Historically, the relationship between American presidents and pontiffs is a complicated one. But seldom has a first meeting been as awkward as the upcoming one between Donald Trump and Pope Francis.
When Trump sits down with the spiritual leader of America’s 50-plus million Catholics next Wednesday, he’ll be face-to-face with perhaps the only person with a bigger global megaphone than his own. There will be little common ground between them — Trump sparred with Pope Francis on the campaign trail, and the pontiff has been critical of the president on issues ranging from climate change to immigration to refugee resettlement.
“There is a tradition and a real purpose: you have the leader of the big temporal superpower meeting with the leader of the spiritual superpower, if you will. It’s really an imperative that the two people with that much responsibility for not just their respective domains, but for the world writ large, that they get acquainted and develop a relationship,” said Jim Nicholson, the former Secretary of Veterans Affairs and Republican National Committee chairman who served Ambassador to the Holy See under George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005.
“They will not probably agree on things like immigration, they won’t agree on capital punishment,” he said. “But it’s very important that, going forward in this president’s young presidency, he gets to know the Pope, that he can know he can call on the Pope for discussion and advice, as President Bush did.”
Both sides are feeling pressure to put a happy face on their private meeting. Nicholson said the trip came about after he reminded White House senior staffers — who’d been debating whether to visit the Vatican — that a papal meeting has a been the practice for every president since World War II who’s visited Italy.
But in this case, the politics are especially tricky. Trump will be meeting with a Catholic leader who enjoys far higher approval ratings in the United States than his own. The pope must keep in mind that while Trump maintains support from a majority of white Catholics, he faces deep disapproval ratings among Hispanic Catholics, the fastest-growing group in the American church.
The two have not engaged directly since Trump’s inauguration, but tensions have not cooled much since their initial hostile exchange in February 2016, when Francis told reporters, “A person who only thinks about building walls — wherever they may be — and not building bridges, is not Christian,” in an apparent reference to the president’s proposed Mexican border wall.
At the time, Trump shot back: “No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith,” he said at a rally in South Carolina. “If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’ ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president.”
The exchange reverberated in Rome, said longtime Vatican analyst Iacopo Scaramuzzi, because it made clear that Francis was willing to step out of papal tradition to rally his own backers against an American political candidate — setting the stage for an uneasy relationship with the eventual president.
“When he criticized Trump [over the wall], even Vatican diplomats were surprised by an attack like that [against] a possible U.S. president,” he said. “But that was an intentional attack. An explicit conflict can be useful: to take the other one as an example of what’s wrong can be very useful to send a message to your supporters.”
While the two leaders have not spoken since Trump moved into the White House, the discord has subtly intensified. The Pope made waves in Europe just days after Trump took office, for example, by bringing up Adolf Hitler unprompted in an interview with a Spanish paper when asked about the rise of xenophobia and the new American president. The next month, he appeared to jab at Trump’s repeated claim that he would build a border wall and force Mexico to pay for it by urging Catholics “to not raise walls but bridges” and adding “A Christian can never say: I’ll make you pay for that.”
People close to the Vatican also interpreted Francis’ designation of Indianapolis’ Joseph Tobin as a cardinal in October — and his subsequent move to the higher-profile Newark archdiocese the day before Election Day — as a message to Trump. Tobin had recently publicly clashed with Vice President Mike Pence, then Trump’s running mate and the governor of Indiana, when he helped a Syrian refugee family settle in the city despite Pence’s announcement that he wouldn’t support such relocation efforts.
“The risk for Trump here is that the contrasts between him and Francis are so stark on so many of the political and moral questions of our time,” said John Gehring, the Catholic Program director at Faith in Public Life, a liberal advocacy group.
But the message-sending has gone both ways: Francis’ critics noted with interest April reports that Trump had given Argentine president Mauricio Macri a collection of recently declassified documents relating to his country’s “dirty war” in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Pope has often faced questions in Argentina about his role in his home country’s affair, when he was still known as Jorge Maria Bergoglio, and his relationship with Macri has long been tense.
