Was the pope's meeting with Kim Davis just a coincidence?

After the Vatican confirmed a secret meeting between the two this week, Pope Francis is now backing off his support for embattled county clerk Kim Davis.

Chris Tilley/Reuters/File
Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis celebrates her release from the Carter County Detention center in Grayson, Ky., on September 8. Pope Francis secretly met the Kentucky county clerk last week who was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples and gave her words of encouragement, her attorney said. The Vatican has confirmed the meeting but says that it was not a gesture of unconditional support for Ms. Davis's actions.

Today the Vatican appears to have backed off its initial support of Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who was jailed for five days in September for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

When Pope Francis left the United States, he told reporters that conscientious objection "is a right. And if a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right," Francis said. Those statements have been interpreted as an indication of his support for Kim Davis and her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

And during an interview with ABC earlier this week, Ms. Davis said she and her husband met briefly with the pope at the Vatican Embassy in Washington. In recounting the details of that meeting, she said that he gave them rosaries that he had personally blessed, and that he encouraged her to "stay strong."

"Just knowing that the pope is on track with what we're doing and agreeing, you know, it kind of validates everything," she told ABC.

But according to the Vatican, the pope did not intend that kind of validation.

In a statement, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said that while Pope Francis was in Washington last week, he met with "several dozen" people at the Vatican's embassy in Washington.

"The pope did not enter into the details of the situation of Mrs. Davis and his meeting with her should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects," Reverend Lombardi said.

Thomas Rosica, Lombardi’s assistant, said he believed the pope was unaware of Davis or the implications of the meeting. These kinds of personal encounters with Pope Francis are not arranged by his delegation or American bishops; rather, they are arranged by the Vatican ambassador and his staff.

"I don't think it's a matter of being tricked as of being fully aware of the situation and its complexities," Reverend Rosica told the Associated Press. "I don't think anyone was willfully trying to trick the pope, and at the same time nor was the pope briefed properly on who was he meeting. He wasn't properly briefed on the person or the impact of such a visit."

When the news first broke, the Vatican only briefly confirmed the meeting, without offering further comment. Many critics viewed the event as a sign of Pope Francis offering his approval of hard-line religious rhetoric, something that runs counter to his widely-publicized meetings with those on the very fringes of society.  Others interpreted the meeting as a moment where the pope, himself a religious figure, took the opportunity to signal the importance of religious faith in an increasingly divided society.

“I think both sides have either tried to vilify or champion Kim Davis in one way or another, but what they’re forgetting is that the central issue here is of religious freedom in the US, and how we treat it. What does it mean, and what are its boundaries?” Joe Valenzano, an expert on religious rhetoric at the University of Dayton in Ohio, told The Christian Science Monitor. “The fact is, both sides have made just a colossal mess out of this to further their own perspective, rather than focusing on what could be a productive conversation for society.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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