Change Is Not Coming: Pope Francis’ Meeting With Kim Davis Signals That ‘Culture Wars’ Are Still Raging

Pope Francis secretly met with Kim Davis last Thursday in Washington D.C., according to The New York Times.

The Rev. Frederico Lombardi “confirmed the meeting, but declined to elaborate on it. He said he ‘did not deny that the meeting took place, but I have no other comments to add,’” the Times reported. Lombardi also confirmed the meeting to Buzzfeed News.

The story broke last night when Inside the Vatican, an independent, conservative Catholic site, published an account of the alleged meeting. In a statement issued shortly thereafter, Liberty Counsel, which is representing Davis in court, confirmed the account and asserted that Francis and Davis met briefly in Washington, D.C., during the pope’s recent U.S. tour. Davis had been in the nation’s capital to receive an award at the Values Voters Summit.

That statement purportedly provides some details about the meeting: “During the meeting Pope Francis said, ‘Thank you for your courage.’ Pope Francis also told Kim Davis, ‘Stay strong.’ He held out his hands and asked Kim to pray for him. Kim held his hands and said, ‘I will. Please pray for me,’ and the Pope said he would. The two embraced. The Pontiff presented Kim and Joe Davis each with a Rosary that he personally blessed. Kim's mother and father are Catholic, and Kim and Joe will present the Rosaries to her parents.”

Liberty Counsel founder Mat Staver also asserted that Francis had indeed referred to Kim Davis when he described conscientious objection as “a human right.” That claim is still impossible to verify.

The Liberty Counsel doesn’t have a reputation for telling the truth, which fueled speculation last night that it had fabricated the story. News of the meeting between Francis and Davis broke just after ThinkProgress forced the group to publicly retract its claim that Peruvian Christians had organized a 100,000 person strong meeting on Davis’ behalf. (The prayer meeting happened, but it was not in honor of Davis.)

But Francis’ meeting with Davis is not out of character for his papacy. At a January speech in Manila, he condemned marriage equality and contraception access. “The family is threatened by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage, by relativism, by the culture of the ephemeral, by a lack of openness to life,” he said.

Buzzfeed reported in February that Francis supported a Slovakian referendum to deny marriage and adoption rights to same-sex couples. He is also critical of transgender people. In his environmental encyclical, “Ladauto Si,” he urged Catholics to value “one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity,” and added, “It is not a healthy attitude which would seek to cancel out sexual difference.”

During his U.S. tour, Francis met with the Little Sisters of the Poor, who are engaged in an ongoing legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception regulations. The order has already received an exemption from the requirement to provide their employees with insurance plans that cover contraception, but they now claim that signing a form to receive that exemption violates their religious freedom. Although Francis did not mention the lawsuit, his visit was perceived by many to be a show of support for the order’s case. (Our attorneys have filed friend-of-the-court briefs opposing the Little Sisters’ argument.)

None of this should surprise anyone. Francis is the head of the Roman Catholic Church. Although he has exhorted clergy to show greater compassion to LGBT people, these statements have never been accompanied by a change in church doctrine. As he said last week, he is not a liberal.

Nor is it particularly relevant that Davis, an Apostolic Christian, doesn’t belong to Francis’ church. Conservative Catholics and Protestants have long understood that while neither side necessarily believes it will see the other in heaven, it is politically expedient to work in concert on culture war issues.  The pope’s decision to meet with Davis is therefore directly in line with what we know of him, and of the church’s approach to religious freedom and LGBT rights.

Moderate and progressive Catholics who had hoped Francis might bring real reform to the church on issues like LGBT rights, the role of women and human sexuality have seen their hopes dashed. But the good news is that Francis’ support for Davis will not change the outcome of her case. Unlike Vatican City, the United States is not a theocracy. That is the most relevant lesson to be gleaned from this story.