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.