Nonetheless, early signals suggest Pope Francis — who has said he accepts any foreign leader who asks for an audience — has already gone out of his way to pave a diplomatic path forward with Trump, say Vatican experts.
“Trump and Bergoglio will try to display a constructive attitude, although what they have in common is to be unpredictable,” added Scaramuzzi. “The two diplomacies have worked in order to provide a smooth meeting. So that nobody will leave the room with his bones broken.”
With no ambassador to the Holy See in place while his administration reportedly prepares to nominate Callista Gingrich — the wife of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — much of the coordinating work has been done by that office’s new Charge d’Affaires, Louis Bono, said a Vatican official.
Florida Rep. Francis Rooney, who succeeded Nicholson as ambassador and served until 2008, said he expected few of the controversial points of disagreement to come up in the brief conversation, instead pointing to human trafficking as a likely topic of discussion due to its importance to both American diplomats in the Holy See and Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter.
“They’ll put the past behind them,” he said. “It’s an inflection point in the relationship between the United States and the Holy See.”
Close observers in Italy note that Francis will have most of the power in his home-court meeting. Courtesies like agreeing to hold the meeting on Wednesday morning — shortly before his regularly scheduled general audience in Saint Peter’s Square — suggest he may not be looking to pin Trump into a politically difficult corner, and that he will have an easy out if the meeting takes an uncomfortable turn.
Trump’s aides were considering scheduling the meeting after the G7 conference, but determined that the president needed to return to Washington for Memorial Day, Nicholson said, hence the unorthodox timing.
By 9:00 or 9:15 most Wednesdays, Francis is out greeting the crowds in his Jeep, explained Robert Mickens of the European Catholic publication La Croix. So if he perceives that the meeting is not going well, he can simply leave.
“This allows the Pope to say, ‘I’m sorry, I have to go. He has not cleared his calendar for the entire morning to meet Trump,” said Mickens. “It does mean that he cannot spend more than a certain amount of time with Trump, just because of the sheer fact that he has another important weekly meeting.”
The first in-person meeting of the unorthodox president and the unpredictable pontiff — populist outsiders whose unexpected ascents to power were accompanied by an eagerness to shake up the status quo — is a part of first foreign trip for Trump that has an explicit focus on religious symbolism. The president’s itinerary also includes Israel and Saudi Arabia.
“They’ll have a good chance to look each other in the eyes and see how much they have in common,” said Nicholson. “They recognize what transcendent figures they are on the world stage, and how important what they say and do and believe and message is to people. Because so many people are watching them.”
After speculation during the 2016 campaign that voters of faith would abandon Trump, his ultimate support among American Catholics closely mirrored that of other Republican presidential candidates: 6 in 10 white Catholics backed him in November, according to a Pew analysis of exit polls, and his approval rating among that group had fallen only slightly by April, to 53 percent.
A number of Catholic and evangelical leaders have since rallied even closer to his side after the president bolstered the Mexico City Policy axing American funding to non-governmental organizations that perform abortions, cut funding for Planned Parenthood, installed the conservative Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, and signed a new executive order focused on religious liberty.
Yet that support belies his serious weakness among another slice of the Catholic community: just around one-quarter of Hispanic Catholics voted for him, according to Pew’s analysis, and his approval rating with that group had dropped to 15 percent by last month. And on this issue of Trump’s proposed ban on travel to the United States from a collection of Muslim-majority countries, six in ten Catholics — including roughly half of white Catholics — said they disapproved.
Veteran Vatican watchers believe any kind of public clash over those flashpoints remains unlikely, despite the popular Pope’s prior willingness to confront the president in a manner uncharacteristic of previous Vatican-Washington relations.
“I don’t expect to hear it,” said Rooney. “I think the president values the role the Holy See plays in the world of international diplomacy.”