The President and the Pontiff: not yet friends, still not enemies

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Daniel Parenkov – political scientist

Donald Trump needed to visit to the Vatican to change the opinion that there were serious differences between the new Administration and the Holy See, expressed in the media. After their mutual attacks during the US electoral campaign and negative reaction of the Catholic community to Trump’s first legislative initiatives, the meeting with Pope Francis was aimed at restoring president’s relations with the world’s biggest religion and sending a positive message to its 70 million followers in the United States.

And strict adherence to protocol, enthusiastic tweets and touching photos from the Sistine Chapel have definitely had their effect: for a “media” instant Trump if has not become a friend of Catholics, at least was no longer their enemy. Nevertheless, this effect is unlikely to be a lasting one. The details of the meeting that took place on May 24 were not released, but even the general phrases of the official press announcements make it clear that the US president and the Pontiff do not see eye to eye their common agenda and prospects for cooperation. These differences will inevitably foster new information waves that will bring to the surface the increasing tension over Trump’s policy.

The Catholic Church has repeatedly voiced its concerns over Trump’s immigration and healthcare plans and intention to build a wall along the US-Mexico border. Besides, a week before the meeting of Donald Trump and Pope Francis the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops lambasted a draft federal budget. On May 19 the Conference addressed a letter saying that it was inadmissible to increase military and immigration control expenditures by means of scaling back many “domestic and international programs that assisted the most vulnerable” to the Congress. In this context, the Holy See’s hope of “serene collaboration” in healthcare, education and providing immigrants with aid expressed in its official press announcement is aimed at emphasizing the fact that the Catholic Church is not going to take these issues off the table.

The US president, in his turn, would prefer to limit the arrangements with the Holy See to the international cooperation alone. The White House in its statement about the results of the visit did not say a word about domestic policy. Instead, it is emphasized that Donald Trump and Pope Francis discussed “how the United States and the Holy See could work together to combat terrorism and human suffering in crisis regions, such as Syria, Libya, and ISIS[1]-controlled territory”. It is also stated that both Washington and Vatican aspire to contribute to human rights promotion and protection of religious liberties.

 Obviously, foreign policy agenda plays an important role in the Holy See’s bilateral relations with other states, especially with the United States of America. The situation in the Middle East and protection of Christians always become a subject of discussions with world leaders. But as far as Trump is concerned, Pope Francis has one specific international question, which the US president would prefer to take off the table. The Pope, whose second and most recent encyclical “Laudato Si” is devoted to ecology and sustainable development, will inevitably come back to environment protection. In this respect, the fact that Pope Francis among other gifts gave Donald Trump a copy of “Laudato Si” is telling.

But while the Pontiff prefers to use to a diplomatic symbolic language, his cardinals voice certain objections against new Administration’s policy on this issue. For instance, the decree signed by Donald Trump on March 28 on the deregulation of fighting the climate change, introduced by his predecessor Barack Obama, was roundly condemned by the prefect of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development Peter Turkson. The cardinal called the US president’s decision a challenge to all Catholics. The head of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Frank Dewane talked even tougher. The bishop mentioned that environment protection initiatives were at stake and the government did not have a sufficient plan for ensuring proper care for people and creation. Taking into account recent talks about Trump’s determination to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, he can come under even more severe criticism from Catholics as regards both global environment protection and national issues. Catholic environmental organizations in the United States can be given a fresh impetus towards the expansion of its activities that are now focused on resistance to the continuing construction of the oil pipelines “Keystone” and “Dakota Access Pipeline”.

The attempts of the head of the White House to interpret the meeting with the Holy Father as nothing but the talks with the head of the Vatican and moral authority who can listen to the story about the anti-famine efforts (Donald Trump told Pope Francis that the United States was proud to announce more than $300 million in anti-famine spending, focused on the crises in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and Nigeria) can complicate the dialogue with the world’s biggest denomination. The US president cannot afford to forget that the Pontiff guides not only some abstract Catholics all over the world, but also 20% of its own citizens. Trump’s landmark initiatives on immigration policy, healthcare and production increase are paid close attention by the Catholic Church and at the moment its stance works against the president’s preferable pattern of public perception of the policy he conducts. If Trump really wants to soften the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church, he and his team have to make more complicated and substantial moves than the domestic agenda substitution with the foreign issues.

Photo: © AP Photo / Evan Vucci, Pool

[1] Terrorist organization, forbidden in Russia

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