Crux’s Inés San Martin called it the “Odd Couple encounter,” but by most reports, Donald Trump and Pope Francis focused on commonalities rather than conflicts between the two. At the end of the first meeting between the pontiff and the new American president, the Vatican emphasized those issues they hold in common — commitments to the pro-life cause and a renewed urgency on freedom of worship and conscience. The Holy See’s statement also had a curious omission, as Vatican reporter Edward Pentin notes:
In “cordial discussions” between Pope Francis and President Donald Trump this morning, “satisfaction” was expressed for “good existing bilateral relations” as well as “the joint commitment in favour of life, and freedom of worship and conscience.”
In a statement, the Vatican said it is also “hoped that there may be serene collaboration” between the Church and the Trump administration “in the fields of healthcare, education and assistance to immigrants.”
During their half-hour meeting on the Feast of Our Lady, Help of Christians, the two leaders also discussed “international affairs and the promotion of peace in the world through political negotiation and interreligious dialogue, with particular reference to the situation in the Middle East and the protection of Christian communities.”
Areas of convergence such as respect for life and religious freedom were stressed, as well as those issues of divergence such as immigration, although the statement did not refer to the environment, also an area where the Pope and Trump have differed.
According to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Pope Francis specifically brought it up, and asked Trump to keep the US in the Paris climate agreement:
Tillerson says Vatican SecState Cardinal Parolin raised climate change with Pres Trump & urged him to keep US in the Paris Agreement.
— Mark Knoller (@markknoller) May 24, 2017
In other words, the lack of reference in the Vatican readout can’t just be an oversight of a minor point. The omission of any mention of environmental issues seems clearly calibrated for maximum goodwill. Pope Francis has been outspoken if also somewhat ambiguous on the issue of climate change. Some news reports say that the pontiff gave Trump a “letter” on climate change, but they’re referring to Francis’ Laudato Sí, one of three encyclicals that the pope gave Trump as a gift. Laudato Sí did deal with the environment, but it also dealt with other issues, such as the rejection of gender ideology (paragraph 155), in which Francis wrote:
The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation.
We could just as easily call this a “letter on gender ideology” with as much accuracy. Even in this encyclical, though, Francis emphasizes that he does not have an infallible perspective on science, and he mainly uses the climate-change hypothesis to remind Catholics of their responsibility to protect the environment and use resources for the greatest common good. Still, it’s a theme to which Francis returns often, which makes the Vatican’s omission of this subject from its readout rather curious. The Holy See’s diplomacy is always nuanced and slow to read, but this seems like a sign of friendship and an effort to focus on the issues that can form the basis of a partnership over the next few years.
That includes global security, and the protection of Christian enclaves in hostile territory. Both CBS’ Mark Knoller and the Vatican press service reported (via La Stampa) that those issues were also a focus of discussion:
On Air Force One, SecState Tillerson told press pool that Pres and @Pontifex discussed terrorism and the radicalization of young people.
— Mark Knoller (@markknoller) May 24, 2017
The discussions – the Vatican note informs – enabled an exchange of views on various themes relating to international affairs and the promotion of peace in the world through political negotiation and interreligious dialogue, with particular reference to the situation in the Middle East and the protection of Christian communities.”
That falls right into Trump’s wheelhouse, especially on his first foreign travel abroad. Trump made interreligious dialogue and the defense of religious minorities in the Middle East the explicit theme of this trip, and the Vatican has good reasons to help Trump raise awareness of those issues. The diplomatic weather report from Vatican City seems a little warmer, therefore, than Jazz’ observations this morning. If it started off “slightly tense,” as La Stampa notes, the tension had dissipated by the end:
During the exchange of gifts, Francis presented Trump with an artistic bronze bas-relief representing an olive tree, and went on explaining its meaning: there is a fracture indicating “the division of war,” Bergoglio said, and the image represents “My desire for peace”. I give it to you so you may be an instrument of peace.” “We can use peace,” was the comment of the head of state, who presented the Pope with as series of books: “This is a gift to you, these are Martin Luther King’s books, I think you’ll like them, I hope so.”
“Many Thanks” the Pope replied and then gave Trump the message of the World Peace Day 2017, adding “I personally signed it for you”, together with the three main documents of his pontificate bound in red leather, the exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium”, the encyclical “Laudato Si’” “devoted to safeguarding of creation, and the exhortation on marriage and family “Amoris laetitia”. “I will read them” assured President Trump. The slightly tense climate that marked the beginning of the visit melted, as it often happens during the final moments usually characterized by smiles and jokes.
San Martin noted the same dynamic at Crux:
Both men seemed anxious to meet one another but also slightly tense as the meeting began. Francis welcomed the American president to the Vatican, who uncharacteristically showed a broad smile as he posed with the pontiff for the traditional photo session before entering the papal studio for their private conversation.
By the end, however, both men seemed relaxed, smiling and seemingly at ease with one another.
Later in the day, during a meeting with Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, Trump called Francis “something” and said he and the pope had a “fantastic meeting.”
Trump seems pleased with the outcome:
Honor of a lifetime to meet His Holiness Pope Francis. I leave the Vatican more determined than ever to pursue PEACE in our world. pic.twitter.com/JzJDy7pllI
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 24, 2017
And perhaps this is an even better indication:
.@realDonaldTrump has changed his Twitter picture to include Pope Francis. New evangelization?
— Joshua McElwee (@joshjmac) May 24, 2017
Trump should be pleased with the outcome, for now at least. Papal audiences do not usually get confrontational, but there’s always a risk of a faux pas or a clash of interests. Trump managed to get a favorable readout from the Vatican and a focus that mainly fell on issues which Trump wants to highlight, rather than a debate on other issues that might play less well for the White House. So far, his first trip abroad as president has gone remarkably well. The toughest meetings remain, however.