Fresh off his whirlwind tour of the United States, Pope Francis is still making news in America — this time for weighing in on whether government officials have a “human right” to refuse same-sex couples marriage licenses.
According to NBC, a reporter on the pope’s flight back to the Vatican Monday night asked him a question that appeared to reference Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk recently jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples by citing her faith.
“Do you … support those individuals, including government officials, who say they cannot in good conscience … abide by some laws or discharge their duties as government officials, for example when issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples?” a reporter asked.
Francis did not specifically mention Davis in his reply, noting, “I can’t have in mind all the cases that can exist about conscientious objection.” But he did offer a vigorous defense of conscientious objection as an important part of civil society.
“Yes, I can say that conscientious objection is a right that is a part of every human right. It is a right,” he said. “And if a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right … Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a right, a human right. Otherwise we would end up in a situation where we select what is a right, saying, ‘this right that has merit, this one does not.'”
When the reporter, identified as Terry Moran from ABC News, followed up by asking about the specific issue of government officials, Francis replied: “It is a human right and if a government official is a human person, he has that right. It is a human right.”
Several media outlets jumped on Francis’ comments as tacit support for Davis. But while the pontiff’s answer made his support for conscientious objection clear, he was vague on what conscientious objection actually would mean in Davis’ situation. For example, Francis did not explain whether he believed an elected government official should be allowed to keep a job while refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The distinction is crucial to millions of religious Americans such as Mennonites, who are allowed to refuse military service and some taxes but, unlike Davis, willingly accept the consequences of doing so — including passing on certain jobs. Others take financial hits to accommodate their faith: Some pacifist Christians oppose paying federal taxes that support the military, and so intentionally make very little money to avoid paying the IRS.
Francis’ comments echoed both the Catholic Church’s historic opposition to same-sex relationships and the pope’s longstanding support for religious liberty as a fundamental right — a position he mentioned several times during his visit to the United States. The pontiff dedicated an entire speech to the subject over the weekend while visiting Philadelphia, condemning what he saw as infringements on religious liberty.
“[Religious freedom] is a fundamental right which shapes the way we interact socially and personally with our neighbors whose religious views differ from our own,” Francis said. “Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our consciences dictate. But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families.”
In the same speech, however, Francis appeared to call out extremists on both sides of the debate, condemning those who silence religious expression as well as religious people who use their faith to oppress others.
“In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others,” he said.
The pope’s comments on same-sex marriage are also unusual, primarily because he took pains to avoid specifically naming the subject during his U.S. visit. Although he directly addressed issues such as immigration and climate change, he discussed homosexuality only in coded language, speaking generally of “threats” to marriage and unions between a man and a woman. In his 3,404-word address to Congress, he only dedicated 75 words to both abortion and same-sex marriage, while offering lengthy treatments of economics and the death penalty.