Pope Francis appeared to weigh in on the side of anti-gay-marriage clerk Kim Davis, saying government workers have a "human right" to refuse to carry out a duty if they have a "conscientious objection."
While returning from his visit to the U.S., the pontiff told reporters aboard the papal plane Monday that anyone who prevents others from exercising their religious freedom is denying them a human right.
His comments are likely to be seized upon by backers of Kentucky-based Davis, whose refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples — in defiance of a Supreme Court ruling — has turned into her into a folk hero among some on the religious right.
The pontiff was asked: "Do you … support those individuals, including government officials, who say they cannot in good conscience, their own personal conscience, abide by some laws or discharge their duties as government officials, for example when issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples?"
He did not refer specifically to Davis in his reply, saying: "I can't have in mind all the 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. It is a right. And if a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right."
Francis added: "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.'"
Asked if this principle applied to government officials carrying out their duties, he replied: "It is a human right and if a government official is a human person, he has that right. It is a human right."
Francis' remarks were translated by pool reporters aboard the plane, and were not an official translation.
The pope also said he understands the anger of people abused by clergy, saying: "I pray for them."
He spoke after meeting with some victims of Catholic Church abuse in Philadelphia Sunday on the final day of his visit to the United States. The pontiff prayed with and blessed three women and two men, according to a statement from the Vatican, in a meeting that lasted about 30 minutes.
On his flight back to the Vatican, Francis was asked about victims and relatives who do not forgive the church for the crimes of priests.
"I met a woman who told me 'when my mother found out that I had been abused, she became blasphemous, she lost her faith and she died an atheist,'" the pope said. "I understand that woman. I understand her."
He added: "I pray for them. And I don't judge them."
Francis also spoke about the issue of women priests, firmly ruling out any idea of the Catholic church following the Anglican example.
"As for women priests, that cannot be done," he said, explaining that the issue had already been examined in "long, long intense discussions" by Pope John Paul II.
"Not because women don't have the capacity. Look, in the church women are more important than men, because the church is a woman. It is 'la' [female] church, not 'il' [masculine] church. The church is the bride of Jesus Christ. And the Madonna is more important than popes and bishops and priests."
He added: "I must admit we are a bit late in an elaboration of the theology of women. We have to move ahead with that theology. Yes, that's true."