VATICAN CITY – Oh, to be a fly on the wall.
When Pope Francis meets with President Donald Trump at the Vatican next month, the world will be watching how the Argentine “slum pope” interacts with the brash, New York billionaire-turned-president.
On many issues, the two men couldn’t be more different. Francis wants bridges between nations, not the walls Trump is building. Francis brought back a dozen Muslim Syrian refugees with him when he went to Greece, while Trump has tried to impose a travel ban on people from a half-dozen mostly Muslim nations.
Francis wants an end to the use of fossil fuels, while Trump has pledged to cancel payments to U.N. climate change programs and pull out of the Paris climate accord. U.S. bishops have praised the Trump administration for its abortion stance, but oppose Republican health care reform plans because of the impact on the poor.
Those issues and more are likely to be on the table when Trump arrives at the Apostolic Palace for the 8:30 a.m. audience May 24. Both the Vatican and the White House announced the meeting Thursday.
Despite the obvious differences, though, Trump and Francis share a certain populist bent. Both were elected on reform mandates and speak with a down-to-earth simplicity that has endeared them to their bases. And both share a common concern about the plight of Christians in the Middle East at the hands of Islamic militants.
Their relationship got off to a rocky start when, during the U.S. presidential campaign, Francis famously said that anyone who wants to build a wall to keep out foreigners is “not Christian.” Trump, who campaigned on his plans to build a wall on the border with Mexico, shot back saying it was “disgraceful” for a religious leader to question someone’s faith.
More recently, Francis has urged the U.S. and North Korea to step away from the brink and use negotiations and diplomacy to defuse tensions on the Korean peninsula.
And he wrote an entire encyclical about the environment, and the moral imperative to save God’s creation, denouncing how the wealthy had destroyed the planet at the expense of the poor. He will most certainly hand over a bound copy of “Praise Be” to Trump at the end of the audience.
Dennis Doyle, a professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton, said both men are seen by their supporters as having an authenticity that shakes up the status quo. But beyond that, he said, there’s not much in common.
“I try to look for middle ground. I really don’t see a lot of middle ground here,” he said.