Donald Trump’s verdict on his audience with Pope Francis – ‘fantastic meeting’, ‘honor of a lifetime’ – may disappoint those who were expecting a showdown. The Pope is supposed to be Trump’s ‘antithesis’, ‘the anti-Trump’, his ‘polar opposite’ and so on and so on.
But in the end the meeting was merely awkward, to judge by the photos, and the discussion was mostly confined to safe issues (life, peace and liberty good, persecution of Christians bad). People are making much of the grumpiest Pope photo, but Francis often looks bored and uneasy when he meets important dignitaries. He tends to cheer up around the poor and the sick.
If the meeting was an anti-climax, that is appropriate, because for all that is written on both leaders and what they symbolise, Francis and Trump are both distinguished by a lack of clarity about what they actually stand for.
Trump is meant to be the champion of the ‘forgotten men and women’, but this doesn’t seem to be reflected in his policies or his poll ratings. He is meant to be a courageous speaker of truth to the cultural elite, but on the crunch issue of religious liberty he has backed down.
He is meant to be a no-nonsense opponent of Islamist violence – in 2011, for instance, Trump declared that Saudi Arabia is ‘the world’s biggest funder of terrorism’ – but he has just travelled to Saudi Arabia to reassure them that the US is on their side. Maybe that is just diplomacy, but it is not what we were led to believe about Donald Trump.
Pope Francis, in his own way, is equally confusing. Francis eloquently insists on the moral absolutes which should govern the treatment of the weak by the strong: he appeals for the rights of workers, migrants, the unborn, the unemployed, the homeless, the elderly, the disabled and other victims of – as he put it in his finest phrase – ‘the throwaway culture’.
That is what people expect from religious leaders: an appeal to a standard which is more than human. This morning Trump gave the Pope a collection of Martin Luther King’s writings: a sensible choice, since there the Pope will find King’s magnificent words about the divine law that cannot change, the possible duty to disobey ‘a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and the natural law’. Francis has often echoed those principles.
But his actions have also undermined them. Jesus is severe about the treatment of the vulnerable; he is equally severe about marriage, and it is incoherent for Christians to ignore either point. Under Francis’s watch, the upper echelons of the Church have been consumed by a debate about whether Church teachings on divorce and other matters are worth taking seriously. Without explicitly denying the Church’s doctrines, the Pope has quietly encouraged those who challenge those doctrines, and obliquely dismissed those who defend them. As well as distressing Catholics, this rather complicates Francis’s image as an unflinching voice of moral clarity.
Today’s meeting may lead to some concrete outcomes: it could be a moment when Trump gets serious about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, or a sign that the Vatican will press more for migrants’ rights in the US. But perhaps its biggest significance is in helping to puncture some illusions about world leaders and the fantasies we project onto them.
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald