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Vatican on Pope Francis and Kim Davis: Meeting no ‘support’ for her case

Kentucky's Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, who was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, makes remarks after receiving the "Cost of Discipleship" award at a Family Research Council conference in Washington on September 25, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-DAVIS-POPE, originally transmitted on Sept. 30, 2015 and RNS-VATICAN-DAVIS, originally transmitted on Oct. 2, 2015.

VATICAN CITY (RNS) The Vatican is downplaying Pope Francis’ controversial meeting with Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk jailed for refusing to grant marriage licenses to gay couples, saying their encounter “should not be considered a form of support of her position.”

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, also said in a statement issued Friday (Oct. 2) that Davis was one of “several dozen” people Francis met at the Vatican Embassy in Washington on Sept. 24 as he prepared to leave for New York, the second leg of his U.S. trip.

One of those meetings, it turns out, was with a gay man, Yayo Grassi, and his partner, who met with the pope at the embassy the day before the Davis meeting, as a YouTube video confirms.

Grassi, a 67-year-old caterer who now lives in Washington, was a student of the pope’s years ago in Argentina and has stayed in touch with him.

He told the New York Times that Francis had called him before the pontiff came to the U.S. “and he told me that he would love to give me a hug in Washington.”

Grassi said they met for 15-20 minutes and the meeting was purely personal. “I don’t think he was trying to say anything in particular,” he told the Times. “He was just meeting with his ex-student and a very close friend of his.”

That’s not the way Davis and her lawyers described her brief encounter with the pope.

After breaking the news Tuesday night, Davis’ camp said the meeting had been requested by the pope and validated Davis’ efforts.

That led to days of intense speculation about what really happened, which the Vatican on Friday sought to quell:

“Such brief greetings occur on all papal visits and are due to the pope’s characteristic kindness and availability,” the Vatican statement said. It added that the “only real audience granted by the pope” at the embassy that day “was with one of his former students and his family.

“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,” Lombardi said.

Lombardi declined to provide any further details when pressed by reporters.

The Rev. Tom Rosica, who assists the Vatican press office with English-language media, said Friday that Vatican staff did not organize the meeting. According to the National Catholic Reporter, Rosica said it might have been an initiative by the Vatican’s ambassador to the U.S., Archbishop Carlo Vigano.

Rosica said that Vatican staff were not sure the pope “knew fully each of the people he was meeting” while greeting people at the nunciature. The priest also said Francis had personally approved Friday’s press statement after a meeting with Lombardi on the issue.

The encounter was only made public by Davis’ lawyers on Tuesday (Sept. 29).

Davis claimed she embraced Francis, who told her to “stay strong,” and she said the meeting “kind of validates everything” she has been doing.

Her conservative supporters also trumpeted the meeting as a sign that Francis’ visit was really intended to support religious freedom claims like the Davis case, in contrast to the pope’s repeated public warnings to his bishops not to be culture warriors.

Matt Bowman, senior counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom, wrote on the group’s website, “The pope’s amazing private action shows that his public drumbeat on religious freedom was no afterthought. It was at the heart of his mission to the United States.”

Davis spent five days in jail in September over her refusal to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. A conservative Christian, she claimed she could not act contrary to God’s law.

Mat Staver of the Liberty Counsel, which has been representing Davis, pushed back against the Vatican statements on Friday, saying the pontiff’s meeting with Davis and Francis’ later statements of support for conscientious objection in a news conference “indicate support” for her claims.

He also said that the meeting “was initiated by the Vatican” and said it was a carefully arranged private encounter Francis, not just one in a series of handshake greetings, as the Vatican seemed to portray it.

Staver added that neither Davis nor the Liberty Counsel ever said the meeting was an endorsement of the specifics of her case.

It still remains unclear, however, who invited Davis and her husband, Joe, to meet with the pope in Washington and why.

Staver on Tuesday told CBS News that the Vatican contacted him a few days before the pope was to arrive on his first visit 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 church officials to sneak Davis and her husband, Joe, into the Vatican Embassy in Washington, where Francis was staying. He even counseled her to change her hairstyle to avoid notice.

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 not present either.

Davis told the magazine that Francis said to her, “Thank you for your courage” and they exchanged hugs.

“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-in-Chief Robert Moynihan, who has covered the Vatican for years, said Davis recounted the meeting to him shortly after it took place.

Other sources have said the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has not embraced Davis’ cause, as many conservative Christians and activists have, was not involved in the invitation and may have tried to thwart it.

(David Gibson contributed to this report from New York.)


About the author

Rosie Scammell

Rosie Scammell is a British journalist with extensive experience reporting for leading international news organizations. She has been based in Italy since 2012 and covers the Vatican for RNS.

