Pope Francis, Kim Davis, and the Care of Souls

During the time between the announcement, made mere hours after the his departure from the US, that Pope Francis had secretly met with Kim Davis, and Friday’s official statement from the Vatican clarifying the nature and implications of the meeting, there was a flurry blizzard of press coverage, speculation, and astute analysis from experienced Vatican-watchers.

Much of the discussion that I saw was focused on internal church politics, because that seemed, and indeed turned out to be, the relevant interpretive lens through which to make sense of the meeting with Davis in light of everything else that Francis had said and done during his trip.

What prompted this post was the coincidental appearance of a tweet and an email on my screen within minutes of each other on Wednesday, at which point the meeting had been confirmed by the Vatican with no comment but no other information was yet forthcoming. A theologian I follow on Twitter asked:

and a friend of mine, Doug, wrote in an email (emphasis mine):

I’ve been an agnostic my whole life, and by that I mean I really have never been able to subscribe to any recognized religion, but I’ve never ruled anything entirely out, either. Recently I had something of a sea change in my thinking on this subject, and I’ve come to have a somewhat higher regard for religion(s) at least insofar as they seem to be on the same moral and spiritual wavelength with the things I believe about right and wrong and how to treat people. And here comes Francis, coincidentally propounding exactly those aspects of the Christian church that I can actually get on board with. And then this business with this awful woman and everything she represents, which is the side of the church(s) that has kept me far away from it all my life. It truly made me reassess my attitude towards him. Which is too bad, I was kind of liking the feeling of maybe having half a toe in that door, even if I was never going to step all the way in.

It made me wonder: whose answer to Stephen’s question should we be caring about? People like me, who absorbed the love it, hate it, but never leave it Catholic ecclesiality from our rosary-draped cradles? Or people like Doug, who are definitively outside the church but have been speculatively eying the church door and thinking perhaps it might have something to do with Good News, after all?

In Faggioli’s analysis, linked above, he wrote about

the risks related to the pope’s visit to a country whose liberal progressives are struggling to understand that he is very different from his predecessors (and sometimes uncritically lining up the pope with their positions on some issues) and where conservative-traditionalists understand Francis much better and indeed try to close down his message and send false signals, which, paradoxically, are picked up much more by liberal-progressives than by traditionalists (who know a lot about power in the church).

(emphasis mine) I think this “struggle” and “paradox” can be easily explained by considering the lived experience of liberal progressive Catholics like me. I’ve felt besieged for the last 30 years by very nearly everything coming out of Rome. Now here comes Francis, and finally, finally, I’m hearing from Rome what I grew up being taught. I finally, finally, start to relax a little bit…..

….and then this happens.

Progressive Catholics like me, who have been hurt by Rome so many times, are responding quite reasonably when we respond to these “false signals” as if that’s what is happening again.

I learned about the Davis meeting on Twitter, and I think it was only the fact that it was accompanied by commentary from a variety of folks saying “I don’t believe it, either it didn’t happen or it was a setup” that kept me suspended on the verge of feeling betrayed for the first bunch of hours until more information came out. If I’d only seen the straight news reports? I would have been devastated.

What harms should we be concerned about? The harm done by displacing Francis’ carefully crafted and beautifully pastoral words and deeds from the news and public conversations? Or the harm done to wounded souls who have been hurt and betrayed by the church so many times that this apparent betrayal — a secret meeting with a politically-charged figure from the Right side of the culture wars, completely at odds with everything we saw him say or do in public to de-escalate those same culture wars — poured salt into every one of those re-opened wounds?

Even the clarification from the Vatican, making it clear that it was not in fact the betrayal it first appeared, doesn’t remedy those harms. As my friend Doug plaintively asked, “Why do I not feel like it’s all better now?” Because we were still put through the emotional wringer, that’s why.

It is sadly unsurprising to me that this meeting was engineered by persons presumably operating out of the “smaller, purer church” ecclesiology associated with Pope Benedict, as it has likely alienated far more people outside the church than it has evangelized. Francis’ more sacramental ecclesiology and pastoral approach seem a much more effective form of evangelization.

There’s no doubt that discerning the currents of internal church politics are important for understanding what happened. And there’s no doubt that internal church politics are a force to be reckoned with, as politics invariably are in any human institution.

But in our focus on the intrigues over ecclesiastical power, let us not overlook how such power plays affect ordinary folks, both inside and outside the church. After all, it is the care of those souls with which the church is charged.

