This just in: the head of the Catholic Church doesn't love gay marriage.
Stunning, I know. Yet when news of Pope Francis's meeting with Kim Davis, currently America's most famous homophobe, leaked out on Wednesday, people seemed surprised. Pope Francis, that raging lefty, embracing such a bigot?
Uh, yeah. The Catholic Church is an anti-gay institution. Francis has been on record many times expressing his hostility to gay marriage. He has been very careful not to change any church doctrine on homosexuality. The only reason to suspect that he wouldn't want to meet with someone like Kim Davis—a woman who went to jail in defense of her religious beliefs—is that it just looks so bad. More than anything, it's a highly divisive thing to do during a trip that generated so much broad-based goodwill, and it doesn't dovetail with Francis's progressive posturing on things like the environment or poverty or criminal justice.
This is where we need to step back and remind ourselves of a few things: Pope Francis is an extremely canny political actor. He's been a master at managing public relations. He's successfully yanked the Vatican away from the dour, stolid sense of decay that hung around Pope Benedict. But it's a mystery why people thought that his clearly razor-sharp political antenna would only be tuned in a leftward direction. We're talking about someone who—putting aside the sincerity of his own views on issues like marriage or contraception—is leading a deeply conservative institution with an increasingly restless conservative flank. Those conservatives have been clamoring for Francis to be more vocal about their fun pet issues, like the issue of how gay people are bad. What better scrap of red meat to toss to that constituency than to meet with Kim Davis? The meeting was even in secret and in private, lending it an extra-special air. The only other such meeting that Francis held on his American trip was with victims of church sex abuse. The equating of the two issues is certainly offensive to many, but there will be a lot of homophobic bishops breathing a sigh of relief at the seeming importance that Francis placed on the marriage question.
Above all, the Davis meeting should remind people that, despite his indie posturing, Francis isn't running for president of liberal America. He's heading a global religious grouping of 1.2 billion people. The insistence that we place him on some traditional left-right spectrum is maddening. What does it matter to him if people see an inconsistency in his rhetoric around climate change and his refusal to contemplate female priests? All religions are a jumble of contradictory rules and regulations; why should Francis be any different? The breathlessness with which his calls to end the death penalty—an entirely traditional Catholic line of thinking—was received is another indication that people are forgetting about who exactly they're dealing with.
More broadly speaking, anybody wishing to spur change in the Catholic Church should look past Pope Francis. It is ordinary people, and people's movements, that will force change, just as they've always done. Look at Ireland, a country synonymous with Catholicism that became the first nation in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote. Catholic leaders there were left wondering how they would reconnect with the millions who seemed to have rejected them. Look at the ever-widening schism in the Anglican church, where some factions have decided that they can accept gay people and other factions haven't. Religions are living, malleable things. Their rules can be rewritten. Francis might not be the pope to lead that change, but who knows what will happen down the line?