Why the media lost its mind over Kim Davis meeting Pope Francis

The hysterical reaction to the secret meeting betrayed the media's biases and blind spots

(Image credit: Illustration by Lauren Hansen | Images courtesy AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

There's very little evidence that Pope Francis knows the details about Kim Davis. It's unclear if he has much to say about her stand against issuing licenses for same-sex marriages in Kentucky's Rowan County, her subsequent jail time, or even her Evangelical faith. Before the now infamous secret meeting between Francis and Davis — which the Vatican won't confirm or deny — the pope all but acknowledged his ignorance to a reporter: "I can't have in mind all cases that can exist about conscientious objection." And the reported details of their encounter suggest that it was routine and quick: an embrace, words of encouragement, and a gift of blessed rosaries.

But the whole world is mad. Why? Because the pope is a prop. In the hands of our nation's true clerical class — journalists — this particular pope's function is to demoralize and shame the bad Catholics, i.e., the conservative ones. The previous pope's function was to symbolize their wicked intransigence.

Pope Francis is supposed to be the cool pope. He humiliates traditionalist cardinals. He embraces transexuals. If he occasionally says stuff against gay marriage, well, so what? Like Barack Obama in the 2008 election, sometimes you say what you have to say. But we know where his heart is. He embraces the marginalized and despised.

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The pope gets used. That tear-jerking moment when the pope embraced that 5-year-old girl who is trying to keep her parents in the country? That was planned out in advance.

But this prop accomplished what no upstanding playwright would script. He met someone the scribes really do despise. He embraced that hick.

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Horrors. Apparently all the good people who were about to believe again in the bodily Resurrection were stopped in their tracks by this one off-key gesture. As for politics, who could have thunk it? The pope only called for the abolition of the death penalty in a speech to Congress. He asked the state of Georgia for a reprieve in a death sentence case. He congratulated the president for his efforts to bring about international agreements on climate change. Apparently for some scribes, these views exist in a moral exosphere above and beyond petty politics. As Emma Green writes:

Davis has been one of the most polarizing figures in American politics in recent months, seen by some on the right as the foremost fighter against violations of religious liberty. When Pope Francis came to the U.S., his message was exactly the opposite — one of unity and reconciliation, not combativeness. [The Atlantic]

Translation: Cool pope unites us against bad religious people. Only a bad pope would try to unify or reconcile with that woman. She's polarizing, unlike the other issues Francis highlighted. Indeed, can anything good come from Rowan County?

It's not just the scribes in the media who are scrambling for answers. It's Jesuits, too. James Martin, SJ rushes to explain that, in all likelihood, Kim Davis was just another woman presented to the pope. Missing every chance to confront the obvious prejudice surrounding the meeting, he instead clears any potential obstacle to those prejudices. The pope may not know her. The meeting may have been arranged by another bishop. He's just being nice. "Not to put too fine a point on it, but Pope Francis also met Mark Wahlberg, and that does not mean that he liked Ted," Martin concludes.

The last flourish is exquisite for the way it makes the class prejudice explicit. Nothing to see here, folks. Just a vulgar woman who was snuck in. The Holy Spirit is definitely not afoot. It was practically an accident, really. Or perhaps it was some dastardly conservative bishop who allowed the cool pope to embrace someone universally despised by the great and good. She's been married four times. Believe me, if he knew, he'd throw her into the well.

The scribes and the Jesuits are right on a very limited point. Based on the evidence, we cannot know what the pope's gesture meant in an explicit way. We cannot know what was in his heart. But unlike the scribes and Jesuits, those with a mind habituated to liturgy know that the words and gestures prescribed by the hour and the office carry more meaning than can fit into the head of a single priest. They can express the divine intention even when the priest's mind runs away to something trivial. Some might see mere routine in the pope's encouragement, but the eyes of faith see something more: an act of humility, imposed by his lofty office. Even an act of trust and love. The world hates you. I do not.

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