Gracious God, we pray for your holy catholic church.
Fill it with your truth;
Keep it in your peace.
Where it is corrupt, reform it.
Where it is in error, correct it.
Where it is right, defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, reunite it;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.

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13 Responses to Pope Francis, Kim Davis, and the Care of Souls

  1. Steven says:

    Pope Francis met with several dozen persons who had been invited by the Nunciature:
    i,e., not a private meeting, not requested by Francis.

  2. Philip says:


    I’ve long read, enjoyed, and respected your writing. I’ve never commented here, but I felt moved by this post. I’m from the more “traditional” wing of the church – how I loathe such terms, beloved! – and I admit that I’ve struggled with aspects of Francis’ papacy, though I’ve also profited immensely from his teaching on many counts.

    That said, I’m a bit surprised that you have a such a negative appraisal of Benedict’s vision of a “smaller, purer” church. It seems to me that there’s a great deal of overlap, if not outright continuity, between this vision and Francis’ vision of a “poorer, dirtier” church. Let’s remember the context of that quote (at least, I think this is the context):

    “From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision … She will discover new forms of ministry and will ordain to the priesthood approved Christians who pursue some profession. In many smaller congregations or in self-contained social groups, pastoral care will normally be provided in this fashion…But in all of the changes at which one might guess, the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her center: faith in the Triune God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world. In faith and prayer she will again recognize her true center and experience the sacraments again as the worship of God and not as a subject for liturgical scholarship. The process will be all the more arduous, for sectarian narrow-mindedness as well as pompous self-will will have to be shed … When the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.”

    I would think that this prophesy would resonate powerfully with you, to be honest. If I didn’t know any better, I would attribute these words to Francis himself. The church of Benedict’s imagination is smaller because it has let go of the trappings of privilege; it is purer because it has forgone the machinations of power. It has turned away from the “world” in the Johannine sense of that word, not in the Franciscan sense of that world (bruised, wounded humanity). Is this not the current Holy Father in a slightly more apocalyptic key?

    In any event, let us remember to love one another. Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.

    • Dear Philip,

      Thank you for this thoughtful and fraternal comment. It gives me consolation and hope when someone like you can appreciate the writing of someone like me, across that “traditional”-“liberal” distance that is so often acrimonious. I hope that you will find my response, while it inevitably highlights some differences between us, to be likewise thoughtful and sororal.

      Your interpretation of Benedict’s text sounds to me like John XXIII’s opening address at the Second Vatican Council, accepting the loss of Christendom’s power because of that power’s corrupting influence.

      But I can only hear “smaller, purer church” through the ecclesial words and actions of Benedict as pope and Ratzinger as head of the CDF. I think of the silencing of theologians, the scapegoating of gay priests and the protection of complicit bishops in the sex abuse scandal, the liturgical changes.

      I hear “smaller” because we excommunicated or simply drove people away. I hear “purer” because of how we got smaller — and I think purity has no value in Christianity, anyway.

      You suggest that there is overlap or continuity between Benedict’s “smaller, purer” and Francis’ “poorer, dirtier”. I think you are correct in pointing at the Christocentric core of both visions, but when Benedict’s vision of church turns toward Christ, it turns inward, away from the (Johannine, profane, secular) world; when Francis’s vision of church turns toward Christ, it turns outward, towards the poor in the (Franciscan, good creation) world. “Purer” and “dirtier” are actually opposites, anthropologically speaking.

      All of that said, your suggested reading is certainly more charitable, which is the spirit in which we are called to read magisterial texts, so I do thank you for that.

      In any event, let us remember to love one another. Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.

      And let the people say, Amen!

      • Philip says:


        Thank you for your prompt and thorough response. As you may expect, I disagree with aspects of your analysis, yet I hear your critiques, and I even sympathize with some of them. I ask for your patience as my heart embraces and assimilates your concerns, anxieties, difficulties, disappointments, frustrations. Francis’ papacy has forced me to try to interpret the unity and catholicity of the church in more profound manner.

        I think particularly of paragraph 117 of Evangelii Gaudium:

        “When properly understood, cultural diversity is not a threat to Church unity. The Holy Spirit, sent by the Father and the Son, transforms our hearts and enables us to enter into the perfect communion of the blessed Trinity, where all things find their unity. He builds up the communion and harmony of the people of God. The same Spirit is that harmony, just as he is the bond of love between the Father and the Son. It is he who brings forth a rich variety of gifts, while at the same time creating a unity which is never uniformity but a multifaceted and inviting harmony. Evangelization joyfully acknowledges these varied treasures which the Holy Spirit pours out upon the Church. We would not do justice to the logic of the incarnation if we thought of Christianity as monocultural and monotonous.”

