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'Progressive' Pope's Meeting with Kim Davis Shakes LGBT Community's Faith in Him

A favorite to receive the Nobel Peace Prize later this week, Pope Francis found himself caught in a cultural crossfire after his secret meeting with Kim Davis risked curdling his message and undermining his cool image.
October 8, 2015, 8:00pm
Photo by Ettore Ferrari/EPA

Gregory Elfers is gay, Catholic, and a professed fan of Pope Francis. Having once been an altar boy at his local church in New Jersey, where he was raised in a devout Italian Catholic family, 29-year-old Elfers is now an upper baritone in the New York City Gay Men's Chorus, where he proudly belts out some of the same hymns and songs that he and his fellow Catholic choir members grew up listening to in church.

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Francis, he said, "is considered cool, and progressive — he's the first pope to talk about human rights since Pope John Paul II." The current pontiff is also a favorite to receive the Nobel Peace Prize later this week. "He's a total rock star," Elfers gushed, applauding Francis for bringing people back to the faith with the universality of his message.

"It shouldn't shock you that he's against gay marriage — that's centuries of church dogma," he added. "What shocks me is that he got with Kim Davis."

When news first broke that Francis had secretly met with Davis, the Apostolic Pentecostal county clerk from Kentucky who was briefly jailed for refusing to issue gay marriage licenses, Elfers's heart sank.

"On social media I started seeing a lot of people posting things like, 'We told you not to be fooled by him — he still doesn't believe we are living a holy life,' " he said.

Those assumptions and sentiments surrounding the meeting were exactly what the Vatican was hoping to quash as it scrambled to bury and then deflect claims by Davis and her lawyers that the pope had personally called for the meeting and condoned her message by hugging her and thanking her for her "courage."

Related: Pope Politely Sticks It to Congress in Historic Speech

It was the sour note that ended Francis's otherwise fruitful first American tour. When the pope landed in the United States late last month, he was met by an exuberant fan base that has often hailed him as progressive on such issues as income disparity, climate change, and social justice. Yet when it comes to homosexuality and gay marriage, Francis has carefully straddled the cleft between the church's deeply held traditional views and an emerging reformist and open-minded base that he has sought to appeal to and broaden.

Gregory Elfers (center) with the New York City Gay Men's Chorus. (Photo via Gregory Elfers)

The pontiff — who won points in 2013 for compassionately saying, "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" — evaded the gay issue during his five-day US trip, instead making veiled references to how families and the institution of marriage were being "threatened, perhaps as never before."

"Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family," he told American legislators. The remark echoed a sentiment that he more explicitly addressed last November when he said, "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."

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The media frenzy surrounding Francis's visit was overwhelmingly favorable, largely supporting the well-curated image of the populist pope that the world has come to know and love — that is, until after his departure, when the Davis encounter began generating negative buzz.

Though the pope ate with the homeless, visited prisoners in jail, and drew crowds of thousands to mass prayers in three cities, in the end, the Davis affair risked curdling his message and undermining his cool image.

The first sign of awkwardness was when Francis declared on his way back home that government officials have a "human right" to refuse to perform duties — such as issuing marriage licenses to gay couples — that violate their conscience. Though he didn't mention Davis by name, the implication following his US visit was hard to miss. The following day, Davis's lawyer leaked details about her pope meeting to NBC News.

Related: Pope Francis Spoke Out Against Drug Legalization — Here's Why He's Wrong

The Vatican at first would not confirm or deny the pope's meeting with the clerk. As speculation swirled and criticism mounted, it was forced to acknowledge it but resisted offering details until it finally went into full-on damage control mode, issuing a statement insisting that Francis's meeting with Davis "should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects."

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Religious leaders within the LGBT community began challenging the pope to make a more explicit statement on his position on homosexuality.

"I speak for LGBTQ people around the world who are literally dying for the pope to take the next step after his 'Who am I to judge?' statement and say, 'LGBTQ people are created in the image of God and deserve to live without fear of prison, persecution, or execution,' " Rev. Dr. Nancy Wilson, global moderator of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), said in a statement. "Pope Francis, we so appreciate your advocacy for the poor. We are poor. We love your stand on climate care. We care! But, Pope Francis, do you care about LGBTQ lives? We are dying to know."

Seeking to stem the tide of bad publicity, Francis's Vatican supporters said that Davis and her legal team had exploited His Holiness and that he was blindsided by the encounter. A spokesperson clarified that he had only exchanged a brief greeting with her among dozens of others, and noted that his only private audience was with one of his former students — a gay man who brought his boyfriend along, and who later expressed surprise that Davis had met the pope.

