Wait and see? Pontiff to meet President in May

Not long ago, Pope Francis said he would “wait and see” before coming to any conclusions on Donald Trump. He won’t have to wait too long, according to Christopher Lamb in the Catholic journal The Tablet. The pontiff and the president will first confer on the sidelines of the G-7 summit in Sicily, scheduled for May:

The first meeting between the Pope and President Donald Trump may take place at the end of May, when the US president travels to Italy for a summit of world leaders.

According to diplomatic sources, Mr Trump will meet Francis during the visit. The G7 leaders are gathering in Sicily and the White House confirmed yesterday that the president would attend the meeting.

Officially, the Holy See are not commenting on when the Pope will meet Trump, but Vatican insiders say that the 26 – 27 May summit in Taormina presents an opportunity for them to see each other.

Assuming the meeting comes off as planned, it will follow a pattern that has emerged since the turn of the century. Both of Trump’s immediate predecessors had their first meetings with popes on the sidelines of G-8 economic conferences. That strategy gives both sides some distance from the pressures of state visits or bilateral summits, allowing leaders to get a sense of each other while having no particular expectations for agreements or other diplomatic outcomes.

That helps even more in this particular instance, where relations have already gotten off to a rocky start. The two clashed during the election campaign over Trump’s policy of building a wall on the US-Mexico border, resulting in a harsh public exchange that both sides quickly tried to quell. Trump’s decision to suspend entries from seven high-risk nations created more criticism from the Vatican and from some American bishops as well, and that may still be an issue when the two meet in May. The executive order imposed a 90-day pause on processing visa and refugee requests, but that got put on hold on Friday. Unless the courts intervene to lift the temporary restraining order on the EO, the 90-day pause may either still be in effect by the end of May or still waiting for implementation, which will clearly be a subject on which Pope Francis will want to be heard.

On the other hand, the pontiff has gotten some pushback within the church on immigrant issues in Europe, Zoie O’Brien reports for the Daily Express:

Other church leaders are now beginning to align themselves with right-wing politicians in Italy – giving rise to fears even the Vatican could be rocked by the Donald Trump administration in Washington.

Powerful American cardinal Raymond Burke added fuel to the fire over the weekend when it was revealed he met with Matteo Salvini, the rightwing Italian nationalist – a staunch supporter of the new US president.

Cardinal Burke’s meeting with the head of the Northern League party has ignited fears divisions between traditionalists and the pope are becoming political.

That isn’t the only issue dividing the church at the moment, either. Pope Francis intervened in a disciplinary action with the Knights of Malta and took over the running of the order, cutting Burke out of the loop. That has many incensed, and posters have started appearing in Rome criticizing Francis’ alleged lack of mercy. And that’s not the only criticism coming Francis’ way:


Posters of a stern-looking Pope Francis appeared on walls around Rome on Saturday, condemning his actions against some conservative Catholics and asking, “Where is your mercy?”

Written in local Roman dialect, the posters lamented that the Pope had “removed priests; decapitated the Knights of Malta” and “ignored Cardinals,” echoing some of the major complaints some conservative Catholics have about Pope Francis’ recent decisions. The posters were not signed by any group. …

Conservative criticism of Pope Francis has intensified since November, when he refused to answer an official letter sent to him by four cardinals. The letter criticized his move to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion.

That issue has divided many in the Catholic Church and has left bishops around the world arguing about the Pope’s intentions and how to implement the directive.

So both sides have something to gain from a meeting, especially a less formal tête-a-tête in which expectations will be somewhat lower. Trump will need to show American Catholics that he can find some commonality with their spiritual leader and work on issues where interests converge. Francis will need to do the same in a continent where people have become frustrated with refugee issues and have challenged the center-left governing elite in Europe. One part of the EO could perhaps provide that bridge between both men and the growing divide on refugee issues — Trump’s plan to admit as many as 50,000 refugees a year once better vetting systems are in place. Focusing on that aspect could give both the pope and the president opportunities to speak both to their core followers and those more skeptical of their positions.

That will take a deft diplomatic touch, and no small amount of preparation. It could allow both men to get a better sense of the broader view on refugee issues, and better preparation to deal with the consequences of rising populism on both continents. At the very least, it will be intriguing.