Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
October 9, 2015
Is there anyone with whom Pope Francis should absolutely, resolutely, categorically never meet?
He is called by billions “Holy Father” and has preached incessantly about the love of the Father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son as a sign of the love God has for everyone. He is the successor of the fisherman to whom Christ entrusted all of his sheep and lambs. He has famously asked, “Who am I to judge?,” referring to anyone who is of good will and seeking God. He has summoned everyone in the Church to a special mission to the marginalized and outcast, reminding us that Jesus Christ is interested in saving 100 out of 100. He has met with hardened criminals, shameful dictators, and notorious atheists.
Is there anyone who should unequivocally be excluded from his Christ-like concern and paternal engagement?
Of course there is!
That’s the response that was heard in various segments of the American media and even some Catholic circles last week when word got out that Pope Francis had had a brief encounter with Kim Davis at the Nunciature in Washington, DC.
To some Kim Davis is a Hester Prynne with a scarlet letter so dark that even being in the same room with her would indelibly sully the whitest cassock. Just to greet her — not to mention to thank her for her courage and urge her to “stay strong” — is equivalent to engaging in the diabolical and ipso facto undermines all one’s Christian witness and authority. Giving her a set of Rosary Beads is enough to neutralize not only all Pope Francis said and did during his six days in the U.S. but during the first 30 months of his papacy. It’s enough to get some to leave the Church altogether.
That’s what I heard last week when news broke that Pope Francis had met with the county clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky, who had been jailed for six days in September for contempt of court for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in accordance with the Supreme Court’s recent Obergefell decision. This 5-4 judgment declared that Jesus Christ’s teaching on marriage as the union of one man and one woman — not to mention the understanding of every culture in history, of the Founding Fathers and of the Supreme Court for its first 226 years — is wrong, prejudiced, and contrary to the US Constitution.
Once people heard about Francis and Kim, my phone started ringing, and my email box began to grow, from those who thought I would be an appropriate messenger to convey their indignation to the Holy Father.
I tried to engage the interlocutors, first to understand their position and then to try to talk them off the spiritual ledge. My inner Socrates came out in a patient series of questions.
What is it that upsets you so much that Pope Francis would meet with her? Do you consider it imprudent or sinful or both? Why do you think he met her? Do you reckon that by shaking her hand he somehow concurs with everything she has said and done, any more than by meeting with Raul and Fidel Castro, President Obama and Speaker Boehner he would support all they’ve said and done? Do you think it’s fitting for the Pope to give a sign of support for someone willing to go to jail rather than violate her conscience? Is there any Christian teaching for which you would be willing to go to jail rather than violate your conscience? Do you, just curious, agree with Pope Francis that marriage is a union between a man and a woman?
In my highly educated but unscientific sample, the answers were similar. Meeting with Kim Davis was an unambiguous sign that, contrary to their hopes, Pope Francis sides with the “religious right,” who despite his “rhetoric” of support for gays and lesbians is really “bigoted” and opposed to their “fundamental human rights.” For that reason they were intending — most of them, late in life — to leave the Church.
They were unwilling to consider that they might be reading too much into the situation or that there could be an alternative explanation. None was willing to state forthrightly whether he or she agreed with what Jesus Christ teaches about marriage. While every caller or emailer affirmed that no one should be compelled to violate conscience, none was able to state a truth of the faith for which he or she would be willing to go to jail.
Several added, “Pope Francis should have stayed out of the culture wars!” So I inquired, “Was he wrong, therefore, to have mentioned the death penalty before Congress or to speak about welcoming immigrants?” “No,” they said, declaring that the culture wars concern exclusively the “sexual issues.” So I asked them that if he had met with someone who supported gay marriage — as it turned out in the following day’s news that he had met with a former student and his gay partner — would that have offended them, too; none said he or she would have have taken similar umbrage.
I reminded them that Pope Francis had spoken on his trip several times about defending the lives of the unborn, about marriage as a union between one man and one woman, and in favor of the US bishops’ defense of religious freedom and freedom of conscience. I asked whether these words galled them. They replied that in those circumstances the Pope’s “tone” was different. So I asked if they could describe for me what the Pope’s tone was in his brief conversation with Kim Davis — and they awkwardly changed the subject hoping I wouldn’t notice.
I had two broad conclusions from these conversations and some questions based on them that I think are important to ponder.
The first is that, for some, Kim Davis is so toxic that the only moral response to her should be to treat her as a pariah. She is the bad apple who would spoil even the communion of saints, someone that Jesus Christ himself wouldn’t venture to draw near. Where did Christians learn to reason and behave like this? Is it because many of us are getting our categories from antagonistic political talk shows and blogs than from the Gospel? As Christians we’re called by Jesus to love even those who have made themselves our enemies: from where does the loathing for Kim Davis originate?
The second is about the supposed moral absolute that many insisted Pope Francis not violate during his journey: “Thou shalt not enter into the culture wars!”
Some were outraged, others were scandalized that Pope Francis, through his private meeting with Ms. Davis, immersed himself “domestic political controversies” as if by doing so he was betraying God and his vocation. Isn’t this putative Commandment, however, essentially an edict to the Pope and the Church: “Don’t you dare mention or show you take seriously any Church teaching that would make me or others uncomfortable!”? Or more pointedly: “Don’t you dare provoke me into having to choose between my faith and those political and cultural allegiances that you say are incompatible with my faith!”?
The Gospel, however, is meant to penetrate even into politics and culture, to every place where people interact. That’s part of what Jesus means when he says that the kingdom is like leaven or that we’re supposed to be salt and light. From where does this separation of faith from life among the supposed culture war pacifists flow?
Let me suggest an answer to these questions about the genesis of pitiless animosity toward Kim Davis and of the desire to make sexual morality a Word-of-God-free zone. The answer came, somewhat serendipitously, from how one of the conversations I had concluded.
When a man said that he and the seven Catholics with whom he had eaten breakfast were all planning to leave the Church over Pope Francis’ and Kim Davis’ rendezvous, I asked whether he thought his decision would please Jesus or make him weep. “He would definitely congratulate me,” the man confidently and emphatically replied, “for doing what was right!”
Not getting anywhere on that line of inquiry, on a spiritual hunch I asked whether he believed in the existence of the devil. “Yes,” he replied just as forthrightly. So I queried, “Do you think the devil will be upset if you stop practicing your Catholic faith or do you think he’ll rejoice that his many years of hard work have finally paid off?”
The man surprised me by pausing for several seconds before admitting, with a tone that seemed both somber and humble, “I don’t know.” The existence of the devil and his possible interest in the whole matter at hand struck this man in a way that the question, “How would Jesus react?,” didn’t — perhaps because many of us blithely have come to think Jesus lives to say to us, “Thy will be done.”
After thanking the man for his sincerity, I suggested that he ponder that question some more before he decides whether to allow his feelings toward Kim Davis to get him to divorce himself from the Vicar of Christ and the sacramental life of the Church. He said that he would, thanked me for the time on the phone, and hung up. I’ve been praying that he and his breakfast partners made it to Mass on Sunday.
But I think it’s worthwhile extrapolating upon the questions I asked this man, which are, I believe, the most important questions of all about Pope Francis’s meeting with Kim Davis: Do you think Jesus is upset with his earthly Vicar for having met privately with Kim Davis? And do you think the devil is upset with the reaction of so many to it?