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Trump and Francis: Détente, not armistice

Pope Francis meets President Trump during a private audience at the Vatican on May 24, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Evan Vucci/Pool

ROME (RNS) No matter what their theological inclinations are, Donald Trump’s supporters should be happy with the modern reforms in the Vatican: Until a few decades ago a pope would have never received in an audience a twice-divorced, thrice-married head of state accompanied by a daughter who converted to Judaism.

Fortunately, this was not a problem for the Trump family accompanying the president in his state visit this week.

The only real news, in fact, was that the passage of the American president through the Vatican was fairly speedy and remarkably uneventful.

This does not mean that nothing of importance happened; on the contrary.

During Trump’s long international trip, the first of his turbulent presidency, the Vatican was the least challenging stop from a strictly diplomatic point of view; but compared to Saudi Arabia and Israel, the first two stops on this “interreligious trip,” the Vatican was also the most “distant atmosphere,” politically speaking.

What divides Trump from Francis politically does not divide Trump from Saudi King Salman or from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The tension around the meeting with Francis, as opposed to the natural political affinity with the Saudis and Israeli leaders, is more evidence that the president’s pilgrimage was not really about religion.

(Front right to left) Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, U.S. President Donald Trump and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan pose for a photo during the Arab Islamic American Summit on May 21, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Instead, it was about figuring out how to use religion for the political purposes of the administration (fighting terrorism, and fueling the anti-Iran complex) without fundamentally changing the narrative of this administration about religion. And that, despite his speech in Riyadh, still centers on an anti-Muslim worldview.

In some sense, the religion of Trumpism is the presidential bending to the politics of white evangelicalism, whose theological substance in America today is in danger of being reduced to the prosperity gospel.

Trump’s speech failed to acknowledge what had just happened in Iran with the re-election of President Hassan Rouhani, and it offered a parallel to Francis’ speech from Cairo just three weeks earlier: but parallel trajectories by definition do not meet.

The historical, cultural and theological inadequacy of Trump’s White House has been confirmed by this trip: Lucky for Donald Trump, the very formal and structured Vatican protocol gave fewer occasions to show that inadequacy.

President Trump stands next to Pope Francis during a private audience at the Vatican on May 24, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Evan Vucci/Pool

The one-on-one meeting in the Vatican with Francis lasted 29 minutes, and the private conversation created some personal connection between them (and the president’s family — for Francis it is always very important to meet the families of his interlocutors). But it did not bridge the gaps between their worldviews.

It was an opportunity to familiarize the White House with non-American, global Catholicism – something that is important for the Trump administration, which is far more nationalistic than its predecessors.

It should come as no surprise that some delicate issues, such as climate change, were passed over in the Holy See’s brief official statement; areas of disagreement are never mentioned in this kind of declaration.

Indeed, the fact that it is not mentioned suggests that the gap remains. And it is not the only one. There are some interesting discrepancies between the final communiqué issued by the Vatican and the American delegation about the meeting with the pope and the follow-up meeting between Trump and U.S. officials and the papal secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin: The White House statement does not mention immigration, while the Vatican does.

Besides the meetings and the statements, this highly anticipated summit must be put into a larger context.

First of all, the lowering of expectations during the week before the May 24 meeting signaled the interest by both sides to reconnect after an extraordinarily difficult period of long-range sniping between Trump and Francis.

That quick diplomatic assent was given to the appointment of Callista Gingrich as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See so that it could be announced before the visit showed that the Vatican did not want to exacerbate a particularly delicate relationship.

Second, the expectations for this meeting from each camp were very different.

Pope Francis poses with President Trump, second right; first lady Melania Trump, center; Jared Kushner, left;  and Ivanka Trump, second left, during a private audience at the Vatican on May 24, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Alessandra Tarantino/pool

Trump’s focus was a narrow one: the pope and the Vatican. Trump’s own political interests and moral legitimacy are very different from the pope’s, and especially from a pope like Francis.

On the other side of the desk, Francis had to keep in mind not just the person before him but also various sectors who can be targets of the American president’s actions and policies: the U.S. bishops, American Catholics as a whole, the 1.2 billion Catholics around the world, migrants and refugees whom the pontiff has made a priority for the church, and also other religions — including Islam — who in some way count on the pope to speak truth to the new American power.

