Some American liberals were prepared to claim Pope Francis as one of their own after his hugely successful visit to the US last week. But the pope’s left-leaning image was shattered when it was revealed that the pontiff met with Kim Davis, a county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.
News of the meeting stirred confusion over the pope’s attitude toward gay marriage. A battle of press releases between the Vatican and Davis’s lawyer—each seeking to portray a different interpretation of the meeting—only muddied the waters more.
As the country continues to debate whether the pope’s stance on gay marriage is more or less progressive based on recent events, it’s worth mulling over a timeline of some of his most noteworthy comments on the subject, including the breakdown of events over the past few days.
2010: He comments positively on civil unions. When Argentina was debating legalizing gay marriage, Francis—then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio—reportedly proposed civil unions as an alternative option. “We believe that we must propose more comprehensive civil union rights than currently exist, but no gay marriage,” Bergoglio’s spokesman, Federico Wals, told Argentina’s Infonews. Argentine bishops did not endorse the idea.
June 22, 2010: He opposes gay marriage and adoption. In a letter to the Carmelite Nuns of Buenos Aires in 2010 (pdf), Bergoglio made his opposition to gay marriage extremely clear. He called the political movement “the destructive attempt toward God’s plan,” and “the envy of the Devil.” He also said that gay adoption is a form of discrimination against children: “At stake are the lives of so many children who will be discriminated against in advance, depriving them of the human maturation that God wanted to be given with a father and a mother.”
July 29, 2013: He says, “Who am I to judge?” Francis made some of his most tolerant remarks while talking to a plane full of reporters on the way back from his first foreign trip as pope, to Brazil. “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” he said.
November 17, 2014: He advocates that children should be raised by a mother and father. Speaking at a Vatican colloquium called, “The Complementarity of Man and Woman”, Pope Francis re-iterated his belief that children should be raised by heterosexual parents. “The family is the foundation of co-existence and a remedy against social fragmentation,” he said. “Children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother capable of creating a suitable environment for the child’s development and emotional maturity.” Pope Francis added that family is an anthropological fact that cannot be qualified “based on ideological notions or concepts important only at one time in history.”
July 10, 2015: He blesses a gay couple. Pope Francis wrote in response to a letter from Francesca Pardi, author of the children’s book Why do you have two moms?. Pardi summarized the letter on her Facebook page, saying the pope “hopes for an always more fruitful activity at the service of young generations and sharing authentic human and Christian values.” The pope ended the letter with his “apostle’s blessing” for Pardi and her partner, Maria Silvia Fiengo.
August 28, 2015: He clarifies that a blessing does not endorse “unfit behaviors.” A statement from the Vatican insisted that the pope’s blessing was meant for the individual and was “not in line with the church’s doctrine on gender theory, which has not changed in the slightest.” The letter was not “meant to endorse behaviors and teachings unfit to the Gospel.”
September 29, 2015: He meets with Kim Davis. Davis’s lawyer, Matt Staver, revealed on Sept. 29 that Pope Francis had a private meeting with the county clerk on Sept. 24. “I was humbled to meet Pope Francis. Of all people, why me?” Davis said in a statement. “Pope Francis was kind, genuinely caring, and very personable. He even asked me to pray for him. Pope Francis thanked me for my courage and told me to ‘stay strong.'”
September 30, 2015: The Vatican confirms his meeting. Eight hours after Davis’s statement, the Vatican finally confirmed the meeting took place. “I don’t deny that the meeting took place,” said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, “but I have no comment to add.”
October 2, 2015: His meeting ‘does not endorse Davis’s views.’ The Vatican issued an unusual statement attempting to downplay the pope’s meeting with Davis. The meeting was “brief” and dozens of people had been invited, said the Vatican. “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,” added the statement. A spokesman, the Rev. Thomas Rosica, minimized the event further, saying the invitation came from the papal nuncio’s office in Washington, not Rome. He also implied that Pope Francis didn’t know of Kim Davis’s recent political activism.
I would simply say: Her case is a very complex case. It’s got all kinds of intricacies. Was there an opportunity to brief the pope on this beforehand? I don’t think so. A list is given — these are the people you are going to meet.
Father Rosica added that the Vatican press office knew of the pope’s meeting with Kim Davis but “may not have been aware of the full impact of the meeting. It is very difficult sometimes when you are looking at things in America from here.”
The Vatican’s official statement also had an intriguing yet vague allusion to a significant meeting. “The only real audience granted by the pope at the Nunciature was with one of his former students and his family,” said the statement.
October 2, 2015: He confirms meeting with a gay couple. It turns out the pope’s “only real audience” was with one of his former Argentine students, Yayo Grassi, a gay man who brought his partner of 19 years to the meeting in the Vatican’s embassy in Washington. “He has never been judgmental,” Grassi told CNN. “He has never said anything negative.” The Vatican confirmed that Pope Francis met with Grassi on Sept. 23.
October 2, 2015: Davis’s lawyer contradicted the Vatican version of events. Matt Staver released a second statement, insisting that the meeting was initiated by the Vatican and the invitation was issued on the day Davis returned to work after her time in jail. Staver also said Kim Davis met privately with the pope. “This was not a meeting with other people in which Kim and Joe Davis were a part, but rather a private meeting with no other people in the room except Vatican security and personnel,” he said.
On Sunday (Oct. 4), the Vatican will begin a three-week meeting of bishops and laypeople to discuss the Catholic Church’s approach toward the family. Gay relationships may come up for discussion, but the working document (link in Italian) for the meeting suggests that they will be firmly rejected. The document reads:
There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.
Pope Francis may have a kindly attitude but, as head of the Catholic Church, he leads an organization with a long, firm history of opposing homosexuality.