When Pope Francis welcomes President Trump to the Vatican this week, the most compelling moral leader on the global stage will share the spotlight with a President failing to find his footing in Washington.
A self-styled populist who shook up the political establishment with a crass style, Trump is surely betting that a cordial sit down with a reform-minded Pope whose leadership has jolted the Vatican’s entrenched interests might provide luster to his badly tarnished political brand.
But if the President expects a quick and uncomplicated photo op to revive his image, he shouldn’t get his hopes up.
While the Pope told reporters that he wants to find “doors that are not completely shut” and seek common ground with the President, Francis is also not afraid to speak truth to power.
It’s “not Christian,” the Pope said bluntly when asked about Trump’s campaign pledge — one that remains atop the President’s agenda — to build a massive border wall. Candidate Trump fired back by calling the Pope “disgraceful,” and accused the Mexican government of “using the Pope as a pawn.”
Before the courts blocked him, the President signed an executive order banning entry of refugees, whom he portrays as a security threat. “It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee,” Francis says, in glaring contrast.
Nor will a President who has rolled back Obama-era policies to address climate change find an ally in a Pope who praised those actions, and who describes climate change as “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”
Inequality, for the Pope, is “the root of social evil,” and he thinks the government plays a key role in addressing an “economy of exclusion.” Trump’s health-care reform plans, tax plan and budget proposals would help the wealthiest at the expense of the working poor.
Beyond specific issues, the two men understand leadership and power in strikingly different ways. Trump chafes against those who challenge him, values blind loyalty and has said he doesn’t ask God for forgiveness.
Francis describes himself as “a sinner” and learns from his mistakes. He openly acknowledges that his “authoritarian way of making decisions” created problems when he was a priest in Argentina responsible for the training of young Jesuits.
As Pope, he has prized dialogue and even invites disagreement inside the church as a sign of healthy discernment.
Trump, whose entire reality-TV brand is built on garish excess, in a speech before securing the Republican nomination declared, “You have to be wealthy in order to be great.” Francis warns about the “idolatry of money,” and insists that the future of humanity will be shaped not by “great powers” but is “in the hands of people and in their ability to organize.”
Trump won the presidency in large measure by stoking fear and anxiety. His “America First” nationalism is tribal, dark and defined by the backlash politics of resentment. In contrast, Francis has a global vision rooted in universal human dignity because the Catholic Church is a global institution that serves the poor, provides health care and empowers those on the margins in hundreds of countries.
To be clear, the Pope is not a naive optimist. He recognizes that a technocratic globalization structured around profits and consumerism can be an inhumane system that also leaves many behind. His is a clear-eyed hope that people working together to create movements for peace and justice are more powerful than any narrow ideology or single charismatic individual.
Solidarity is “the most effective antidote to modern forms of populism,” the Pope insists, because only then do we recognize that a stranger’s fate is tied to our own.
A week after Trump’s election, Francis described rising nationalism across Europe as part of “an epidemic of animosity” directed at immigrants and religious minorities who are easy targets for blame. He recognizes what he calls “false forms of security” can often mean selling out core values in ways that don’t keep us safe and undermine our highest ideals.
So expect a few smiles, polite handshakes and an enthusiastic, falsely humble tweet from President Trump after the meeting. The Vatican and the Trump administration can find common ground on urgent issues like fighting religious persecution and human trafficking. This should be celebrated and encouraged.
But moving forward, count on Pope Francis not to back down from reminding Trump and other leaders that politics should be about service to the common good, not the exaltation of ego and power.
Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy organization in Washington, and author of “The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church.”
New York Daily News