What does it mean that the pope met with Kim Davis?
Not much, and yet so much.
Not much because the whole situation is consistent with Pope Francis’s words and actions. It seems that this meeting was not arranged by American bishops. Whoever arranged it, the meeting falls into a similar pattern: Pope Francis reaches out to touch someone and after the meeting, the Vatican Press Office was left to clean up the mess. Given how often we’ve seen this happen, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if it happens again.
Meeting Kim Davis is consistent with what the pope said about religious liberty, a major theme of his trip, and later what he said about conscientious objection on his flight back to Rome. And it is consistent with the pope’s calls to support the Catholic understanding of marriage and to resist attempts at “colonization” by “gender ideology.” Still, when he touches on hot-button issues—especially ones that drive some from the Church—he does not come down hard. Meeting with Davis in private is consistent with this approach.
And yet meeting Kim Davis means so much. It means that Pope Francis has mercy even for those whom the establishment—the people who know the right people, think the right things, and walk in the corridors of influence—detest. Kim Davis is not only wrong, but her dresses are frumpy. She lives in Kentucky. Her church doesn’t even believe in the Trinity.
It is good that Pope Francis has broken out of the categories into which we put him, that he has foiled our expectations for what his mercy should look like. It is embarrassing to watch the self-anointed proponents of mercy be so stingy. The very people who acclaimed Francis as the messenger of kindness and compassion, who underscored him washing prisoners’ feet and embracing refugees, claim that, because this gesture doesn’t fit their narrative or Kim Davis is the wrong kind of person, it means nothing. That mercy was good, they say; this mercy is a mistake.
Francis’s motto is miserando atque eligendo, “by having mercy and by choosing,” Bede’s words that the Lord sees Matthew the tax collector by having mercy and by choosing him. Choosing Kim Davis and having mercy on her doesn’t mean much, and yet it means everything. It means that above our categories and culture wars, Pope Francis is a servant of the God who told Moses “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”
Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral student in historical theology at Boston College.