ROME – The Vatican confirmed on Thursday what has long been rumored, which is that President Donald Trump will indeed meet Pope Francis when he comes to Italy for a G7 summit in late May.
The long-anticipated tête-à-tête between Francis and Trump will take place on Wednesday, May 24, at 8:30 am Rome time, meaning 2:30 am on the East Coast of the United States, in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace.
In keeping with the Vatican’s diplomatic protocol, Trump will then meet Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, as well as British Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States, in effect the Vatican’s Foreign Minister.
Though the timing is coincidental, the announcement comes on the same day that news broke Trump is poised to sign an executive order on religious freedom, the gist of which is to ease a long-standing codicil of American law, known as the “Johnson Amendment,” banning religious groups from directly endorsing a political candidate.
The Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty directs the IRS to provide “regulatory relief” to faith-based organizations that are tax-exempt, a White House spokesman said on Wednesday night.
The order also directs federal agencies to exempt some religious groups from providing birth control to employees and staff, as required under President Barack Obama’s “Affordable Care Act,” also known as Obamacare.
Objections to that contraception mandate have been a staple of Catholic criticism of the Obama administration, and triggered a lawsuit that involves, among other groups, the religious order the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Candidate Trump vowed to eliminate the contraception mandate, though recently the U.S. Justice Department signaled its intention to continue litigating the issue by requesting more time to file a brief in a case involving East Texas Baptist University.
Although the brief Vatican statement confirming the president’s meeting with the pope did not go into detail, it’s widely expected that the two men may discuss a wide range of issues where they have apparent differences, including immigration, poverty relief, and the effort to combat climate change.
Famously, when Pope Francis was asked a question in February 2016 about candidate Trump’s pledge to build a barrier along the US/Mexico border to deter immigration, he responded that a candidate who upholds such a position is “not a Christian,” because the Christian instinct is to build bridges rather than walls.
On the other hand, Francis and Trump could also find areas of agreement, including religious freedom. When the pontiff visited the United States in September 2015, he made an impromptu visit to a community of the Little Sisters of the Poor in a clear sign of support for their position in the litigation over the contraception mandates.
In general, neither the Vatican nor visiting heads of state ever outline an agenda for an encounter with the pope. In keeping with the tradition of his predecessors, Francis takes the position that such meetings are private, and the details of the conversation are not divulged.
The May 24 encounter will be the first opportunity to gauge how Trump wishes to engage the pope and his team, since, to date, he has yet to name a new envoy to the Vatican.
Though theoretically he could still do so in the roughly three weeks between now and the meeting, given the backlog of appointees awaiting Senate review, it’s unlikely a new ambassador will be in place before Trump arrives.