International diplomacy has its complexities and challenges, but also has a few easy lay-ups. Among the latter are head-of-state meetings with the current pontiff when circumstances permit — a request which never gets refused by the Vatican, and a meeting that provides American presidents with opportunities for positive engagement and media coverage. Despite signals two months ago that the current administration would take advantage of the upcoming G-7 summit for that purpose, Reuters reports today that the Vatican hasn’t received any request from Donald Trump to meet with Pope Francis six weeks from now:
U.S. President Donald Trump has not asked to meet Pope Francis during his visit to Italy next month for the Group of Seven summit, sources said on Tuesday, in what would be a highly unusual omission. …
“The situation can change but are only six weeks left so it looks unlikely at this point,” said a diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
A senior Vatican diplomatic source confirmed that the White House had so far made no approaches to the Holy See about a possible meeting, which would be the first between the two men.
“The ball is on their side,” said another Vatican source. “We have received no request.”
Two months ago, the meeting appeared to already be a fait accompli, at least according to Christopher Lamb at The Tablet, a UK-based journal for Catholics. According to Lamb’s sources within the Vatican, they fully expected a formal request for a meeting and had begun plans for one on the sidelines of the late-May G-7 gathering of heads of state. The lack of a request would send an unpleasant message not just to the Holy See but also to Italy in general, Lamb’s source noted:
“This visit gives the president an opportunity to meet the Pope,” one diplomatic source explained. “And if he came to Italy without seeing Francis it would be seen as a snub, particularly given their earlier clashes over migration. Trump also sees that wherever you sit on the political spectrum attacking the papacy isn’t wise.”
Without a doubt, the meeting would cover some differences of opinion — but that’s going to be true of the G-7 summit as well, and Trump’s not avoiding that. Leaders of other G-7 nations have been equally critical of immigration, refugee, and climate-change policies under the new administration, and those topics will definitely arise next month at the summit. Trump’s not exactly seen as someone who avoids tough discussions, which makes the lack of a meeting with Pope Francis even more curious.
Perhaps the president still resents the sharp criticism from Francis during the campaign and wishes to emphasize his lack of concern over Vatican positions. That might be understandable in a short-term transactional sense, but a big mistake politically both at home and abroad. First, the regular nature of these visits make them the kind of diplomatic norm that costs little and yet demonstrates a sense of professionalism and readiness for a head of state. Trump’s mercurial shifts mean that he needs those cost-free gestures more than most other US presidents would.
More importantly, Pope Francis represents over a billion Catholics around the world and around 70 million here in the US. That’s not to say that every single Catholic agrees with the pontiff on everything, or even most most issues; the Catholic vote split in the US is legendary. However, Catholics do see him as a spiritual leader and the man chosen by the Holy Spirit as the Vicar of Christ, especially those Catholics who come to Mass more often — who were more likely to have voted for Trump in the first place. Snubbing Francis is not a good way to keep those voters engaged on Trump’s behalf, especially since they’ll be in the same place at the same time anyway. Rather than look magnanimous, this will only make Trump look petty to voters who might be inclined to support him otherwise.
The new administration isn’t just missing an opportunity at the G-7; they’re cutting off their nose to spite their face. Perhaps accelerating the process of appointing a new ambassador to the Vatican will help the White House see this. Former US envoy Francis Rooney (now a Republican Congressman from Florida) told me that he’s been briefed on the candidates for the position and feels optimistic about the Trump administration’s choices. Let’s hope they get both of these decisions right.