Vatican Sotto Voce

All in all, I’d rather have been in Philadelphia, for Pope Francis’s recent tour, hearing him ring the bells for religious freedom from the Lincoln lectern, or participating in his much-policed “Highway Mass.” Rather there, than listening to the speeches in Washington and New York.

It would be silly to suggest that one talk was more political than another, however. These are days in which, as my beloved Benedict discovered repeatedly to his cost, merely trying to rise above politics will be interpreted as a bludgeoning political act. To the Left, but also to much of the Right (see Fox News), the personal is the political today, and the religious is the political, too. Everything is political.

I am just washing my face after scanning the comments under the report of the pope’s meeting with Kim Davis, that Kentucky county clerk, in the National Catholic Reporter. It is evident that, for a considerable number of Catholics, religious freedom is a very hot button. Basically, they’re against it.

Let me blame “Father Z” for sending me there in the first place. He provided the link, though of course it was my own sinful impulse to follow it. (Bad David!) I knew what I would find there, even before I looked: hundreds of livid and sputtering “liberal Catholics,” feeling betrayed by this discreet meeting; or alleging a conspiracy by dark, conservative Vatican agents to set the pope up.

All cards on the table: I became almost gleeful in the face of all that spittle. I wanted to kiss and hug the Holy Father, as, apparently, Kim Davis did (along with her current husband).

That the meeting was kept off the record, torques the spin as the news gets out. This looks very much like something the pope did on his own account; I cannot imagine a Vatican operative, however dark, suggesting such a meeting – unless as a little office joke.

It was so signature Bergoglio, so dexterously out of bounds. Kim Davis is not even a Catholic. The liberal media have, eagerly if not fully intentionally, painted her as a kind of living Woman at the Well. The story of her one-woman stand – this (elected) county official refusing to sign marriage licenses for gays; indeed, refusing to believe that the United States Supreme Court has legislative powers – is so perfectly messy.

One little woman saying the buck stops here. One little woman failing to be intimidated by all the cameras, and off-camera expletives. One little woman saying the emperor has no clothes. And going to jail for it. . . .For sure, Kim Davis has joined the heroines in my private pantheon.

He told her: "Be strong."
He told her: “Be strong.”

But that she had also joined the pope’s was a giddy surprise. It revealed that Pope Francis can be like Kim Davis.

The equally unscheduled visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor, in Washington, was different because it included photo-ops. For the politically liberal, the order’s dispute with the enforcers of Obamacare is not an outrage but an embarrassment. The “optics” on a clash between faceless bureaucratic thugs, and harmless faithful nuns serving the poor, are not good for them.

Kim Davis made, from this point of view, a much better focus for an Orwellian two minutes of hate. Her particular work of mercy was guaranteed incomprehensible to the large television audience. Even her supporters would ask, Why didn’t she quit? Why didn’t she get someone else to sign it? Why did she have to make a scene?

And then the editors go to work, choosing the most unflattering pictures of the lady, and cropping them just so; selecting and sculpting the quotes, etc. I’ve been in this business. I know how it is done. Demons are the pros when it comes to demonizing.

Now, I have argued before that Bergoglio is no fool when it comes to manipulating the media. From Argentine correspondents, I had some idea how well he used to do it back home. And since coming to Rome, it is enough to observe how often he has twisted world media around his wee baby finger, doing precisely what he did here, in North America. He knows what each audience wants to hear, and adjusts his message accordingly. He has said himself, that before the priesthood, he had toyed with becoming a politician.

From this observer’s vantage, he should never be underestimated. I am appalled, as my readers know, with his new fast-track annulment process, but I noticed on the plane ride home, the reporters could not catch him out. In a single sentence, he made plain the difference between a secular divorce and a Catholic declaration of nullity.

He is generally quite clear, on hard Catholic principle, fast and loose as I (and others) may think he is being with “the pastoral practice.” And he does still employ men like Gerhard Cardinal Mueller to do the doctrinal proofreading on documents like Laudato Si’.

I do not think Bergoglio is the kind of man, let alone pope, who would consciously take an heretical position. My own criticisms have been of his recklessness; of his wanderings away from the fount of Catholic teaching into social, economic, and environmental thickets he imperfectly understands. I have actually accused him of poor prudential judgment and thus, in effect, of misreading the signs of our times. For this is not a time when Catholics need distractions.

The meeting with Kim Davis was signature reckless. Yet I think it was also an earnest of sincerity, as well as of his headstrong nature. Our pope genuinely admires others who will not be pushed around.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: