Pope Francis met with Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis during the pope’s visit to the United States, the Vatican confirmed.
“I do not deny that the meeting took place, but I have no comments to add,” Rev. Manuel Dorantes, a spokesman for the Vatican, told The Washington Post on Wednesday.
The meeting between Davis, who went to jail for six days after refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and the pope was announced late Tuesday by Liberty Counsel, a religious freedom nonprofit that is representing the elected Rowan County clerk in her ongoing legal struggles.
Mat Staver, Davis’s attorney and the founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, told The Post that Davis and her husband, Joe, met privately with Francis at the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington last Thursday afternoon. The meeting was brief, lasting less than 15 minutes, Staver said.
The pair chatted about bravery, then hugged and exchanged promises of prayer, according to the Liberty Counsel.
“He held out his hand and she clasped his hands and held them,” said Staver, who did not attend the meeting between Davis and the pope.
Davis, Staver said, told Francis “she would pray for him. She asked the pope to pray for her, and he said he would pray. He said to ‘stay strong.’”
The pope “spoke in English the entire time,” Staver said. A Liberty Counsel news release said Francis thanked Davis for her “courage.”
Staver said the Davis and her husband were then presented with two rosaries.
The attorney said he waited several days to announce the visit because the group “didn’t want the focus on Kim Davis” during the pope’s U.S. trip. Staver declined to say how the meeting came together or who was involved in arranging it, but said it was set up several days in advance, as Davis prepared to travel to Washington for the Value Voters Summit.
“We were planning to arrive Thursday afternoon,” he said. “We rearranged our schedules to arrive Wednesday night.”
Staver said he is expecting to receive photos from the Vatican photographers who were present. On Wednesday, the Liberty Counsel released photos of the rosaries given to Kim and Joe Davis.
Kim Davis’s parents are lifelong Catholics, Staver said, and she gave the rosaries to them. Davis herself is an Apostolic Christian, a term that can refer to a couple of different Christian groups. Davis attends the Solid Rock Apostolic Church in Morehead, Ky., which is listed in the directory of churches for the the Apostolic Pentecostals.
The Archdiocese of Washington declined to comment on the matter. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did not immediately respond to requests for comment to The Washington Post.
Since his election as to the papacy in 2013, Francis — with his outspoken criticism of global warming and income inequality, as well as his perceived support of the gay community (“Who am I to judge?” he said) — has become a favorite of some liberals. His reported meeting with Davis could feel like a slap to progressives who, wrongly or rightly, see him as their ally on the topic of LGBT acceptance.
The pope outlined his — and the Catholic Church’s — position on religious liberty Saturday in a speech at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. Francis largely avoided addressing specific issues under the religious liberty umbrella during his public remarks in the United States, but several times indicated his support of a campaign from U.S. bishops to prioritize a defense of it.
On an overnight flight back to Rome after his three-city U.S. visit, the pope said government employees had the “human right” to say they cannot discharge duties that they believe go against their conscience. The response was given to an ABC News reporter who specifically mentioned issuing marriage licenses to gay couples as an example. Francis did not mention Davis by name.
“I can’t have in mind all cases that can exist about conscience objection,” the pope told reporters on the plane. “But, yes, I can say the conscientious objection is a right that is a part of every human right. It is a right.”
The meeting with Davis was not the only private discussion the pope held with Americans involved in religious liberty cases. In Washington, Francis also met with the Little Sisters of the Poor — a visit that was intended as a sign of support for the nuns in their legal battle against a contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act.
The Vatican revealed that meeting at a U.S. news conference hours after it took place. The meeting with Davis was kept private until late Tuesday, days after Francis had left the country.
Francis often holds private meetings at the Vatican and during his travels. In the United States, he met with five victims of sex abuse — and announced the meeting himself, during an Sunday address to a collection of international bishops and clergy in Philadelphia.
The pope also met privately earlier this year with a transgender man from Spain.
While in the United States, Francis blessed Bella Santorum, the daughter of Rick Santorum. Bella Santorum was born with a genetic disorder known as Trisomy 18.
Davis has said that her refusal to issue same-sex marriage licenses was “a Heaven or Hell decision” and that she is refusing to issue the documents “under God’s authority.”
“I was humbled to meet Pope Francis,” she said in a statement. “Of all people, why me?”
She added: “I never thought I would meet the Pope. Who am I to have this rare opportunity? I am just a County Clerk who loves Jesus and desires with all my heart to serve him.”
The pope, she said, “was kind, genuinely caring, and very personable.”
Staver told The Post that his client’s meeting with Francis is consistent with the pope’s statements on religious liberty, including what he told reporters on the papal plane.
“When you look back, those statements fit his actions,” Staver said. “He specifically mentioned that you should have religious freedom even if it’s a government official required to issue marriage licenses. He did the same thing with Little Sisters of The Poor. He had broad messages and broad strokes, but the fact that he met with Little Sisters and Kim Davis was very consistent with the message of religious freedom and marriage.”
By Abby Ohlheiser, Sarah Pulliam Bailey and Justin Wm. Moyer, Washington Post