Rob Burgess

Pope Francis gave a press conference Sept. 27 aboard the papal plane en route to Rome after becoming just the fourth pope ever to visit the United States. He was asked about Rowan County, Kentucky, Clerk Kim Davis who — as I wrote in my Sept. 9 column, “Threat to institution of marriage” — was jailed for several days after refusing to sign, or even allow her deputies to sign, gay marriage certificates, citing her Apostolic Christian faith.

“Francis said he didn’t know the case in detail, but he upheld conscience objection as a human right,” reported The Associated Press Sept. 28. “‘It is a right. And if a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right,’ Francis said.”

Just days later, it became clear the pope had done more than give his theoretical support to Davis. Two days later, the Vatican confirmed the two had met during the visit.

“‘I do not deny that the meeting took place, but I have no comments to add,’ said Rev. Manuel Dorantes, a spokesman for the Vatican,” reported The Washington Post’s Abby Ohlheiser, Sarah Pulliam Bailey and Justin Wm. Moyer Sept. 30. “The meeting … was announced [Sept. 29] by Liberty Counsel, a religious freedom nonprofit that is representing [Davis]. Mat Staver, Davis’s attorney and the founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, told The Post that Davis and her husband, Joe, met privately with Francis at the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, D.C. [Sept. 24]. The meeting was brief, lasting less than 15 minutes, Staver said. … Davis, Staver said, told Francis ‘she would pray for him. She asked the pope to pray for her, and he said he would pray. He said to ‘stay strong.’”

This news was disappointing to many Americans who had been most excited to see the head of the church. The spin control emanating from the Vatican ratcheted up immediately.

“Pope Francis met with several dozen persons who had been invited by the Nunciature to greet him as he prepared to leave Washington, D.C., for New York City,” wrote the Rev. Federico Lombardi, director of the press office of the Holy See, in a Friday press release. “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. 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.”

It’s important to note whom Lombardi is alluding to when he mentions the pope’s “former students” who were the “only real audience.” Notice what they are emphasizing now.

“Yayo Grassi, a gay man in Washington, D.C., says he brought his partner of 19 years to the Vatican’s embassy for a reunion,” reported The New York Times’ Jim Yardley and Laurie Goodstein on Friday. “Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as the future pope was then called, taught him literature and psychology at the Colegio de la Inmaculada Concepción, a Jesuit high school in Santa Fe, Argentina.”

The damage had been done and the Vatican was tripping over itself backpedaling.

“One Vatican official said there was ‘a sense of regret’ that the pope had ever seen Kim Davis,” reported Reuters’ Philip Pullella on Friday.

As I wrote in my Jan. 8, 2014 column, “I like your style, pope,” I am mostly a fan of how Pope Francis has focused rhetorically on mercy, man-made climate change and social justice. But, as I wrote in last week’s column, “Prominent Catholics shun the pope,” he is a strict doctrinarian who is uninterested in changing the church’s stance against divorce, gay civil rights, gay marriage, birth control, female priests or abortion. It makes complete sense for him to be in cahoots with Davis ideologically. Save their attempt to repair this tear in the pope’s heretofore unassailable image, I don’t see why Vatican officials would distance themselves from this given their own positions.

Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at or on Twitter at

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