner is a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches. Her reporting and commentary on religion and politics has also appeared in the Atlantic, Al Jazeera America, Politico, the Washington Post, Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The Nation, and many other publications. Contact the author at email@example.com.