Infallible on Religion, But Not on Politics

October 2, 2015

While it's not entirely clear how much Pope Francis knows of the controversy surrounding Kim Davis, surely those who arranged the private meeting are aware.

Perhaps they didn't appreciate how incongruous it is to have the Pope extol the virtues of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King during his address to Congress and then grant a private audience to Davis.

Lincoln and King are paired by history because of the cause of civil rights they advanced and because of their reverence for the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the laws of our nation.

In 1838, Lincoln urged the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois to "Let reverence for the laws . . . become the political religion of the nation" and urged all of us to "sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars."

King picked up the theme and asked Americans to live up to the letter and spirit of our laws.

He also famously explained to his fellow clergymen in 1963 the difference between just and unjust laws, using the Christian tradition to defend his use of civil disobedience because "a higher moral law was at stake." But he was pointing out that we failed to follow Lincoln's lead, we had not revered our own laws, our Constitution, or our Declaration. King's actions were necessitated by our repeated failures to live up to our own promises and our own laws.

Kim Davis' actions are not of this tradition.

After the Supreme Court ruled that, under the due process and equal protection clauses of the Constitution, states cannot deny marriage licenses to same sex couples, Davis, as a county clerk in Kentucky, refused to issue marriage licenses "under God's authority."

When ordered to do so by a federal court, she continued to refuse and was eventually jailed. Her act of defiance led someone in the Vatican to approve allowing her a private audience with the Pope.

It was, by her accounts, a moving visit and the Pope blessed rosary beads for Davis' Catholic parents. He reportedly thanked her for her courage and told her to "stay strong."

I suspect it was not easy for Davis to find herself in jail for attempting to live her faith. And our contemporary culture isn't always supportive of people of faith. We're often a coarse place with a popular culture that can appear to be gratuitous in belittling those who try to live a faithful life.

So it's hard to begrudge the Pope a prayer to a private person who is struggling to live out her faith.

But Davis' official actions are the issue for Americans not her personal religious convictions. The latter allow her to freely worship in a church that does not permit same sex couples to take part in its wedding traditions. Her public role does not allow her to act contrary to the law.

Quite simply, she has tried to forestall the application of the law via an illegal method.

Though legal and constitutional means exist to change the law that she objects to, she has chosen to ignore those means and to take matters into her own hands.

That's not reverence for the laws. And it's not a conscientious objection. That's a public official gone vigilante.

The majesty of an audience with a Pope cannot change that underlying reality.