Kim Davis, Pope Francis, and Conscientious Objection: Whose Toilet Got Flushed?

Now that the Vatican has confirmed some kind of encounter between Kim Davis and Pope Francis, people are angry.  That’s not surprising, because once you’ve had an “audience” with the Pope–without an interpreter, without coverage–you can make whatever claims you wish to concerning what happened between you and the Holy Father. And Ms. Davis has done so, in spades. As the Vatican has been silent concerning the context of her words, and because the “coverage” seems to have been heavily orchestrated by her legal team, it must all be taken with not a grain, but an entire block, of salt.

The only words from Pope Francis on the subject of whether a county clerk from Kentucky has the right to refuse to do a portion of her job as an elected official, on the grounds of a religious objection, are found in this transcript. And even though Terry Moran’s question was very direct, the Pope skirted the issue, speaking more generally about “conscientious objection”.

Ms. Davis may believe herself to be, and her attorneys and other media handlers may promote her as, a conscientious objector.  Does that make her so? Her actions do not conform to any reasonable definition of conscientious objection, a term almost universally applied when one’s religious convictions forbid participation (at various levels or kinds) in conscripted military service required by one’s country.  In almost all cases, a conscientious objector must still register, must perform some other needed service (either in a noncombatant military role, such as medic or administrator, or in a civilian role).  Sometimes, the objector is allowed to make a monetary payment called “tribute” in lieu of providing military service.  If the exchange has been relatively low-risk for the objector, s/he often foregoes the benefits which would accrue to another person who has fulfilled their military service obligation (such things as Veteran’s Administration benefits, or the GI bill to help pay for higher education).

Conscientious objection clearly does not apply in the situation of an elected official who does not approve of a Supreme Court ruling, and therefore refuses to perform the aspects of his or her job upon which that ruling touches.

So, a question is raised. Whose toilet really got flushed?

I’m not a Catholic, but from all I can tell, Pope Francis is a fairly smart guy.  He’s a Jesuit, after all–and they’re no intellectual slackers. Their rigorous philosophical and theological training means they can see an issue from a range of vantage points, and to make true statements which can be read in a variety of ways–even though only one may be the one truly intended. Some people distrust that; I applaud it.  (I am biased.)

And so, I doubt that Francis actually categorizes Ms. Davis as a “conscientious objector”.  Instead, is it possible to read this a different way, a way in which those who applaud Ms. Davis’s refusal to do a significant piece of her job might find objectionable?

It would go something like this:

Conscientious objection is a human right–even a right of a government official.

If Ms. Davis’s actions were those of a conscientious objector, she would have the right to refuse to do this portion of her job.

However, Ms. Davis’s actions are not those of a conscientious objector.

Therefore, Ms. Davis has no right to refuse to perform this aspect of her job.

Pope Francis may have given Ms. Davis a rosary, hugged her, told her to “stay strong”.  Because she will need prayer, comfort, and strength as she looks for a new job.

We will never know, unless the Vatican decides to make the content of the meeting public.  But, like most toilet-flushing, unlike Ms. Davis’s advisors, Pope Francis’s people are wisely keeping this fairly private.

So, I do not see Pope Francis’s response to the question about Kim Davis as support for her position, or an attack on the Supreme Court ruling, or a failure to understand the American principle of separation of church and state.

I see it as a good move in a verbal game, where one player’s claim to a category is unmasked by another’s move.

The move essentially says, “If indeed, this is the case, yes, you have the right.”  But equally, it says, “Upon closer examination, it is not clear this is the case, so you possibly do not have the right you claim.”

Upon careful examination, Ms. Davis would have to work very hard to substantiate a claim of conscientious objection.

So, really–whose toilet got flushed?


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