The Vatican has said explicitly that Pope Francis’s meeting with Kim Davis does not mean that the Pope shares her views or supports her cause. Considering that he met privately with a lot of people, including a married gay couple, this is good enough for me. I am relieved. But a lot of people aren’t. This Pope has a deep reserve of goodwill to draw on, and this one issue has already exhausted it for many. I can’t blame them. On a trip meant solely to cultivate goodwill in America, how could Pope Francis have gone so wrong?
The Kim Davis meeting is not about doctrine. On gay people and the Church, this Pope differs only subtly from his predecessors and I don’t expect him to change. The Kim Davis meeting is, however, about effective (or in this case disastrous) propaganda. As a propagandist, this Pope differs substantially from his predecessor. Francis is quite good at it, while Benedict XVI seemed to wander around in a self-created negative charisma zone. Being a skilled propagandist is a core competency for any modern Pope.
How you frame the teachings of the Church makes a great deal of difference in the lives of the world’s billion Catholics and those in contact with them. As a gay person, I feel safer in the world because of Francis’s tone, even though I know he doesn’t support gay marriage. But because of how he talk ands acts, I know he is not afraid of gay people, that he does not hate them, and that in this he could be a model for Christians everywhere. Tolerance in a Pope is no small thing.
Propaganda is a core part of the Papal job description, and I am using the word in its purest sense, meaning the propagation of a set of ideas. The Roman Catholic Church quite literally invented propaganda. The word first appears in the title of a Vatican department created in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV, the Congregatio de propaganda fide, i.e., the Congregation for the propagation, or spreading, of the faith. The Pope doesn’t need to travel to be a chief executive or a spiritual leader. When he travels, he is being a charismatic salesman. And, up until the Kim Davis meeting, Francis was doing such a good job. I don’t mean that he has been good at converting people, though he may have been, but that he has been removing huge amounts of religious tension in the world.
By talking about greed and pride more than sexual sins, this Pope is putting the Church back on track. Sexual morality has always been a Christian concern, but it has rarely been what it has seemed like recently, a sole obsession. To be arrogant and greedy has always been far worse than to be gluttonous or sexually unorthodox. By shutting up about gay marriage and talking about the environment, social justice, and the ravages of unrestrained capitalism, the Pope is reminding people of this. Emphasis and tone can be a clue to the real subtleties of the Christian message. If this makes social conservatives in America uncomfortable, great. If this makes marginalized people more hopeful, even better. In both cases, the change of emotion is richly deserved.
So how on earth could a Pope who was doing such a good job at this subtle but important shift in messaging allow himself to meet with Kim Davis? She represents the old guard Republican- Catholic (though she herself is a Protestant) obsession with sexual sin to the point of hatred and intolerance. Kim Davis is one part of the Christian teaching isolated and turned into a hateful obsession, everything Francis has so skillfully walked away from. So, what happened?
It seems that she was on a list of people cleared by the Vatican’s embassy in Washington, D.C. Getting a rosary and a blessing, as Davis did, was not a special privilege, but a kindness the Pope extended to everybody he met with. It’s too bad Francis didn’t seem to know the political context of Kim Davis. Perhaps he didn’t expect her to crassly use a private meeting for public gain. But when you are a world leader, this is the sort of thing you have to look out for, especially when a huge part of your job is PR. And if this Pope didn’t know whom he was meeting, then somebody on his staff or on the Vatican embassy’s staff seriously fell down on the job. I agree that there are far more important issues globally than Kim Davis, but she should be on your radar when you are on a goodwill trip to America.
Personally, I am relieved that Francis has made clear that he doesn’t endorse Davis. But both personally and professionally (as a media person), I am baffled that he and his staff got themselves into a situation where they had to make such a statement in the first place. The organization that literally invented PR 393 years ago should know better.