ROME – If President Donald Trump had taken out a pen and a cocktail napkin to scribble a wish list for his first-ever meeting with Pope Francis – and, given the mercurial nature of the American leader, it’s certainly not impossible that actually happened – it’s hard to imagine he could have envisioned much more than what he got from the Vatican on Wednesday.
As has been widely reported, including by Crux, Trump’s team initially was reluctant even to schedule the May 24 encounter, feeling that they were drawing more than enough negative press at home and didn’t need to invite a story-line about a clash with a moral leader and perceived Trump antagonist.
It was only when people long involved in U.S./Vatican relations pointed out that no American president since FDR has come to Italy and not seen the pope, and thus the narrative would be much worse if the U.S. leader were perceived as having delivered an intentional act of disrespect, that the meeting was planned.
Once the meeting was confirmed, in the brief run-up much speculation suggested the get-together would be a pro-wrestling grudge match, with Pope Francis reprising his description of candidate Trump as “not a Christian” for his call for a border wall with Mexico, and reading the president the riot act on a laundry list of other issues, including climate change, anti-poverty efforts, war and peace, and any number of other flash points.
Certainly those tensions weren’t magically dissolved by the brief encounter between Francis and Trump on Wednesday, which lasted roughly a half-hour ahead of the pontiff’s regular Wednesday General Audience. There were reminders of them, such as Francis presenting Trump with a collection of his documents as pope, including his encyclical letter Laudato Si’, the first-ever to be entirely devoted to environmental protection.
That document helped provide moral inspiration for the Paris climate change agreement, which Trump reportedly is considering abandoning – and if he does, presumably he won’t be getting any thank-you notes from the pontiff.
All that said, the meeting on Wednesday still has to be considered a win for Trump. As my Crux colleague Claire Giangravè put it yesterday on our Crux of the Matter radio show on the Catholic Channel, Sirius XM 129, Veni, vidi, vici … “he came, he saw, he conquered.”
First, when the two men met each other prior to the meeting, both seemed visibly tense. Francis wore the same somber expression he often does in formal settings, while Trump plastered an artificial smile on his face that seemed the dictionary-definition of awkward.
By the time the doors reopened at the end, however, both men seemed genuinely relaxed and at ease, with Francis even cracking a joke with Melania Trump about what she feeds her husband. (She responded with the name of a Slovenian delicacy that many Italians heard as “pizza,” causing a mini-frenzy.)
In other words, both leaders appeared to find a mutual comfort zone.
Beyond that, the statement released by the Vatican about the meeting roughly three hours after it ended was entirely congenial to Trump. It opened by stressing the good relations between the United States and the Holy See, including a “joint commitment in favor of life, and freedom of worship and conscience.” (The Italian version of the communique used the term “religious liberty” rather than “freedom of worship,” with the former generally being understood as a more expansive concept.)
All three of those points were core issues for candidate Trump on the campaign trail, and he’s continued to stress them as president, recently issuing an executive order on religious freedom.
The statement also mentioned “the protection of Christian communities” in the Middle East, which is another area of common cause between this White House and the Vatican under Pope Francis. Both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have vowed to step up U.S. efforts to defend persecuted Christians, while Pope Francis has made the Church’s new martyrs a signature concern, often referring to a “vast ecumenism of blood” uniting suffering Christians around the world.
The statement made no direct mention of areas of disagreement, and certainly carried no suggestion that the pope had wagged an admonishing finger at Trump. Even a brief reference to immigration wasn’t really about the policy question itself, but rather the care delivered by the Catholic Church in America to immigrants.
Granted, this was always how things were likely to play out. Francis is a man of dialogue who doesn’t make a habit of embarrassing visiting heads of state, and moreover, the Vatican needs good relations with the United States to achieve its aim of being a voice of conscience in global affairs.
On Trump’s side, beyond the fact that he was simply desperate for a good bit of news, he also knows that he was elected in part thanks to religious voters, including Catholics, and that he needs those folks to govern. Picking a fight with the pope, therefore, was never in his self-interest.
Even so, the dynamics on Wednesday were probably more than even a president determined to make things work could have anticipated, perhaps explaining why Trump gushed before leaving Rome on Wednesday that Francis is “something” and that their meeting was “fantastic.”
It’s worth remembering that TV’s original “Odd Couple” became close friends and made things work, despite their wildly different personalities. One half-hour meeting hardly means that’s destiny this time too … but at least from Trump’s point of view, it probably can’t help but seem a good start.