Third: The audience also provided some reassurances that the anti-immigration and nativist rhetoric of the Trump campaign was not going to become enshrined in an anti-Catholic presidency in the sense of entrenched hostility to the pope and the Vatican.

But the distance remains, and it is part of the complex relationship between Rome and the U.S. under Francis.

The Trump phenomenon conquered the GOP — the Party of God in American politics — directly following Francis’ trip to the U.S. in September 2015. In some ways Trump was, and is, a symptom more than a cause of the difficulties — not just moral-theological (the debate on marriage and family leading to “Amoris Laetitia”) but also political (the social justice environmental encyclical “Laudato Si’”) — between Francis and America.

Fourth: Francis’ meeting with Trump was a way for the pope to send messages to, and about, this administration.

The pope may have fewer (military) divisions than Trump, but he has more ways to use his soft power. Less than an hour after the end of the meeting with the president, Francis held his weekly public audience in St. Peter’s Square with thousands of pilgrims and tourists.

His catechesis during the audience focused on the Gospel passage from Luke about the resurrected Jesus meeting his disciples on the road to Emmaus. But it also served as a way of indirectly reinforcing Francis’ take on this American presidency and its religious claims and appeal.

It would be overly optimistic to expect a sudden change in the relations between the pontificate of Francis and the presidency of Trump due to the miraculous discovery of a previously invisible common ground.

The meeting between Trump and Francis was in fact not an armistice, but a détente.

(Massimo Faggioli is a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University and a contributing editor to Commonweal magazine)

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Massimo Faggioli


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  • “In some sense, the religion of Trumpism is the presidential bending to the politics of white evangelicalism, whose theological substance in America today is in danger of being reduced to the prosperity gospel….”

    Prosperity, as in winners and losers.

  • I would replace “is in danger of being reduced to” to “is essentially” for a more accurate assessment.

  • Yea, sad ain’t it when a thrice divorced Protestant is more Catholic than the Pope. Spin it some more.

  • 1. According to the non-American CNN commentators – both very knowledgeable re: the Vatican – during the live video of the meeting, there was no tension and none visible.
    2. “the religion of Trumpism” is not toward white evangelicalism. While expected to carry the South, it was his victory in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and 60% of the white Catholic vote which elected him. That’s why all his cabinet picks back the pope on denying healthcare to women, anti-LGBTQ human rights and increased funding to Catholic schools. (Trumps only school visit so far was to a Catholic school in Orlando.) That’s why Cardinal Dolan led the inaugural ceremony and Cardinal Wuerl planned the prayer service at the National Cathedral and why, at the White House Rose Garden ceremony May 4, Trump decried the “attacks against the Little Sisters of the Poor” before signing his executive order on “religious freedom.” He invited the sisters present to stand beside him, and shook the hands of two of them. The pope visited the sisters while in the U.S.
    3. After the meeting, the Vatican said they spoke of their “joint commitment in favour of life, religious liberty and freedom of conscience” – i.e. the continued gov’t funding of Catholic agencies, schools, hospitals despite their discrimination against women, gays and transgender persons.
    4. The only statement about immigration expressed the hope for a “serene cooperation between the State and the Catholic Church in the United States”, which is engaged in service to people “in the fields of health care, education and assistance to immigrants”.i.e. denying healthcare to women fleeing sexual assaults and brutalization.

  • On one hand you’re right but things aren’t black and white.
    Second place is the first place loser but a peek is worth ten free market estimators. Reverse auction bid results can be turned into a low bid equation with a variance that looks something like this:

    Low Bid = (95% -1% times the number of bidders) times the average bid

    Companies, individuals, and countries play free market basketball on a diving board because an individual or organization can’t maximize their profits if they hit more often than the dummy. Since free markets come to an equilibrium between four and five bidders, a 5% drop in price is usually enough to jump to 15% higher overall hit rate. Government is a slam dunking monopoly that has proven to be 20% more expense than the free market. Socialism, Fascism, Marxism, Statism, etc. is four scarcity leaps backwards and corresponds with Carman’s and Kenneth’s findings.

