ROME – Pope Francis recently met with the Vatican’s communications brain trust, urging them to use “a little violence, but good, good violence,” in order to create new and more effective ways of getting the Church’s message across.
If the Vatican really wants to think outside the box, here’s a suggestion: Instead of doing it behind closed doors like normal, turn the looming May 24 summit between Pope Francis and President Donald Trump, their first-ever encounter, into a massive global Pay-Per-View event.
First of all, Trump would love it – his first question in the presidential limo after it was over no doubt would be what kind of share he pulled in that time slot – and second, you could probably retire the Vatican’s annual deficit in one fell swoop, because this has “must-see TV” written all over it.
Granted, that’s unlikely to happen. However, we now know the meeting itself is on, as the Vatican confirmed it Thursday of this week – Trump and Francis will meet in the Vatican on Wednesday, May 24, at 8:30 am Rome time.
In the run-up, the next three weeks will likely be dominated by reporting and commentary on Francis and Trump as a study in contrasts – Francis the third-world progressive, a man of peace and dialogue, and Trump the fiery apostle of “America first.”
Lists of issues upon which the two men do not see eye-to-eye will circulate: immigration, poverty relief, climate change, the arms trade, and so on, all of which offer fairly obvious contrasts between the president and the pope. Moreover, Francis recently told reporters aboard the papal plane returning from Egypt that he supports a negotiated diplomatic solution to the crisis surrounding North Korea, one based on “the force of law, not the law of force,” and one imagines that may surface in his talks with Trump as well.
Another obvious contrast is that while Francis continues to bask in string popularity in most parts of the world, Trump is setting records for the lowest approval ratings ever recorded for a new president early in his term.
Meanwhile, spokespersons and officials with a vested interest in putting a polite face on things will emphasize ways in which the United States and the Holy See already cooperate – and they do, on a wide range of fronts – and also stress issues where Trump and Francis can find common ground, such as the pro-life agenda, religious freedom, the defense of persecuted Christians in the Middle East, and so on.
Relationships, however, are not composed solely of issues, but also personalities. Here, too, at first blush, Trump and Francis seem polar opposites – Francis the man of simplicity and humility, Trump an icon of bombast.
Upon closer examination, however, Trump and Francis share some surprising similarities.
First, both were considered implausible long-shots prior to coming to power, but both defied the odds.
Both, too, ran as anti-establishment figures promising to shake up entrenched ways of doing business. (Granted, papal candidates don’t “run” in the same way presidential candidates do, but go back and read the address then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio delivered during the general congregation meetings before the conclave of March 2013, and you’ll find a vision statement not utterly dissimilar to a campaign speech.)
Both Trump and Francis have also discovered that constantly taking potshots at the bureaucracies you’re trying to lead is a tricky business, a bit like trying to change horses mid-stream, and both have run into a degree of internal resistance with which they’re still struggling to cope.
Both Trump and Francis are populists, seeing their legitimacy as coming from the people rather than elites, and both take a certain pride in the fact that elites tend to view them with alarm – in Trump’s case, that’s the media establishment and the liberal intelligentsia, while for Francis it’s theologians, canonists, and liturgists, especially those attached to the fine points of the law.
Both Trump and Francis are also determined, and, in many ways, stubborn leaders. Granted, when explaining his apparent about-face on Syria, Trump praised himself for his flexibility – attempting, in other words, to turn inconsistency into a virtue. Yet both men are fully capable of digging in their heels and refusing to rethink a decision once made, regardless of the case for doing so.
(With Francis, for instance, consider his appointment of a bishop in Chile who turned out to be an apologist for that country’s most notorious pedophile priest. Despite an avalanche of protest, not only did Francis not rescind the appointment, he accused his critics of being “dumb” and led around by the nose by “leftists.”)
To say the least, both Trump and Francis are captivating public personalities, and whether you like them or not, you just can’t look away. Arguably, only Vladimir Putin right now could give them a run for their money as the world’s most fascinating, and controversial, leader.
Finally, both Trump and Francis are polarizing figures, who generate a remarkably sharp division of opinion within their own domains.
In Catholic circles at the moment, many conservative Catholics spend their days waiting for the next papal outrage upon which to pounce, competing with one another on social media to see who can provide the snarkiest bit of commentary. More liberal Catholics, on the other hand, have so thoroughly drunk the Kool-Aid that any criticism of Francis whatsoever automatically qualifies the critic as a member of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” to subvert the pontiff.
Likewise with Trump, admitting any virtue at all to his administration is considered material cooperation in evil by most American liberals, while spotting any vice is anathema to Trump’s supporters (and, it must be said, often to Trump himself.)
None of this, of course, changes the fact that in most respects, Trump and Francis are wildly different men – different backgrounds, different agendas, different views of themselves and of others.
Despite all that, both Francis and Trump likely recognize that the United States is the world’s most important hard power and the Vatican its leading soft power, so it’s in everyone’s interests for these two players to be on good speaking terms. Further, Trump has a clear political motive for being seen to take the papacy seriously, since religious voters were part of the reason he prevailed in November.
At the personal level, if they’re not quite two peas in a pod, the parallels in their circumstances and personalities also suggest that they might just be able to hit it off, despite all the ways in which Trump is from Mars and Francis from Venus.