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Why Pope Francis's meeting with Kim Davis isn't surprising

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The latest rumor about Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, who defied court orders to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, is that she met with Pope Francis in a secret Washington, DC, meeting during his visit last week. But did she really?

It appears the meeting did happen. A Vatican official told BuzzFeed it did. And in a statement, Davis and her lawyers said the pope was supportive of her cause: "Who am I to have this rare opportunity? I am just a county clerk who loves Jesus and desires with all my heart to serve him. 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.'"

But the Vatican has presented a more complicated picture, distancing itself from Davis and her lawyers in a recent statement. "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," a spokesperson said, according to the New York Times.

While the pope may not want to explicitly endorse Davis's views, the truth is that when it comes to policy and doctrine, Francis's views on gay people are much closer to Davis's than to the American liberal's. In keeping with the Catholic Church's position, Francis is a staunch opponent of same-sex marriage, and has said that people like Davis should have the right not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples based on their religious objections. "I can say that conscientious objection is a right that is a part of every human right," Francis said. "It is a right. And if a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right."

But the event may nevertheless surprise people who tend to perceive Pope Francis as more progressive than his predecessors. During his US visit, he didn't speak much about marriage, choosing instead to focus on poverty, the death penalty, immigration, and climate change. But despite Francis's lack of focus on gay rights, the Vatican's approach to gay people has not changed much in his term.

Francis has nice-sounding rhetoric for gay people, but the church's basic message is unchanged

Most of the praise for Francis goes back to one of his early comments on gay people: "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"

But the pope later clarified these comments in an important way: "When God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person."

As William Saletan pointed out at Slate, this isn't a radical departure from what's been the typical line of conservative Catholics for some time now: "Love the sinner, hate the sin." Francis was saying that he won't "reject and condemn this person," but that still leaves room for condemning the sin of homosexuality itself.


Indeed, the Catholic Church has continued doing just that: The church states that while gay people "must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity," they are still "called to chastity" because "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered."

Francis has affirmed his opposition to same-sex marriage. In a visit to the Philippines earlier this year, Francis warned of attempts to "redefine the very institution of marriage." And he previously said children have a right to grow up in households with opposite-sex parents: "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."

So the pope has occasionally said things that, on their face, seem friendly to gay people. But when analyzed further, the basic teachings of the Catholic Church — and the pope — haven't changed at all: Homosexuality is still seen as a sin, gay people are still called to chastity, and same-sex marriage remains opposed.

The pope gets a pass when other leaders do not

Hillary Clinton still gets criticized for her early opposition to same-sex marriage.

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It's hard to think of any other leader who would be called progressive while holding Francis's views. Imagine if Hillary Clinton tomorrow came out and said gay people shouldn't be allowed to be married, and that gay people should be celibate. Would anyone consider her progressive? Of course not. She would likely be labeled an anti-gay bigot.

But those are the pope's stances, and he often gets a pass — simply because, in comparison to his predecessors, his rhetoric is nicer. That may make him slightly progressive compared with the church, but it's far from liberal on gay issues. And if evaluated fairly, the pope's positions are still highly regressive and condemnable among anyone who cares about gay rights.

VIDEO: The pope on the death penalty

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