ROME — Pope Francis met privately in Washington last week with Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who defied a court order to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, adding a new element to an American tour that saw Francis attract huge crowds and articulate left-leaning positions on poverty, immigration, the environment and inequality.
Vatican officials initially would not confirm that the meeting occurred, finally doing so on Wednesday afternoon, while refusing to discuss any details.
Ms. Davis, the clerk in Rowan County, Ky., has been at the center of a nationwide controversy over whether government employees and private businesses have a legal right to refuse to serve same-sex couples. She spent five days in jail for disobeying a federal court order to issue the licenses.
On Tuesday night, her lawyer, Mathew D. Staver, said that Ms. Davis and her husband, Joe, were sneaked into the Vatican Embassy by car on Thursday afternoon. Francis gave her rosaries and told her to “stay strong,” the lawyer said. The couple met for about 15 minutes with the pope, who was accompanied by security guards, aides and photographers.
“I put my hand out and he reached and he grabbed it, and I hugged him and he hugged me,” Ms. Davis said Wednesday in an interview with ABC News. ‘Thank you for your courage.’”
“I had tears coming out of my eyes,” she said. “I’m just a nobody, so it was really humbling to think he would want to meet or know me.”
The secretiveness of the meeting, and the Vatican’s refusal to give any information, will inevitably raise questions about why Francis chose to meet with Ms. Davis — and why he kept the meeting secret. Mr. Staver said that he, the Davises and Vatican officials had agreed to not publicize the meeting until after the pope had left the United States because, he said, “we didn’t want the pope’s visit to be focused on Kim Davis.”
Mr. Staver said the idea for a meeting was first discussed on Sept. 14, more than a week before the pope’s arrival. He declined to say who proposed the meeting.
But “this was not a generic meeting in which Kim Davis happened to appear,” Mr. Staver said. The Davises snapped selfies inside the Vatican Embassy. However, he said, “out of deference and respect they didn’t want to pull out a cellphone with the pope. The Vatican had their own photographers there and we’re told the pictures will be released later.”
No photographs had been released by Wednesday evening in Rome.
Throughout his six-day American tour, Francis carefully navigated the country’s political divisions and seemed to be deliberately trying to strike a balance, if also to reframe entrenched debates. He spoke to Congress about the importance of “life” but elaborated on the theme by decrying the death penalty, not abortion. He also offered broad strokes about the importance of religious freedom — a big issue for American conservatives — but often in the context of preventing extremism and promoting interfaith tolerance.
Yet his meeting with Ms. Davis raises the question of whether the pontiff was again shifting directions, seizing on an issue — conscientious objection — typically embraced by liberals but instead framing it around Ms. Davis.
Francis did make an unscheduled visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of nuns suing the federal government over the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act. Reporters were not present at the meeting, which was announced later the same day by the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi. Asked on Wednesday why the Vatican noted that visit, but not the meeting with Ms. Davis, Father Lombardi drew a distinction.
“That meeting with the pope and the Little Sisters was a specific event,” he said, noting that he had informed the news media because the pontiff had diverted from his public schedule.
For the most part, Francis has avoided any incendiary talk about same-sex marriage, and early in his papacy he even signaled a tolerant attitude about homosexuals with his now famous comment, “Who am I to judge?” Francis opposes same-sex marriage and has often defined marriage as between a man and a woman. In his final Mass, in Philadelphia hours before his departure, Francis said that God is revealed through the “covenant of man and woman.”
But he then immediately signaled a more welcoming tone: “Anyone who wants to bring into this world a family which teaches children to be excited by every gesture aimed at overcoming evil — a family which shows that the Spirit is alive and at work — will encounter our gratitude and our appreciation. Whatever the family, people, or religion to which they belong!”
The pope made public appearances and shared private moments among the people and the powerful in Washington.
Francis’ meeting with Ms. Davis was first reported by Inside the Vatican, a publication edited by Robert Moynihan, an American who has covered the Vatican for many years.
Some analysts argued that the meeting was less about same-sex marriage and more about Francis’ uncompromising support for conscientious objection — a stance he emphasized at a news conference onboard the papal airplane during the return trip to Rome on Sunday.
Toward the end of the news conference, an American television reporter asked Francis about government officials who refused to perform their duties because of religious objections to same-sex marriage.
In answering the question, Francis did not mention the Davis case and began with what, in hindsight, seems like a curious disclaimer: “I can’t have in mind all cases that can exist about conscientious objection,” he said.
Then he continued, by saying that “conscientious objection is a right that is a part of every human right.”
Alberto Melloni, a liberal Vatican historian in Italy, said that in meeting with Ms. Davis, Francis was staking out ground as a defender of conscientious objection more than seeking to escalate his relatively muted opposition to same-sex marriage. Mr. Melloni noted that this stance was consistent with Francis’ decision to single out Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day during his address to Congress. Both were “radical pacifists,” Mr. Melloni said: Merton was a conscientious objector during World War II, and Day supported objectors during the Vietnam War.
John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, a liberal advocacy group, said Francis’ intent was not to escalate America’s culture wars but to illustrate the contradictions within them.
“Part of the Francis effect is making the left and the right a little bit uncomfortable, and, mission accomplished,” Mr. Gehring said. “I think Pope Francis affirms religious liberty, and he rejects the culture wars. That’s something we need to grapple with.”
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