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US bishops applaud Vatican official behind Pope’s meeting with Kim Davis

Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, apostolic nuncio to United States, listens to remarks at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' annual autumn meeting (AP)

US Roman Catholic bishops, at an annual assembly on Monday, gave two standing ovations to the Vatican ambassador behind Pope Francis’s controversial meeting with the Kentucky clerk who was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano received the warm reception as he made his customary address to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, his first major public appearance since the controversy over Kim Davis. Vigano turns 75 in January, the age when bishops are required to submit their resignations to the Pope.

The ambassador had invited Davis to be among those greeting the Pope in the Vatican embassy in Washington last September during Francis’s visit to the country. Her lawyer announced the meeting soon after Francis returned to Rome, describing it as a papal affirmation of Davis’s approach to conscientious objection. The Vatican insisted the meeting was not an endorsement and said she was one of several dozen people who had greeted Francis.

Davis had briefly gone to jail rather than comply with a court order to issue same-sex marriage licenses, becoming a lightning rod for tensions over the US Supreme Court ruling that legaliaed gay marriage nationwide. The US bishops’ conference has never commented on the Pope’s meeting with Davis, and has not said what kind of accommodation they support for government officials with religious objections to gay marriage.

In his speech Monday in Baltimore, Vigano didn’t mention Davis. He urged the bishops to persevere in working to “preserve a moral order in society” and said they should not “fall prey” to “secularised and increasingly pagan” practices in broader society. He said Catholic colleges and universities, specifically those founded by Jesuits, should do more to shore up Catholic identity at the schools.

“The course must always be set by Christ and his Church — never allowing influence or wealth to dictate what might be an improper orientation for a Catholic school or university,” Vigano said.

In a separate speech, the president of the bishops’ conference, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, spoke generally about conscientious objections. Dozens of US dioceses and Catholic nonprofits are among faith groups suing the Obama administration over the birth control coverage requirement in the Affordable Care Act, the president’s signature health programme. President Obama created an accommodation that requires insurers to provide the coverage in place of objecting religious nonprofits. The US Supreme Court recently announced it was taking up lawsuits challenging the accommodation, with arguments scheduled in March.

“What a great tragedy it will be if our ministries are slowly secularised or driven out of the public square because of short-sighted laws or regulations that limit our ability to witness and serve consistent with our faith,” said Archbishop Kurtz, of Louisville, Kentucky.

The public sessions of the bishops’ meeting run through Tuesday, when the conference is expected to vote on a document the bishops issue during every presidential election that aims to provide moral guidance to Catholic voters.