Vatican insiders also appeared to shunt responsibility onto its ambassador to the US, Archbishop Carlo Vigano — an active opponent of gay marriage — for extending the invitation to Davis, and said that he had not properly briefed Francis about her case.

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"Somebody is trying to throw some people under the bus," said Mathew Staver, one of Davis's lawyers. But the wrecking ball had already begun to swing on social media, where progressives and the LGBT community vented their disappointment in the so-called "people's pope."

Related: The Pope Promotes 'Right of the Environment' and Global Welfare in Rousing UN Speech

Wilson, who was part of the pope's welcome party at the White House, said that after the latest round of revelations, the Davis incident appeared more "complicated" than the early headlines. But she expressed disappointment that the situation started "to feel like competing photo-ops and push-pulling."

"Perhaps he got in a situation where he might have not actually known who she was," she said, "But it does say something about the people who have access and influence and can make such things happen."

Like a number of gay Catholics VICE News consulted, Elfers said that he was inclined to believe that Francis was "blindsided and caught up in the politics" of the moment. But others were more cynical.

Rev. Elder Pat Bumgardner in her office at the MCC New York ministry. (Photo by Liz Fields/VICE News)

"I don't quite trust him," said Rev. Elder Pat Bumgardner, a former Catholic who is now the senior pastor at MCC New York. "I think one of his goals is to stop the mass exodus of people from the Catholic Church and I think he's very smart about doing that. I'm not saying he's not sincere when he says, 'Who am I to judge?' I'm sure he is, but I don't think gay marriage or gay rights is a priority for him."

Speaking in her office in New York amid bibles and rosary beads and an urn containing the ashes of Sylvia Rivera, who is widely regarded as the mother of the US gay rights movement, Bumgardner said that she doesn't believe that the pope endorsed Davis's position in any way. The Vatican was "left scrambling," she added, because this American visit "was about bringing all of the people who have been shoved out of the Catholic Church home again, and that wouldn't work with her message."

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"For oppressed people — people who have been on the outer for a long, long time — any little crumb restores your hope," she continued. "If you say certain things, they'll pull to that and let other things go."

Other gay people of faith believe the pope is caught up in the same dilemma as any pastorally-oriented church official.

"They know gay people, they know trans people. They know we're good people, that we have rich spiritual lives, and that the church should be welcoming and affirming of us," said Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, a group advocating equal treatment and rights for gay people within the Catholic Church. "Yet there's this doctrine of 'disorder' and 'inclination toward evil' that automatically puts us in a morally inferior position and a position of conditional acceptance."

"I think he's conflicted in himself or he's a perfect symbol of the conflicts the church finds itself in in this moment of history," she added.

On Monday, Francis's speech to bishops at a key Roman Catholic meeting on family issues spoke to this conflicted stance on gay people. Bishops must show courage that "does not let itself be intimidated by the seductions of the world" and fleeting fashions, he said in remarks that seemed aimed at appeasing conservatives. But he also signaled a wider acceptance by affirming that the church must be open to change rather than risking becoming a "museum of memories."

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The speech, made at the opening of a three-week meeting of bishops from around the world, known as a synod, came less than 48 hours after the Vatican fired a Polish priest employed at the Holy See after he came out to media as a "happy and proud gay priest."

Related: Vatican Fires Polish Priest After He Comes Out as Gay to Reporters

The church said that the dismissal was not related to the priest's personal choices, noting instead said that it took umbrage at the timing of the announcement. "The decision to make such a pointed statement on the eve of the opening of the synod appears very serious and irresponsible, since it aims to subject the synod assembly to undue media pressure," Vatican spokesperson Federico Lombardi said in a statement.

Jonathan Rauch, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, said that the pope is "walking a difficult line." Compassion and realism are driving him "to bring to a close the Catholic Church's long war on gay marriage and homosexuality," he said, but Francis must also "reconcile that with church doctrine, which he believes is correct and unchanging."

Elfers said that he never expected the pope to "turn around and change thousands of years of dogma about homosexuality being a sin overnight." But he feels that Francis "needs to make a very clear stand that no human has the right to harm or treat gays and lesbians as second-class citizens."

Rauch said that a definitive stance on gay people and marriage is not likely to be forthcoming, but in recognizing the church is not going to change its fundamental standpoint any time soon, he thinks that the pope has refocused efforts instead on changing its priorities so that "gay people are lower on the list of things the church is going to moralize about."

Groups like DignityUSA also hope that Francis fulfills his potential to soften some of the church's hardline positions.

"As the representative of the Catholic institution, it would take a supreme act of courage and fortitude and trust in the spirit to go against decades of dogmatic traditionalism," Duddy-Burke said. "But it is time for some clarity and decisions, whatever the ramifications."

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields