At first blush, it’s tempting to think that when Pope Francis and President Donald Trump meet in the Vatican next Wednesday, areas of both disagreement and possible consensus between “the Donald” and the “People’s Pope” should be reasonably clear.
When you start drilling down to the details, however, things get more complicated.
On Francis’s side, like all popes, he tends to speak in lofty moral exhortations rather than the nitty-gritty details of policy, leaving room for divergent interpretations. On immigration, for instance, Francis has urged building bridges not walls, but has also said countries have the right to defend their borders – creating a degree of wiggle room about how to square those two statements.
On Trump’s side, he’s praised himself for his flexibility, which critics say often really means his inconsistency. The administration’s stands on many fronts seem a work in progress, making the transition between the president’s rhetoric and his actual policies sometimes challenging to navigate.
The result is that when you put them under a microscope, seeming disagreements can turn out to be not quite so absolute, and likewise, apparent meetings of minds can start to unravel.
Another twist is that the Francis/Trump summit comes at a moment when, for various reasons, Trump’s administration has found itself unable to implement swiftly several aspects of its agenda that presumably would be most troubling for the pope.
It’s delayed a decision on backing out of the Paris climate change agreement, it’s been forced to go back to the drawing board on federal spending after being largely rebuffed in a bipartisan Congressional deal, and, so far at least, there’s no funding for Trump’s border wall.
In that light, Francis and his Vatican team may have a window of opportunity to nudge the administration, as opposed to being presented with a series of faits accomplis.
Here, then, a brief scorecard of Francis and Trump on issues that could surface during their brief sit-down. This is a mere sampling, because there are many other issues that could also surface — from the U.S.’s recent use of the “mother of all bombs,” which angered Francis in part because he said the word “mother” should never be used for a weapon, to the engagement of Russia, which for vastly different reasons is a keen priority for both men.
At the iconic level, Francis and Trump represent polar opposites in the immigration debate. The pontiff is seen as the world’s most immigrant-friendly leader, while Trump is perceived as arguably the most hostile. (A couple heads of state in central and eastern Europe could give him a run for his money, but they don’t have the same media profile.)
In terms of detail, however, there are developments on both sides suggesting that some of the edge, at least, could be taken off the clash.
On Francis’s side, he couched his broad pro-migrant and refugee stance with some doses of realism during a press conference at the end of his trip to Sweden last October.
“Those who govern must also exercise prudence,” he said. “They should be very open to receiving [migrants and refugees], but they should also calculate how they will be able to settle them, because a refugee must not only be welcomed, but also integrated.
“If a country is only able to integrate 20, let’s say, then it should only accept that many. If another is able to do more, let it do more,” he said.
On Trump’s side, he continues to insist on his plan for a wall along the U.S./Mexico border, but right now there’s no money for it in the 2017 spending bill. Democrats have vowed to block it, and even some Republicans seem ambivalent. Trump has floated the idea that Mexico would pay for the wall, but the country’s president has rejected that idea.
The president who will come calling on Francis next Wednesday, therefore, isn’t currently building a wall, albeit against his own druthers, while the pontiff who will receive him has adopted a more nuanced line on what individual countries can be expected to do.
That said, there’s little doubt Francis would err on the side of welcome vis-à-vis prudential judgments on immigration policy, while Trump would go with caution.
2. Climate Change
Pope Francis is the moral leader of the global push for action against climate change, having become the first-ever pope to devote an entire encyclical letter to the care of creation in 2015’s Laudato Si’.
Francis was a major source of inspiration for the Paris climate change agreement that Trump has said he may abandon, although the administration recently delayed that decision until after the G7 summit later this month that’s bringing Trump to Italy.
Trump has repeatedly voiced skepticism about global warming and climate change, famously calling it a “very expensive hoax,” but his policies on the subject seem in flux. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, for instance, recently signed a document called the “Fairbanks Declaration” terming climate change a “serious threat” to the Arctic, and calling for action to reduce its harmful effects.
During his confirmation hearings, Tillerson said he had concluded as a scientist and engineer that “the risk of climate change does exist” and that “action should be taken,” though he expressed caution about the policy implications of that belief.
It remains to be seen what the next steps in the administration’s approach may be, but the fact that no hard-and-fast decisions have yet been taken may at least create the opportunity for Francis to practice some moral suasion with his guest on Wednesday.
3. Anti-Poverty Efforts
When Francis began his papacy, he described his dream as leading a “poor church for the poor.” Around the world, he’s known as a champion of the downtrodden and impoverished. As a result, it’s hard to imagine he’d find much to like when he looks at early moves by the Trump administration with regard to anti-poverty efforts.
In the first budget proposal Trump submitted to Congress, he envisioned eliminating health care subsidies for low-income Americans, wiping out Community Development Block Grants, eliminating funding for Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program, and slashing funding for college readiness programs for poor Americans such as TRIO and GEAR UP.
Granted, most of those proposals were rejected in the bipartisan budget deal adopted to avoid a government shutdown, which was widely seen as a loss for the administration. Nevertheless, House Republicans are reportedly considering new cuts to safety-net programs such as food stamps, welfare, income assistance for the disabled and perhaps even veterans’ benefits, as part of a drive to reduce the federal deficit.
That’s on top of $880 billion in cuts to Medicaid as part of the House-approved repeal of Obama’s Affordable Care Act, the burden of which, according to critics, would fall disproportionately upon the poor.
To be sure, Francis is not going to sit across the table from Trump and ask what his intentions are for food stamps – that’s a level of specificity to which popes do not descend. However, he may well urge generosity for the poor, and even at that generic level, such language would likely not be construed as an endorsement of Trump’s spending priorities.
4. Religious Freedom
Pope Francis is an advocate of religious freedom, including a right of conscientious objection based on religious conviction, which he’s described as a “basic human right.” When he came to the United States in September 2015, Francis called religious freedom “one of America’s most precious possessions.
“And, as my brothers, the United States Bishops, have reminded us, all are called to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it,” the pontiff said.
Given that, Francis and his Vatican aides no doubt will have broadly appreciative things to say about the recent executive order on religious freedom issues by Trump, especially his pledge that the contraceptive mandate imposed by the Obama administration as part of health care reform will be lifted.
During that same U.S. trip, Francis made a surprise visit to a community of the Little Sisters of the Poor, in a clear show of support for their struggle against that mandate.
Here, too, however, the administration’s actual policies don’t always seem to track with the president’s rhetoric. Not long before Trump pledged to eliminate the mandate, lawyers for the Justice Department requested more time to file briefs to defend it, sowing confusion about what Trump’s actual intentions are.
Moreover, there are also aspects of the executive order with which Francis probably won’t be so delighted, prominently including the repeal of the Johnson Amendment barring churches from endorsing political candidates.
Francis has repeatedly said he won’t be dragged into partisan politics, and has urged clergy to avoid it too, so a measure that seemingly opens the door to blurring that line presumably wouldn’t be a papal favorite.
5. Pro-Life Issues
As compared to the Obama administration, Trump so far has been seen in far more favorable terms by most pro-life leaders, even if some privately continue to harbor a degree of skepticism about the sincerity of his commitment.
Back in January, for instance, just days after taking office, Trump reinstated the “Mexico City Policy” prohibiting U.S. funding of non-government organizations that perform or promote abortions through family-planning funds.
Recently the administration expanded that policy, extending it to other forms of foreign aid such as global health assistance.
In April, Trump appointed Charmaine Yoest, who served as president and CEO of Americans United for Life (AUL), as assistant secretary of public affairs, as well as Teresa Manning, a former lobbyist with the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), as deputy assistant secretary for population affairs. Both moves were widely hailed by pro-life leaders.
Similarly, the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court was seen as a win for the pro-life position, in part based on his statement in a 2006 book that “no constitutional basis exists for preferring the mother’s liberty interests over the child’s life.”
Pope Francis, obviously, is deeply committed to the pro-life cause, having defined abortion as a “horrific” crime, and routinely listing the unborn among the victims of what he calls a “throw-away culture.”
If there is a difference between the two men on the pro-life front, it may come more in tone than substance. Trump’s advocacy often seems to come in a culture warrior mode, while Francis tends to be more a man of dialogue. That contrast, however, may not prevent the pontiff from expressing basic appreciation for the administration’s position.
6. Persecuted Christians
Candidate Trump vowed to make the protection of persecuted Christians in the Middle East a foreign policy priority for the United States, while Pope Francis repeatedly has expressed anxiety over the fate of Christians in the region. In principle, therefore, this ought to be an area where the two leaders can find common ground.
However, there are two wrinkles that could complicate the picture.
The first is that, once again, the administration’s policies are a moving picture, influenced in part by political reality.
The original version of Trump’s controversial executive order on refugees, for instance, would have given preferential treatment to victims of religious persecution in the Middle East, perhaps the only aspect of that order Francis might have been inclined to support (albeit likely with provisions for also helping Christians to stay in place if that’s their preference.)
Facing strong opposition, however, this element of the order was dropped.
The second problem is that Trump and Francis may have differing visions of what protecting persecuted Christians means.
To take one example, Trump in April executed a course reversal on Syria, authorizing the firing of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles on an airbase controlled by the Syrian government after reports that President Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons. In general, Trump now seems inclined to use U.S. leverage to try to force Assad out.
Christian leaders in the country, however, are extremely dubious of such efforts, fearing that whatever follows Assad would be much worse for the country’s religious minorities.
Francis might argue that protecting Christians includes taking their concerns into account when crafting foreign policy and military decisions. It’s not entirely clear, at least for the moment, how receptive Trump and his team may be to that message.
Crux is planning on offering full coverage of President Donald Trump’s May 24 visit to the Vatican and meeting with Pope Francis. In this video preview, John Allen tells us the three things you need to know about Trump at the Vatican.