On Tuesday, White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney stood at the briefing room podium, explaining to the American public the righteousness behind $274 billion dollars worth of cuts to welfare programs helping the hungry, the young, the poor and working class—all part of the administration’s “Taxpayer First” budget.
Budgets, as they say, are moral documents, and the White House was apparently prepared for criticism that a massive, upward redistribution of wealth—from the pockets of America’s needy to the (already quite full) coffers of its rich—did not appear to be a particularly ethical crusade.
Mulvaney, tasked with selling a budget that my colleague Russell Berman concludes is decidedly his own handicraft, highlighted that this budget shows “compassion” to those paying for social safety net programs, and that, furthermore, the definition of what exactly constitutes “compassion” is … changing:
“We are no longer going to measure compassion by the number of programs or the number of people on those programs,” Mr. Mulvaney said Monday. “We are going to measure compassion and success by the number of people we help get off of those programs and get back in charge of their own lives.”
At the very same time that Mulvaney was making the moral argument for these cuts, his boss, President Trump, was flying to Italy—where, among other things, he is scheduled to meet with Pope Francis on Wednesday. For an administration has already struggled mightily on the subject of ethics (whether economic or otherwise), Trump’s confab with the pontiff may present a significant challenge to the core values of this nascent presidency.
Even in ordinary times, the contrast between these two leaders would be sharp: the gilded baron versus the people’s Pope; an American president who’s made a career out of a relentless pursuit of profit, seeking audience with a man of the cloth who has made the plight of the poor his personal crusade. Against the backdrop of the newly-released White House budget, the chasm that separates the two men calls into question the moral ground the White House would like to claim for its own.
Among other things, the Trump administration would like to slash the food stamp program, known as SNAP, by $192 billion dollars over the next 10 years. Medicaid would take an $800 billion dollar cut over the same time period. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families would be cut by $21 billion. The Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit would be cut by about $40 billon in the next decade, as would disability payments made through Social Security.
The very rich, on the other hand, would do quite well by the White House’s proposed cuts: Trump’s budget would reduce or eliminate trillions of dollars of taxes—like the estate tax and the marginal rate on ordinary income—paid by America’s richest.
The values that drive these choices are in direct opposition to most everything that this particular Pope stands for. The pontiff’s constant focus has been charity towards the poor: this has found him washing the feet of the homeless and the incarcerated, and knocking on the doors of housing projects—the sort of Christian ministry that first won him the nickname, Bishop of the Slums. Where Trump has condemned the losers in American society, Francis has asked instead: “Why them and not me? I could have very well ended up among today’s ‘discarded’ people.”
While most Vatican watchers don’t expect any sort of confrontation (despite extended public disagreement between the two men during the 2016 presidential campaign), journalist Marco Politi, author of Pope Francis Among the Wolves, said that, “For first time since World War II, the leadership in Washington is a problem for the Vatican. The Vatican is prudent and far-sighted, and Trump—until this time—has shown to be very unpredictable.”
Politi said that Francis will likely address issues important to him in the meeting with the president—including poverty, social justice, immigration and environmental regulation—but that, “His style is to be very delicate and very gentle—but always clear.”
Which is to say, Vatican-White House relations are not under siege. “I think they know that they have to talk with the emperor of the day,” said Massimo Faggioli, a professor of historical theology at Villanova University. “[The Vatican] has always done that, since the fourth century. Catholicism sees itself as the counterpart of the global political power.”
“Trump is a very different leader,” he added, “but if the Vatican has to talk to a global power, it’s the U.S. It’s a marriage necessitated by the cultural proximity, and the historical ties between North America and Europe. And it will continue—well past 2020 or 2024.”
I asked John Gehring, the Catholic program director at Faith and Public Life, whether he thought Pope Francis might actually sway Trump on any of his key policy issues. “I’m not holding my breath that he will walk away having changed minds. But Pope Francis has an ability to shape minds, as a geopolitical leader. There is some opportunity here.”
Specifically, Gehring said, “Trump could learn a lot from Francis about how to use power with humility. If you think about Francis, he’s one of the most savvy global political leaders. He comes from Argentina—during the Dirty War—and had relations with a cross section of leaders. He understands how people tick. He understands that this is a president with a big ego and a presidency that’s not going well. The Pope will be sensitive to that. Trump could walk out of room a bit enamored, or at least looking at things with different eyes.”
Trump is known to be enamored of most leaders after his initial visits, and it seems entirely likely that he will emerge with newfound respect for the pontiff whom he once called “disgraceful.” But the Pope’s ultimate impact, as it concerns this White House, may be found in the broader moral authority he commands, precisely as the Trump White House grapples with its own crisis of ethics.
“I don’t think most people know what the Vatican is, but most people know what it stands for,” said Faggioli. “They have a grasp that what Francis and Trump stand for are quite different things. The Pope has become the voice of hope for those who are hopeless. The last resource for those who are voiceless, for those who are excluded from the political process or the economic system. He is a global figure, much bigger than just the head of the Church.”
And therein lies the complication for the president and his deputies, as they make the case for the “compassion” of a budget that targets welfare programs: a visit with the Pope highlights the tenuous logic behind this policy, as well as others proposed by the Trump White House under the auspices of ethical consideration—from immigration bans to healthcare reform to environmental deregulation. Pope Francis has put the very same issues at the center of his papacy, and it is impossible to imagine him ceding much ground to an administration so hostile to his progressive ideals.
Wednesday’s meeting is simply that—a meeting—but the contrast it invites is revealing, and, for this White House, inconvenient. For a Pope who has shown himself hardly content to sit on the sidelines when it comes to Christian responsibility in a time of growing income inequality and cresting nationalism, one would imagine it will not be the last time the People’s Pontiff and America’s Mogul-in-Chief cross paths on the road to higher ground.
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