News that Pope Francis met with Kim Davis, the county clerk from Kentucky who refuses to issue same-sex marriage licenses, during his U.S. trip has renewed the debate over where he really stands on issues of homosexuality. Now, there's an added twist to the story that may continue to confound pope-watchers: The day before Francis' meeting with Davis, the pope held a private meeting with a gay couple, CNN reported.
On Friday, the Vatican issued a what sounded like a damage-control statement distancing itself from the Davis meeting, saying that it "should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects." The church also implied that the meeting was orchestrated by the nuncio, or papal ambassador, in the United States, and not the Vatican itself.
"Pope Francis met with several dozen persons who had been invited by the nunciature to greet him as he prepared to leave Washington for New York City. Such brief greetings occur on all papal visits and are due to the pope’s characteristic kindness and availability," the statement read.
The Rev. Thomas Rosica, who also represents the Vatican to English-language media, was more explicit. “Everyone who was there was brought in by the nunciature, not the Vatican, not [press chief Rev. Federico] Lombardi, nor anyone of the Vatican’s group,” said Rosica. “They were organized by the local people.”
The Vatican's statement also added, "The only real audience granted by the Pope at the nunciature was with one of his former students and his family."
That student was Yayo Grassi, an openly gay man who has been in a relationship with his male partner for 19 years. Grassi was accompanied by his partner, Iwan, for a meeting with the pope at the Vatican Nuncuature (Embassy) in Washington on Sept. 23, the day before meeting with Davis. Video of the visit was broadcast by Canal Nueve Litoral, an Argentinian news station.
"Three weeks before the trip, he called me on the phone and said he would love to give me a hug," Grassi told CNN. The brief video of the meeting depicts that hug, along with a handshake for Grassi's partner.
According to Grassi, Francis, then the Rev. Jorge Bergoglio, taught Grassi in literature and psychology classes at a high school in Sante Fe, Argentina, in the 1960s. Grassi added Bergoglio has known that he was gay for a long time, but "has never been judgmental" and "has never said anything negative." Grassi had previously met with the pope in Rome, as well.
However, Grassi did challenge the pope's vocal opposition to gay marriage in Argentina in 2010, when Francis was still the cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires. In an email to the future pope, Grassi wrote that he was disappointed in Bergoglio's opposition, to which Bergoglio responded that while the church's position on marriage was firm, there was still no place for "homophobia."
Some experts have wondered whether the Vatican itself leaked the information about the meeting with Grassi as a way to counterbalance the Davis controversy. Others have suggested that Francis is impossible to pin down in political terms.
"Pope Francis never ceases to surprise us. The news that Francis met with a gay couple should put to rest any notion that Pope Francis is held down by the narrow ideological divisions that plague the United States," said Christopher Hale, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. "He is first and foremost a pastor who is willing to encounter and engage anyone."