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Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the papal envoy, is said to have invited Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk, to meet the pope. Credit Pool photo by Charles Rex Arbogast

Shortly after the election of Pope Francis, Carlo Maria Viganò, the papal nuncio to the United States, spoke effusively about his official reception by the pontiff in the library of the Apostolic Palace in Rome.

“That is a man you may talk to with an open heart,” Archbishop Viganò said in an interview at the time, calling his audience, “extremely nice, extremely warm.”

Archbishop Viganò could be in for a chillier reception the next time he returns to the Vatican.

The archbishop, who was exiled to the United States in 2011 after losing a high-altitude Vatican power struggle that became public in an infamous leaks scandal, now finds himself at the center of another papal controversy. This time, the Vatican is suggesting that Archbishop Viganò is responsible for giving papal face time to Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk whose refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples has made her a heroine to social conservatives.

The encounter struck a dissonant note in a papal visit that seemed designed to avoid the battlefields of the culture wars. News of the meeting has proved to be manna for conservatives frustrated by Francis’ de-emphasis of social issues and hungry for more of a papal focus on religious liberty and doctrinal opposition to same-sex marriage.

Archbishop Viganò, an amiable 74-year-old northern Italian with an appreciation for good red wine, declined to comment, though people close to him rejected the notion that the Vatican was blaming him.

But the Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said on Friday that the office of Archbishop Viganò had extended the invitation to Ms. Davis and that the pope was probably not briefed about her case. And the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the chief Vatican spokesman, depicted the meeting as one meet-and-greet among many.

A lawyer for Ms. Davis, Mathew D. Staver, said in an interview that the Vatican’s version of events was “absolute nonsense” and that “somebody is trying to throw some people under the bus.”

The wronged party, several church observers and Mr. Staver suggested, was Archbishop Viganò.

Mr. Staver said his client’s meeting with the pope was indeed private and that “if there was a line or other people, they would not have been able to keep this quiet as long as they have.” He then detailed the choreography involved in setting up the meeting.

He said Archbishop Viganò personally contacted Ms. Davis late in the day on Sept. 14 suggesting a private meeting with Pope Francis on Sept. 24. On the eve of the meeting, he said Ms. Davis received a voice mail message on her cellphone confirming the meeting and instructing her to keep her noticeably long hair up.

“I told her this morning, ‘Do not delete those,’” said Mr. Staver. He said, “we were led to believe that the invitation did come directly from Pope Francis.”

Mr. Staver said a conservative deacon, Keith Fournier, introduced him to Archbishop Viganò back in April before speaking at a National Organization for Marriage rally on the Washington Mall in opposition to same-sex marriage. As Mr. Staver descended from the stage, Archbishop Viganò made a point to “thank me for my message,” the lawyer said.

Archbishop Viganò, a cultural conservative born into a wealthy family in Varese, received the title of archbishop from John Paul II in 1992. He later joined the church’s diplomatic corps, which is one of the traditional sources of power in the Vatican, and in 2009 was installed by Pope Benedict XVI as secretary of the governorate of Vatican City State, a position not unlike the mayor of Vatican City.

Benedict wanted the ambitious Italian to enact government reforms, but Archbishop Viganò’s efforts in that goal earned him powerful enemies. In early 2011, hostile anonymous articles attacking Archbishop Viganò began appearing in the Italian news media, the bulletin board of Vatican power politics. Archbishop Viganò appealed to Benedict’s second in command, Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, who instead echoed the articles’ complaints about his rough management style and removed Archbishop Viganò from his post.

Those appeals and protests, later leaked by the pope’s butler, became the heart of the church scandal known as VatiLeaks, which many church observers say contributed to the resignation of Benedict XVI.

In one missive copied to the pope, Archbishop Viganò wrote to Cardinal Bertone accusing him of getting in the way of the pope’s reform mission, but also of failing to make good on a promise to elevate him to cardinal. When faced with a transfer to the United States, he protested that the move would give heart to those opposed to his efforts to “clean up” the “corruption and abuse of power” in the Vatican.

On July 7, 2011, he wrote to Benedict that on issues of malfeasance inside the Vatican, “the Holy Father has certainly been kept in the dark.”

The question now is did Archbishop Viganò, left to linger in the United States as a new administration has taken power in Rome, keep Pope Francis in the dark or simply underestimate the off-message media storm that a meeting with Ms. Davis would provoke. Or, after executing orders from Rome, has he once again found himself being hung out to dry at the end of his career. In January, Archbishop Viganò will turn 75, the age at which bishops must submit a formal request to the Vatican for permission to resign. These requests are not automatically accepted, and bishops often stay in their appointments long after. It seems unlikely, church analysts say, that Archbishop Viganò will be one of them.

“Life is always in progress,” Archbishop Viganò said in the 2013 interview about the shifting power structure under Francis. He added that the church would emphasize the dimension of charity, “of pardon, of mercy. As Pope Francis has said, this is his own style.”