Trump and Pope Have Little in Common as They Meet in VaticanBy and
The two leaders differ on policy and in their backgrounds
They’ve clashed in the past over border wall, U.S. bombing
Pope Francis believes climate change is one of the greatest threats to humanity. Donald Trump thinks it might be a Chinese hoax. Francis wants the world’s doors swung open to refugees. Trump wants fewer of them in America. Income inequality is a serious concern for the pope. The billionaire president would rewrite the U.S. tax code to make the wealthy even richer.
No two world leaders would seem to have less in common. They met face to face at the Vatican for the first time on Wednesday, at Trump’s request.
Francis arrived at the courtyard of the Apostolic Palace in a Ford Focus and entered the building through a side entrance. Ten minutes later, the president’s motorcade was greeted by Swiss Guards who stood to attention with their halberds and ostrich-plumed helmets. The pope welcomed Trump upstairs in the Sala del Tronetto before the two leaders retired to his private study for a half-hour conversation.
For the president, it’s an encounter that may confer some legitimacy as he grapples with a political crisis back home. For Francis, it’s a chance to influence a leader who, for all his stumbles, remains the most powerful person in the world.
“There’s a whole range of issues on which the pope and Trump differ, but the point of their meeting isn’t to forge agreement on them or to change each other’s minds,” papal biographer Austen Ivereigh said in a telephone interview. “The point is to establish a bond of trust, which they can both call on in the future to further their agendas.”
The meeting will occur against the backdrop of a suicide bombing in Manchester on Monday that killed 22 people. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the worst terrorist attack on U.K. soil since 2005, and Trump called the perpetrators “evil losers.” British police named Salman Abedi, 22, as the bomber.
Trump, a Presbyterian, was in no hurry to meet the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, according to a senior Vatican official who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue. The White House reached out to the Vatican only at the end of April, the official said, noting that leaders usually schedule meetings with the pope two months or more in advance.
The visit is sandwiched between Trump’s spin through Saudi Arabia and Israel and a NATO meeting and the annual Group of Seven summit of leaders of major industrialized democracies later this week.
Francis adopted a wait-and-see attitude on the eve of the encounter. Asked whether he expected Trump to soften his stand on issues such as climate change and migrants when the two meet, Francis told reporters on a flight back from visiting Fatima in Portugal that he was not into “political calculation.”
“We’ll talk, each of us will say what he thinks. Each of us will listen to the other,” Francis said on May 13. “I never make a judgment on a person without first listening to that person. We’ll talk and afterwards I’ll say what I think.”
Trump, 70, and Francis, 80, could hardly be more different as people, too. The child of an Italian immigrant to Argentina, Francis has made humility a distinguishing feature of his papacy. He refused to live in the opulent Apostolic Palace where the meeting with the president took place, choosing instead a guest house for Church officials near St. Peter’s Basilica instead. He takes his meals in its canteen.
Francis has called money “the devil’s dung” when it enslaves people, and called for “a poor Church for the poor.” He has opened a medical clinic, showers and a barber shop for the homeless next to the colonnade of St Peter’s Square. He plucked 12 Muslim refugees from the Greek island of Lesbos in April 2016, taking them to Rome with him on the papal plane.
Trump was born and raised wealthy, and as an adult sought to make his personal brand synonymous with opulence. As president he’s divided his time between the presidential mansion and his sprawling luxury clubs in Palm Beach, Florida, and Bedminster, New Jersey. One of his first official acts was an order that sought to indefinitely block Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. It was blocked by federal courts.
The two men have clashed in the past. In February 2016, the pope told reporters that someone like then-candidate Trump “who thinks only about building walls, wherever it is, and not of building bridges, is not Christian.”
Trump retorted: “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful.” Trump also said that if Islamic State attacked the Vatican, “the pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president because this would not have happened.”
Francis has urged an international fight against climate change, denounced the impact of global capitalism on the poor and downtrodden, made pleas to welcome and protect immigrants, and called arms sales “the industry of death.” One of Trump’s signature accomplishments on his first trip outside the U.S. as president was a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia signed on Saturday.
After the U.S. military dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb it’s ever used in combat on Islamic State positions in Afghanistan last month, Francis said he had felt “ashamed” at a bomb being called “the mother of all bombs.” Francis added “the mother gives life and this gives death.”
Despite their differences, the pope and Trump would gain nothing from a confrontational encounter, the Vatican official said. As proud as Trump is, the official said, it is one thing to browbeat your opponents in a primary campaign, and quite another to take to task the head of the Roman Catholic Church.
Trump will want to emerge from the meeting “able to say that he’s got a good relationship with the pope and thereby to sort of undercut the direct and implicit criticisms from Pope Francis that came during the campaign and that may come in the future as the pope takes a position on one or another policy initiatives that the administration rolls out,” said Jeffrey Rathke, a former State Department official who served in the Obama administration.
The two leaders are expected to discuss issues including global poverty, immigration and climate change on which there will be “legitimate differences,” the Vatican official said. After seeing the pope, Trump will also meet Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, and Archbishop Paul Gallagher, secretary for relations with states.
Trump also may have felt compelled to pay a visit to the pope for political reasons, after meeting with leaders of Arab Muslim countries over the weekend and with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday and Tuesday.
“For a U.S. president, visiting the pope is an absolute must,” said papal biographer Ivereigh. “Trump’s meeting is inevitable not just because about 20 percent of Americans describe themselves as Catholics, but also because of the Vatican’s position on the world stage.”