The Pope has stated that government officials have a “human right” to refuse to carry out a duty on conscience grounds, such as issuing marriage licenses to homosexuals.
Reuters reports that Pope Francis made the comments when he spoke to reporters after returning home from a tour of the USA and Cuba.
During his time in the States, His Holiness showed a willingness to express political views – including giving implicit support to the Democratic party, referring to rampant capitalism as “the dung of the Devil” and adopting an uncompromising stance towards political indifference to human suffering.
However, he retained a silence on the issue of same-sex marriage – which the Roman Catholic Church opposes in principle. On returning to Rome he was asked whether he supported the right of individuals to refuse to carry out key duties, such as issuing marriage licences to same-sex couples, if the individual concerned feels doing so would violate their conscience.
The question was a clear reference to Kim Davis, the county official who refused to issue a marriage licence to a same-sex couple in Kentucky after a Supreme Court decision confirmed same-sex marriage to be legal.
Davis spent five days in jail for defying the order to issue same-sex licences and her case has created something of a political storm with conservative Christians and even some politicians – including Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckerbee – leaping to her defence.
The pontiff did not wish to be seen to be commenting on a particular case, but he met with Davis and her husband privately at the Vatican embassy in Washington during his US visit and his point was unequivocal. “Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a right,” he said. “I can’t have in mind all cases that can exist about conscientious objection but, yes, I can say that conscientious objection is a right that is a part of every human right.”
“And if someone does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right,” he added.
Pope Francis argued that conscientious objection should always be respected by governments and in law, “otherwise we would end up in a situation where we select what is a right, saying: ‘This right has merit, this one does not.'”
The Pope’s words clearly suggest sympathy for Kim Davis’ cause and potentially a disregard for state law, especially as the questioner specifically referred to the question of licences for same-sex marriages.
It has also emerged that during his meeting with Mrs Davis, the pontiff praised her for her “courage” and urged her to “stay strong”.
While Pope Francis generally steers clear of controversial issues of gender and sexuality, he has previously compared the case for transgender rights to a nuclear arms race and has suggested that children are best being raised by opposite-sex couples. At an interfaith colloquium in November 2014 he said “Children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother capable of creating a suitable environment for the child’s development and emotional maturity”.