President Donald Trump is scheduled to meet with Pope Francis in the Vatican on Wednesday, closing out his tour of regions important to members of three major Abrahamic faiths — Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. While the summit is not expected to match the ostentation of Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia or the religious symbolism of his trek to Jerusalem’s Western Wall, analysts say the meeting with the head of the Catholic Church remains a crucial one for the Trump administration.
But as preparations begin, a question remains: given the vast differences between Trump and Francis, what will they talk about?
On the policy front, the two have little in common. Francis published an entire papal encyclical defending the “very consistent scientific consensus” surrounding the issue of global climate change, but Trump has claimed it’s a hoax invented by the Chinese. Francis instructed all Catholic churches in Europe to take in Syrian refugees, but Trump is trying to ban them from entering the United States. Francis preaches a deeply progressive and poverty-focused understanding of economics, but business-mogul Trump is an ardent defender of aggressive capitalism and deregulation.
And then, of course, there’s the duo’s infamous feud over immigration: When the pontiff learned in 2016 that then-candidate Trump planned to build a border wall as president, he blasted the idea, implying the real estate mogul “is not Christian.”
“You’re looking at two men who are…completely different in ideology, philosophy, and style of governance.”
“You’re looking at two men who are…completely different in ideology, philosophy, and style of governance,” Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a Catholic theologian and professor at Manhattan College, told ThinkProgress via email.
Nonetheless, Francis and his aides have signaled the Vatican will welcome the president with open arms on Wednesday, with some Holy See officials expressing optimism about the summit. That’s not unusual for the Vatican, which traditionally strikes a conciliatory posture toward world leaders, according to Thomas Reese, a senior analyst the National Catholic Reporter.
“The Vatican has been meeting with world leaders for about 1,000 years,” Reese, who is also a Jesuit priest, said. “People they agree with, people they disagree with…the Vatican is used to this kind of thing.”
And Francis’ background as a Jesuit may make him even more likely to be gracious towards Trump, especially in public.
“One of the prime Jesuit virtues, which every Jesuit learns in the novitiate, is to give people the benefit of the doubt — presidents included,” said James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large of the Catholic magazine America, who is also a consultor to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communication.
“The big question is, what are the two of them going to talk about when they’re alone with nobody but a translator, and what is Trump going to tweet after that meeting?”
However, most experts who spoke to ThinkProgress said the real action likely won’t occur during the scheduled photo-op. It’ll be immediately after, when the two leaders retire to Francis’ private library to sit across the table from one another for a private conversation.
“The big question is, what are the two of them going to talk about when they’re alone with nobody but a translator, and what is Trump going to tweet after that meeting?” Reese said.
Reese noted that when the pope meets a world leader, “90 percent” of the discussion is typically focused on foreign policy. There is good reason for this: the Church represents more than a billion people spread all over the world, and its bishops exert hefty influence on several national governments. What’s more, Francis has emerged as something of a power player on the global diplomatic stage, helping broker the deal that led to increased normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba in 2015.
That leaves a lot of ground to cover for the two leaders, including a number of topics that may make Trump uncomfortable — such as climate change, immigration, and refugees. Martin said that while he doesn’t expect Francis to chide Trump, he also doesn’t expect the pontiff to stay silent on issues important to him.
“If questions like refugees and migrants arise, then expect the Pope to speak his mind,” Martin said.
“For Francis, Trump’s ‘America First’ slogan is illogical — [Francis] doesn’t believe in the usefulness of borders in the face of humanitarian crises like war, famine, and violence.”
Still, the pope has a vested interest in maintaining a close relationship with the United States, if for no other reason than to push America to make good use of its vast resources.
“For Francis, Trump’s ‘America First’ slogan is illogical — [Francis] doesn’t believe in the usefulness of borders in the face of humanitarian crises like war, famine, and violence,” Imperatori-Lee said. “So I think the pope will urge the president to use our considerable power in defense of those who need it most.”
The two leaders may also find common ground in the quest to forge peace in the Middle East. Francis convened a “prayer summit” of Israeli and Palestinian leaders in 2014, and Trump, fresh from his visit to Israel, has indicated a strong desire to strike a peace deal in the region. Moreover, both men have strongly condemned religious extremism in recent months, and the topic is likely to come up now that ISIS has claimed credit for the horrific explosion in Manchester, England on Tuesday that left at least 22 dead.
Whether or not the two leaders can actually achieve anything in these areas is a different question. But Reese noted that despite their vast differences, Francis’ powers of persuasion may be more influential with Trump than other heads of state: the president has already changed his mind on issues after speaking with world leaders, such as when he backed off a position regarding North Korea following a 10-minute conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“Trump does have a thin skin, but, frankly, he’s shown himself able to totally reverse his position on some things,” Reese said. “The Vatican is looking for a partner they can work with.”
Plus, Imperatori-Lee noted that the pope may be particularly well-equipped to deal with the unpredictable U.S. president. Even if Trump exhibits more authoritarian habits, she said Francis — the first Latin American pope — “knows what dictators do and how they operate.”