Pope Francis, Trump Whisperer?

What started as a cold meeting between the pontiff and the U.S. president turned friendly after a brief closed-door discussion.


Meeting Pope Francis can really mess with a guy. The day after then-House Speaker John Boehner met with the pope during his visit to the U.S. in 2015, the Republican politician tearfully resigned. The former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly spent the morning of his last day with the network in Rome, where he met Francis in the Vatican receiving line.

Depressed liberals who hate President Trump and (incorrectly) see Pope Francis as a global avatar for their progressive agenda might have hoped something similar would go down during the meeting between the two leaders at the Vatican on Wednesday. It’s unlikely that their wishful thinking will come to pass, but the two men seem to have warmed to one another during their visit. The Italian newspaper La Stampa noted the tension in the room when the meeting began: Posing for press photos, “Trump smiled, Bergoglio a little less,” they said, referring to Francis by his given name. After a half-hour-long closed-door meeting, though, “the slightly tense climate that marked the beginning of the visit melted,” the newspaper reported. By the end of the visit, members of the two delegations were joking and laughing. “I will not forget what you said,” Trump said.

Even though Pope Francis and President Trump are different in nearly every way and share a history of public sparring, perhaps Trump’s first international trip as president is having its intended effect: The president is meeting with leaders of the world’s three Abrahamic religions, hoping to win over God’s allies. Or perhaps it’s the Francis effect at work, after all, and the pontiff was able to charm the finicky billionaire.

By this point, the contrasts between Pope Francis and President Trump are talked about so often that they’re almost cliches. Francis traded the gilded halls of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace for a simpler residence, while Trump relishes everything gold. The pope has spent his life in Christian discipleship, while the president’s religious credentials have been mixed. Francis wants to break down walls, while Trump wants to build them. The list goes on.

While Trump was campaigning for the U.S. presidency, the two men sparred in the press, exchanging veiled (and not so veiled) barbs. Before Trump arrived at the Vatican, the press hyped the drama: Would the two leaders get along, or would there be a stand-off in Vatican City?

And yet, according to a vague press release from the Holy See, the two men hit it off—at least on some subjects. They spent nearly half an hour together in a closed-door meeting, outlasting other president-pope pairs, and found common ground “in favor of life” (presumably referring to abortion), religious freedom, and the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. “It is hoped that there may be serene collaboration between the state and the Catholic Church in the United States, engaged in service to the people in the fields of health care, education, and assistance to immigrants,” the statement continued.

So far, the relationship between the administration and the U.S. Church hasn’t been so “serene.” The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which represents the Church in America, has spoken out against Trump on a number of issues, including the “harmful proposals” in the health-care bill being considered by Congress, both versions of his executive order on immigration and refugees, and his promised crackdown on sanctuary cities. Just last week, leaders in the bishops’ conference sent a strongly worded letter to Trump about his budget, calling the proposed increases in defense spending, heightened immigration enforcement, and cuts to aid programs “profoundly troubling.”

The disagreements aren’t just domestic. On this trip alone, Trump has already acted in ways that Francis would likely disapprove of. The administration just announced an arms deal with Saudi Arabia, which could involve billions of dollars over the next decade. Pope Francis’s Easter message specifically addressed this issue: He prayed God would “grant the leaders of nations the courage they need to prevent the spread of conflicts and to put a halt to the arms trade.”

Despite all that, the men both came out of their meeting looking happy. The pope joked with First Lady Melania Trump, who wore a traditional black lace veil, about potica, a Slovenian dessert. The pope and the president exchanged gifts: Francis gave Trump a relief depicting a olive tree, representing “my desire for peace,” according to La Stampa, while Trump presented the pontiff with books by Martin Luther King.

The pope also offered Trump books, albeit ones that might be less agreeable to Trump’s sensibilities: a copy of the apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium, which is a strong condemnation of free-market economics; the encyclical Laudato si, which is all about the dangers of climate change and environmental degradation; and Francis’s most recent exhortation, Amoris laetitia, about the importance of family preservation.* “I will read them,” Trump promised. Perhaps this president, who campaigned on his business skills, has called global warming a hoax, got divorced twice, and by all accounts prefers television over text, is finally learning diplomacy. Or perhaps the pope whispering works, after all.

* This article originally stated that Amoris laetitia is a papal encyclical, rather than an apostolic exhortation. We regret the error.