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • What a pleasure to see the brilliantly choreographed Papal tour make such a misstep and dissolve into confusion. It is likely this incident will be the most remembered by the non catholic citizens of the U.S.

  • As an aside . . .

    “Then he [the Pope] said to me [Kim], ‘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.”

    What result could possibly be expected from their prayers that wouldn’t materialize without prayers? Are they expecting God to bestow special rewards upon them in appreciation of their excessive groveling?

  • Pope: “Conscientious objection” is a “human right” for “government employees.” Short of naming Kim Davis outright, he couldn’t have been clearer on his return flight presser that he totally “supports her case.”

  • People running around and randomly wishing each other well is harmless enough:
    “Pray for me”
    “Okay, pray for me too”

    But it needs a translator:
    “Hopefully those gays will disappear someday and stop spreading gayness.”
    “Yes, hopefully those gays will come to their senses and stop disrupting things”

    I know this because I was a Christian and when we prayed for things it was all about asking God to intervene to fix the world. The problem is we saw the world as if it was broken – but it isn’t.

    Life can be difficult but there is no reason to see it as a ‘broken’ world or as a fallen world. That is the blunder of religion.

  • No. There is a difference between acknowledging that religious freedom is a human right – rather than a positive right – and therefore extends to everyone and endorsing her particular case. Go back to the church’s teachings on religious freedom. The church teaches that religious freedom is a fundamental right, but that it is not without limits. This was clearly stated by the Second Vatican Council. Nothing we have heard about the meeting indicates that the Pope endorsed her particular cause.

  • I don’t know what either of them means by it. When I say it I mean “I will stop thinking about myself and my problems long enough to think of you and yours.” When I ask, it means that I am humble enough to know I can’t solve all my problems by myself and to ask for help

  • The pope was evidently referring to people with legitimate issues. Not whiny clerks who are too afraid to actually sacrifice for their faith.

    It is not an act of conscience to do something immoral, malicious, and harmful to others, nor is it exercising a human right.

    Kim Davis is no more demonstrating her religious liberties than a person committing murder and cannibalism as part of a human sacrifice.

  • Essentially the Pope was punked by right-wing Catholics with access to him acting in tandem with right-wing Protestants to arrange for and exploit this brief face time she had with him, It’s reminiscent of how when J. Edgar Hoover was head of the FBI and he and his partner Clyde Tolson loved going to racetracks and fancy nightclubs back then and some mob figures arranged to get pictures taken with them.

  • Said the Holy See press office statement from earlier today:

    The brief meeting between Mrs. Kim Davis and Pope Francis at the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, DC has continued to provoke comments and discussion. In order to contribute to an objective understanding of what transpired I am able to clarify the following points:

    Pope Francis met with several dozen persons who had been invited by the Nunciature to greet him as he prepared to leave Washington for New York City. Such brief greetings occur on all papal visits and are due to the Pope’s characteristic kindness and availability. The only real audience granted by the Pope at the Nunciature was with one of his former students and his family.

  • It just keeps getting better and better.

    Not only did the pope NOT have a private audience with Davis, not only did ne not actually support her position…


    CNN is reporting that the ONLY private audience the pope had on his entire tour was with a GAY COUPLE.

    The day before Pope Francis met anti-gay county clerk Kim Davis in Washington last week, he held a private meeting with a longtime friend from Argentina who has been in a same-sex relationship for 19 years. Yayo Grassi, an openly gay man, brought his partner, Iwan, as well several other friends to the Vatican Embassy on September 23 for a brief visit with the Pope. A video of the meeting shows Grassi and Francis greeting each other with a warm hug. In an exclusive interview with CNN, Grassi declined to disclose details about the short visit, but said it was arranged personally by the Pope via email in the weeks ahead of Francis’ highly anticipated visit to the United States.

  • You are obviously a clown. Did you not know that the Catholic church does not endorse gay marriages and that sort of activity? Did you not know this fact? There wasn’t a ‘mistep’ by the Pope. In fact, it was clear support for Kim Davis and her beliefs as they are his beliefs as well. Liberals and gays can try to spin the Popes visit with Kim all they want but he supports her and was trying to be tactful to others.

  • Let’s never forget the overarching Jesuit agenda: To bring the world back under the control of the Papacy then use the power of the state to enforce its religious dogmas and persecute those who do not go along with her. Regardless of what Francis says, that objective of his church and the dogmas upon which it is built has not changed. His plans will not bring unity, peace and prosperity; but rather tyranny and oppression.

    May scales be removed frm the people’s eyes that they may Francis for who he truly is–a chameleon par excellence.