Vatican upends Davis affair with news of audience with gays

In this Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2015 photo, Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis listens to a customer following her office's refusal to issue marriage licenses at the Rowan County Courthouse in Morehead, Ky. (Timothy D. Easley/AP)

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican turned the tables on the Kim Davis affair Friday: Not only did it distance Pope Francis from her claims that he endorsed her stand on same-sex marriage, it said the only “real audience” Francis had in Washington was with a small group that included a gay couple.

The revelations, doled out during the course of the day, put a new twist on Francis’ encounter with Davis after she and her lawyers insisted that her invitation to meet the pope on Sept. 24 amounted to an affirmation of her cause.

The Davis case has sharply divided the United States, and news of Francis’ meeting with the Kentucky clerk, who went to jail after refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses, had upended his six-day U.S. tour. During the visit, Francis had tried to steer clear of such hot-button issues, only to see the Davis affair dominate the post-trip news cycle.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, sought to give the Vatican’s take of events in a statement early Friday, saying Francis had met with “several dozen” people at the Vatican’s embassy before leaving Washington for New York.

Davis was among them and had a “brief meeting,” he said. Lombardi said such meetings are common during papal trips and are due to the pope’s “kindness and availability.”

“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,” Lombardi said.

“The only real audience granted by the pope at the nunciature was with one of his former students and his family,” Lombardi added.

The man, Yayo Grassi, was later identified by The New York Times and CNN as an openly gay Argentine caterer who lives in Washington. In a video posted online, Grassi is shown entering the Vatican’s embassy, embracing his former teacher and introducing Francis to his longtime partner, whom Francis recognized from a previous meeting, as well as an elderly Argentine woman and a few friends from Asia.

Lombardi later confirmed that Grassi had “asked to present his mother and several friends to the pope during the pope’s stay in Washington.”

“As noted in the past, the pope as pastor has maintained many personal relationships with people in a spirit of kindness, welcome and dialogue,” Lombardi said.

It wasn’t immediately clear if Grassi’s mother was in the audience: Grassi introduced the elderly woman named Salome as “an Argentine friend.” The Vatican couldn’t immediately explain the discrepancy.

Grassi declined to be interviewed Friday, citing a dinner he was catering.

The disclosures completely changed the narrative of Davis’ encounter, making clear that Francis wanted another, more significant “audience” to come to light: that of his former student, who happens to be gay, and his longtime partner.

An audience is different from a meeting, in that it is a planned, somewhat formal affair. Popes have audiences with heads of state; they have meetings and greeting sessions with benefactors or other VIPs. So the fact that Lombardi stressed Grassi’s encounter as the only “real audience” in Washington made clear that Francis wanted to emphasize it over Davis’ “brief meeting” along with several dozen other people.

Earlier this week, Davis said the pope met with her and her husband and thanked her for her courage and encouraged her to “stay strong.”

“Just knowing that the pope is on track with what we’re doing and agreeing, you know, it kind of validates everything,” she told ABC.

The Vatican statement made clear the pope intended no such validation.

However, Davis’ lawyer, Mat Staver, told The Associated Press that the Vatican arranged the meeting as an affirmation of her right to be conscientious objector.

“We wouldn’t expect the pope to weigh in on the particulars of any case,” Staver said Friday. “Rather, the meeting was a pastoral meeting to encourage Kim Davis in which Pope Francis thanked her for her courage and told her to ‘Stay strong,'” Staver said in a statement. “His words and actions support the universal human right to conscientious objection.”

He said an unnamed Vatican official initiated the meeting on Sept. 14, the day Davis returned to work after being jailed, saying the pope wanted to meet her. He said Vatican security picked up Davis and her husband from their hotel and told her to change her hairdo so she wouldn’t be recognized.

Staver disputed a Vatican spokesman’s assertion that the pope only met Davis in a receiving line. He said the couple was in a separate room with Francis and Vatican security and personnel and that no member of the general public was present. He said the Vatican official who arranged the meeting insisted that it not be made public until after Francis had left the U.S.

News of the meeting sent shockwaves through the U.S. church, with Davis’ supporters saying it showed the pope backed her cause and opponents questioning whether the pope had been duped into meeting with her.

Lombardi declined to say who invited Davis or what the pope knew of her case. Such encounters are arranged by the Vatican ambassador and his staff, not the pope’s delegation or the U.S. bishops’ conference.

Davis’ lawyers confirmed late Friday that the Vatican nuncio in Washington, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, had a hand in arranging the invitation.

Vigano is best known for his role in the so-called Vatileaks scandal, which helped bring about Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation. It broke in 2012 when an Italian journalist broadcast letters from Vigano, then the No. 2 Vatican administrator, to Benedict in which he begged not to be transferred for having exposed alleged corruption that cost the Holy See millions of euros. Vigano was eventually assigned to Washington to become ambassador.

He has strongly supported the religious liberty charge championed by U.S. bishops, suggesting that he might well have backed Davis in her battle over gay marriage. In a 2012 speech at the University of Notre Dame, Vigano denounced threats to religious liberty in the U.S. and abroad, citing a public school curriculum presenting same-sex relations as “natural and wholesome.”

“What God has given, the servant state does not have the competence to remove,” Vigano said, according to a report of his Nov. 12, 2012 speech by Catholic News Agency.

While the pope sought during his U.S. visit to avoid hot-button culture war issues, an openly gay TV personality, Mo Rocca, was a lector at the pope’s Mass at Madison Square Garden, a decision that would have been made by the New York Archdiocese.

As for the Davis meeting, an assistant to Lombardi, the Rev. Thomas Rosica, said the pope would have been given a list of people who were invited to bid him farewell as he departed Washington, but was unaware of the details of the Kentucky clerk’s case or any possible implications of the meeting.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of being tricked as of being fully aware of the situation and its complexities,” he said. He said Davis’ supporters had “overblown” the encounter.

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