The "Cool Pope" honeymoon is over: Meeting with Kim Davis could be a tipping point for American progressives

Sensible little Fiat aside, he's still the leader of one of the world's most sexually conservative institutions

Published September 30, 2015 4:38PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Max Rossi/AP/Timothy D. Easley/Photo montage by Salon)
(Reuters/Max Rossi/AP/Timothy D. Easley/Photo montage by Salon)

Imagine if a rumor started to spread that Kim Davis – the Kentucky clerk disdained by many liberals for her very noisy opposition to gay marriage – had met with Jon Stewart, or Elizabeth Warren, or Bernie Sanders, or Cornel West, or just about any progressive hero. It would be pretty clear that it was either a hoax, or a media stunt resembling a cage match. We’d expect leaked photos with the two wearing boxing gloves.

But the early murmurings that Davis met with Pope Francis, increasingly known among liberals and lefties as the Cool Pope, turned out to be for real. After half a day of speculation, the New York Times confirmed the encounter with reference to a Vatican spokesman.

Ms. Davis, the Rowan County clerk, has been at the center of a nationwide controversy over whether government employees and private businesses have a legal right to refuse to serve same-sex couples. She spent five days in jail for disobeying a federal court order to issue the licenses.

On Tuesday night, her lawyer, Mathew D. Staver, said in a telephone interview that Ms. Davis and her husband, Joe, were sneaked into the Vatican Embassy by car on Thursday afternoon. Francis gave her rosaries and told her to “stay strong,” the lawyer said.

This should make any progressive who digs the pope wonder a little bit.

The most immediate question is, How could he do such a thing? Isn’t this the smiling, tolerant pope who has spoken out against climate change, against income inequality and ravages of unchecked capitalism, who has talked about protecting the earth and respecting the poor? Isn’t he – American progressives are asking – one of us?

But the Davis affair serves as a pretty strong reminder that the Anglo-American tradition of the liberal left and the lineage of Catholic social justice the pope represents – a life shaped by Latin America and its gender politics, and by a millennia-old church – are very different. The great Mexican poet Octavio Paz wrote that while the United States was founded in the spirit of the Reformation, his nation was born during Spain's Counter-Reformation, at a time when the church had “petrified” itself. Argentina, where Francis spent most of his pre-papal career, is not Mexico, but it’s still closer to that reactionary tradition than most North American and British lefties realize.

So let’s just remind ourselves, whatever the Pope’s economic liberalism – his vow of poverty and taking the name of a saint beloved by environmentalists, his sensible little Fiat – he still represents one of the most sexually conservative institutions in the developed world. He preaches love for individual gay people, but concurs with the church’s position that homosexuality is wrong. He opposes abortion. He’s spoken about the importance of women in Catholicism, but seems unlikely to budge allowing women to be ordained or to have a real role in church hierarchy.

Unlike Davis, who became famous for refusing to issue licenses for same-sex couples, the Pope has not been provocative on these matters. But his positions don’t appear to be “evolving.”

You don’t have to be a theologian to know all of this, but the Davis affair certainly makes the pope’s ambiguous politics more explicit. His line “Who am I to judge?” (spoken about a hypothetical gay person “searching for the Lord”) now looks less like a progressive stance and more like a non-confrontational way out.

Can the Pope’s support among left of center hold? On social media, the tide of opinion has started to swing against him.

Pope Francis may be the new Matt Damon.

How far this is likely to go is hard to say right now. But the honeymoon between the Pope and Americans on the left may be coming to an unplanned and unpleasant conclusion.

Finally, to what extent does it matter? It’s easy to take the position that the Catholic Church and whoever leads it are bound to be backward-looking and benighted. Did we lefties have our hopes up unrealistically about the Cool Pope?

Probably. But let’s be honest with ourselves for a minute: Besides a handful of entertainers and academics, and a very few politicians who will never become president, the American left is pretty small. (Even in Britain, the liberal left seems out of the mainstream.) Finding common ground with a man who leads more than a billion people made good sense.

But the Pope’s meeting with Kim Davis serves as a reminder: There’s only so much we’re ever going to have in common with each other.

Davis' Attorney Details Meeting with the Pope

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

MORE FROM Scott Timberg

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Aol_on Gender Politics Inequality Kim Davis Pope Francis