    A Harvard Professor and previous President of IMF wrote a book called “This Time is Different”. Carman Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff studied fiscal crisis in 65 countries over 500 years. 1% GDP reduction in taxes increases private sector 3% in GDP. 1% GDP increase in Government Spending deceases
    private sector 1.2% GDP with a -0.2% change in GDP. Obviously a great deal of government debt can put a country at significant interest rate risk.

    If we go from a 38% tax rate to 20% tax rate with a balanced budget the private sector will grow from $11 Trillion to over $16 Trillion. Tax revenue won’t decrease 48%. Tax revenue will only decrease 24%. Half of Washington won’t have to go on a permanent vacation, only one out of four. Employment will increase 25% so displaced bureaucrats will have lots of new opportunities to contribute to society.

    If we get down to a balanced 10%, $20 Trillion – more than a 60% increase in jobs if half of Washington goes on a permanent vacation, each dollar earned buys ($0.90/$0.62) 45% more, and hard America becomes a soft warm place.

    John Nash’s beautiful mind recognized the importance of interactions in which the results of one person’s choices depend not only on his own behavior but also on the choices of another person. There is a related game called Ultimatum. You and your partner split $10. Less than $3 deals disgust and anger. The dealer has a pulpit.

    The Laffer effect is no joke. Charles Adams, an international tax attorney and historian, wrote books on taxes. Once tax rates rise above the disgust and anger point, the expected extra tax revenue never shows up. A flat tax system is part of Constitution. Everyone has to pay taxes to keep as many people’s tax rate below the disgust and anger tax rate or make sure an overwhelming majority is disgusted with high taxes. Free market innovation boils down to a desire for players to hit a third of their shots.

    Dealers can routinely get an $8 to $10 deal by getting his or her partner work for a $3 to $5 deal. With each $3 to $5 of earned success the partner becomes a dealer that turns the $3 to $5 deal into $6 to $8 of earned success. Turning $10 into $13 is a win-win systemic solution that creates good people, great outcomes,and durable trust but when it rains, rainmakers show up and turn everything to

    There will always be zero-sum losers who just accept less than $3 deals and think the key to success is being an abusive dealer. A $7-$3 deal isn’t better than a $6-$4 deal because $7-$3 deals turn into $6-$2, $5-$1, and $4-two bit deals. Rainmakers turn everything to dirt because they feel entitled to $7up and someone else has to pay for the diet $7up.

    Obama and company’s overall 30% to 40% tax and spend policies have systemically increased the public sector by 25% and eliminated 10 million private sector jobs. Present day Switzerland, Russia, and much of Eastern Europe are 15% tax and spend countries.
    The diving board model correspondes with the ideal wealth distribution but then you have demographics and why good salesmen are such sad sacks. Miserable people spend more money than happy people and as people get older they get happier and don’t need as many things.

    Part of the reason nationalism works is a free market is around 30% labor, 70% material, 4% profitable, and innovative. If you know everything is going to get better and less expensive, why spend your money now if it will buy more in the future.

    5% to 30% dynamic tariff system protects a free market from a 70% market, 1% labor, 35% profitable slave state from destroying a wonderful free market that creates so much relative happiness it feels like heaven. Small governance, low taxes, free markets, debt free money

  • The pope is just one man who heads up on branch of Christianity. He is accorded far to much importance and influence in the policies of the United States. Is the president now going to visit the faith leader of every other religious group in the US or the world? And yes, I know the Vatican is technically its own country, but seriously, it is just a ploy to exert inappropriate influence on the world stage. Where is the separation of church and state?

  • “On the other side of the desk, Francis had to keep in mind not just the person before him but also various sectors who can be targets of the American president’s actions and policies: the U.S. bishops, American Catholics as a whole, the 1.2 billion Catholics around the world, migrants and refugees whom the pontiff has made a priority for the church,. . . .”

    The problem with this pope is that he chases headlines and spotlights, hoping to weild political power in the world the same way the US does. The major political power this pope should be concerned about, is refoming his archaic worldwide church, and using the church’s vast financial resources to help those “migrants and refugees who the pontiff has made a priority for the church” instead of heaping guilt on developed countries to do it!

    “Soft power,” indeed!