        It is this “theological” basis for communion (toward which Benedict also gestures!) that enables the church to reconcile the oppositions of the world. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). That is to say, the “big heart” of God, manifest in Jesus Christ, his Image and Expression, holds all of us in a single embrace, thus providing a model and foundation for the unity and catholicity of the church. As St. Paul urged us, “Open wide your hearts” (2 Cor. 6:13). This must be the motto of the church, lest it forsake its catholicity. The church has a place for everyone, because God has a place for everyone. I’ve taken that much from the magisterium of Pope Francis. This is the “field hospital” idea that he holds so dear.

        But what is the function of the field hospital? To cure the wounded. The wounds of the soul are cured by charity. Yet before we can cure a wound, we must be able to recognize it as such. This is the function of truth. Truth identifies our wounds, that charity may heal them. This, perhaps, is where our differences will become apparent: what constitutes a wound, and how should the balm of charity be applied? These are thorny questions. The eternal salvation of human souls is at stake. I don’t entirely know … I continue to pray to God, that he might enlighten all of us according to his wisdom.

        In any event, thank you for your kind and insightful words. We will not always agree, but we must remember that we share one bread, one cup; one faith, one hope, one charity; one God, one Lord, one Spirit. St. Paul asks us to be “like-minded” (Phil. 2:2). But what is the basis of this like-mindedness? The kenotic love of Christ (cf. Phil. 2:5-11). This is grounds for a communion that transcends the categories of this world: mutual affection, mutual service, mutual edification. Our unity is the unity of God, our love the love of God. Let us rejoice and be glad!

        • Dear Philip,

          First, my apologies for this decidedly less prompt response. 😉

          While there’s much substance in your comment, I was most struck by this:

          yet I hear your critiques, and I even sympathize with some of them. I ask for your patience as my heart embraces and assimilates your concerns, anxieties, difficulties, disappointments, frustrations.

          What a moving description of the work of charity, of empathy, of “Heart Speaking to Heart” as Cardinal Newman put it, of the love of neighbor to which we are all called.

          On tonight’s reread, I particularly noticed your mention of St Paul in the discussion of cultural diversity and catholicity embracing and reconciling oppositions without eliminating them, as was Paul’s great concern in arranging for Gentiles to remain Gentiles and Jews to remain Jews while all were united in Christ.

          Truth identifies our wounds, that charity may heal them. This, perhaps, is where our differences will become apparent: what constitutes a wound, and how should the balm of charity be applied?

          I am persuaded that, in at least some cases and perhaps most, truth alone is inadequate to the task of identifying the wound. Why? Because some wounds are so deep and so intimate that we cannot bear to bare them, except to a loving gaze. I think that this is what Pope Francis’ emphasis on mercy points to.

          I have often meditated on the passages in the gospels in which people drop what they’re doing and walk away from their entire lives to follow Jesus. What would move a person to do that? It’s clearly not that they recognized his divinity at first sight. In my personal reading, the reason is that Jesus looked at them so lovingly that they were irresistibly drawn to that Love.

          It seems to me that love must be prior to all else. The great mysteries of the Incarnation and the Passion are God’s love for humankind enfleshed and visible to us. It’s not that truth doesn’t matter; but I wonder whether it doesn’t require a deeply and meaningfully loving gaze to rightly perceive the truths of people’s lives.

          Our unity is the unity of God, our love the love of God. Let us rejoice and be glad!

          Amen, and amen, and amen!

          And a blessed and joyful Feast of All Saints to you!

  3. Philip says:

    By the way, I encourage you to write more about Congar’s pneumatology. Wonderful insights!

  4. Steven says:

    To me, the reflections on the Church are reminiscent, not so much of Francis, as of Bonhoeffer.

  5. Philip says:

    There does seem to be a privileging of the “theological” at the expense of the “religious,” if that’s what you mean. Honestly, I’m not very familiar with Bonhoeffer. It seems Franciscan, however, insofar as Benedict is discouraging the church from finding her identity first and foremost in herself (self-referentiality), and encouraging the church to find her identity in God himself, who embraces all things.

    • Steven says:

      I have been unable to find succinct quotations of Bonhoeffer to illustrate my idea. I am reminded of Bonhoeffer by: the quest for a theology of the Church; the Church as the Body of Christ, not an institution; the call for a Church response to the contemporary world, involving not ‘keeping up with trends,’ but a radical redefinition.

  6. Pingback: About the Vigano memo | Gaudete Theology

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