Pope Francis v. Kim Davis: A Vatican Game of Thrones

Seems like the meeting between Pope Francis and Kim Davis was not as good for him as it was for her. In a statement released by the Vatican, approved by the pope, the Vatican stated “the Pope met with several people at the nunciature and that “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.”

Translation: “we got played, but this is not our game in the first place.”

The fact that the Vatican actually issued a statement after Vatican spokesman Fr. Lombardi said he wouldn’t comment is amazing enough. It would be a mistake, however, to make simplistic assumptions that either the Pope is in the tank for Kim Davis, that Liberty Counsel’s Mathew Staver’s version of the meeting is the truth, or that the Pope proved he was really a culture warrior who lied about everything he said in the US. To quote Facebook: it’s complicated.

While this feels like a break up between the Pope and all the great press he received for his welcoming tone in America, the truth is more complicated.

The best explication of what most likely happened has come from Charles Pierce in Esquire, who verified (correctly) that Archbishop Carlo Vigano, the nuncio, is the person who hastily arranged the meeting between the Pope and Kim Davis.

Archbishop Vigano is a Pope Benedict XVI supporter involved in the Vatileaks scandal. Vigano has lied about his own brother, with whom he is involved in a dispute about their considerable family inheritance. Or, to put it another way, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano is the Petyr Baelish of this particular iteration of Vatican “Game of Thrones.” The Archbishop decided to wade into the culture wars at the behest of parties yet unknown, or his own spite at being driven out of Rome.

Whatever the reason, the Archbishop is the key to this festering mess. Kim Davis, who has her own popularity issues, is simply a pawn between two patriarchal organizations—The Vatican and Liberty Counsel.

What Mathew Staver and Liberty Counsel have done well, is to manage the media narrative. They announced the meeting around 2am in Rome, while everyone was asleep, got Davis on Good Morning America, and left the Vatican media apparatus flatfooted and flailing. Liberty Counsel has also issued a rebuttal to the Vatican’s statement on the meeting, which is naïve at best.

Staver lying at the Values Voters Summit about 100,000 people in Peru praying for Kim Davis proves that he’s willing to stretch a story to fit the narrative of Kim Davis as a Martyr and “conscientious objector.” No matter how much he may continue to assert that “Vatican officials approved the visit,” I would suspect the only Vatican official he most likely spoke with was Archbishop Vigano, who let Kim Davis and Staver in the back door of the Nunciature (Vatican embassy).

Not the first time that’s happened either. Remember, Pope Benedict’s personal butler gave his personal documents to the Italian press.

For everyone understandably mad and hurt about the Pope meeting Kim Davis, those feelings are valid. Looking at this from an American media or political perspective misses the real point—the Papal visit was hijacked by the Nuncio and Matt Staver as a power play with several objectives: to both change the tone of the Papal visit, to promote Kim Davis as the “saint” of the battle against same sex marriage, and to hijack the beginning of the Synod on the family which may or may not have the potential to make some interesting changes in the church.

The real meeting about religious liberty was the visit of Pope Francis to the Little Sisters of the Poor, not Kim Davis. Kim Davis was used to upset the non-confrontational narrative of the Papal visit, particularly on culture war issues like same-sex marriage, abortion, and homosexuality—all issues on which the Pope is very clear about upholding current Catholic teaching. As Sarah Posner said, “The Pope is still Catholic.”

Trying to read Vatican politics through the lens of American politics and media concerns is not helpful in this particular instance. Rather, parsing out the players, the mess, and potential outcomes will yield a better understanding of what the stakes are for Pope Francis and the upcoming Synod. Kim Davis impacts his “reputation” but the substance was always the same. Don’t expect Mathew Staver or Liberty Counsel to understand the intrigue and power plays that happen inside the Vatican. They made a great play here, but that play was a gift from the Nuncio, who has managed to be in the middle of both Vatileaks and the Kim Davis Papal blessing.

Stay tuned. There will be more “ratf*cking” to come, to borrow Charles Pierce’s colorful description. Pope Francis may want to take a page from the Anglicans and get himself a Walsingham to prevent the next big event from going bust.

  • Rmj

    Well, there was no “Papal blessing.” That’s pretty much the point of the new statement out of the Vatican. If Francis “blessed” Kim Davis and her reason for her notoriety simply by being in the same room with her, did he likewise bless all the criminals in prison he met with, and the reasons for their imprisonment?

    Not to mention this is kind of the issue the gospels say got Jesus complained about: hanging out with “sinners” when he was supposed to be a holy man. Didn’t that mean Jesus approved of their status as sinners?

    If Staver made sure this story was publicized (and he did), he did it for his purposes. There’s still a dispute over the meeting itself: Staver says it was private and personal, yet in 15 minutes all the Pope reportedly said was “Stay strong” (or “stay courageous,” accounts differ) and “Pray for me.” Guess he talks really slow in English, huh? Did it take him 14 minutes to hand over the rosaries?

    Or perhaps it wasn’t that kind of personal, private meeting? Fact is, we don’t really know. And considering how Staver has lied before about support for his client, I don’t trust anything he claims now.

    And don’t really see any reason to be all that exercised about this story, whether the Pope sent her a handwritten note to seem in the Nunciature before he left town, of whether she got in because Staver had connections with the Nuncio (as Pierce reported).

  • Jim Reed

    Great article. I think now we have everything in the proper perspective.

  • pegleggreg

    great article. thanks

  • RexTIII

    I read Esquires article earlier, and found it to be exactly as I suspected – sans not knowing the individuals (other than the reputation of Staver = the lowest end of integrity). This, another great article about the ‘power play’ – and those involved. One day, perhaps, She of Kentucky, will understand she’s been used as a pawn by men who are quite capable of using anyone to suit their goals – leaving her standing alone on a corner.. and then, maybe she’ll never quite get it.

    To the degree internal action takes place within the ‘Vatican’ – no doubt already well underway .. we may never know all of it. Staver has stepped into a game he knows little about and this will no doubt prove to be one of his greatest public examples of having zero integrity. He and his organization are a blight on the Planet.

  • Laurence Charles Ringo

    And the so-called “Vatican ” isn’t? Seriously,RexTIII??

  • RexTIII

    I’m not quite sure what you mean, by the ‘Vatican isn’t’ – suffice to say, I’m no fan of the Vatican. However, I do/did appreciate the general approach to serious issues of Climate, Poverty – etc during the recent Papal visit. And, his being a Scientist, oh the irony. It’s not often, in my opinion, the Vatican provides anything overly progressive or helpful to Humanity in general – and the ‘Retired’ Pope was – both – pre-Pope in his last job, and as Pope, well, there are many words, none of them particularly nice .. to describe him.

  • I find it interesting that there are Catholic hierarchs like Vigano who still think it’s a good idea to maintain their alliance with the Religious Right (which had been founded by, and is still largely an organ of, evangelical Protestantism). Sure, they have a couple things in common, like hatred of gays and opposition to abortion and contraception. So a political alliance with the goal of keeping gays second-class citizens and placing legal restrictions on women makes sense. There are even some Catholics who count themselves as part of the R.R. movement, e.g. Rick Santorum, Sam Brownback, Newt Gingrich, etc., thus creating an overlap between them.

    But they forget that, deep down, the evangelicals that still comprise a majority of the R.R., and which are its chief activists, still really don’t like Catholicism all that much. Many of them don’t view Catholics as “‘Real’ Christians.” Once in a while their anti-Catholicism bubbles up and makes itself seen, e.g. this past summer when Greg Abbott, the Catholic governor of TX, posted something on Facebook about the Assumption of Mary. To the evangelicals this was an example of “Mary worship” and was an outrage they couldn’t tolerate for even one second. The comments to his posting were, in a lot of cases, palpably vile.

    Vigano and the rest of the hierarchs in the US who think it’s a good idea to hitch themselves to the R.R. in order to make their metaphysics into the law of the land, are trying to make nice with piranhas. Ultimately it just can’t work out all that well for them. Should the R.R. manage to establish the Christocracy they want with the help of Catholic bishops and laymen, it won’t take long for them to turn on their erstwhile allies, vilifying them as “saint-worshipping papists.” It won’t be pretty, should that ever happen. But Catholics will have no one but themselves to blame if it does, since they knowingly conspired with their ecclesiastical and theological rivals (anyone remember the Reformation?).