Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin was among the first in the Vatican to react to Donald Trump’s election as the 45th president of the United States.
Speaking to reporters in Rome Nov. 9, he congratulated Trump and said the Holy See respected the democratic wish of the people. He noted the high turnout and gave the Holy See’s “best wishes to the new president, that his government can be truly fruitful.” The Church would be praying for him, he said, that the Lord “enlighten and support him in the service of his country, but also that he work for well-being and peace in the world.”
“I believe that, today, we all need to work to change the world situation; that is a situation of grave wounds, of severe conflict,” Cardinal Parolin continued. He said the future president had “already expressed himself in terms of a leader,” but it was “too soon to judge” his presidency.
Pope Francis hasn’t commented himself, although he did respond to the prospect of a potential Trump presidency in an interview conducted the day before the election and subsequently published online by the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.
Asked for his opinion about Trump, Pope Francis replied, “I don’t make judgments on people and on political men. I only want to understand the sufferings that their way of proceeding causes the poor and excluded.” The Pope shared his comments with Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari, the atheist publisher of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, in an interview published Nov. 11.
Pope Francis clearly hasn’t favored Trump’s policies on immigration, a subject close to the Pope’s heart. He made this point most directly on the papal plane returning from Mexico in February, obliquely referring to Trump when commenting that people should build bridges rather than walls and that anyone who wishes to build a wall “is not Christian.”
Generally, Vatican officials have mixed views about the U.S. election result. One senior Italian official in the more traditional wing of the Church said he was “jumping for joy” at the news. Like a number of other Italian officials, he was most pleased because American voters didn’t choose Hillary Clinton, due to evidence of her campaign leader’s dismissive attitude toward Catholicism, her extreme positions on abortion and same-sex “marriage,” and personal corruption. Other well-informed priests saw the result as a clear rebuke to the mainstream media, who did little to conceal their bias in favor of a Clinton presidency.
However, Corriere della Sera reported Nov. 10 that, according to its research, most in the Vatican were backing Hillary Clinton as the “lesser evil.” Trump, on the other hand, was considered “unelectable” due to his “aggressive chauvinism,” in addition to his threats to deport 11 million illegal Mexican immigrants and ban Muslims from immigrating to the United States.
Now that the “greater evil” has won, the Vatican is viewing the United States as “angry and radicalized,” Corriere della Sera wrote. “For the Holy See, it is a bitter defeat, cultural rather than political. Among other things, it indicates that the Catholic Church hasn’t registered the very deep upheavals taking place in the greatest Western country.” A “lot of incomprehension” and “bitter shock” were generally prevalent for many in the Vatican, agreed one U.S. official who spoke with the Register. Based on “failings of reporting,” he said, Clinton was represented as far preferable to Trump, who was portrayed as a “buffoon,” and reporting about Clinton’s shortcomings “never sunk in.” Due to a general lack of understanding in Italy of the U.S. “culture wars,” Clinton’s radical pro-abortion-rights position also hardly figured at all in media commentary.
As well as seeing Trump as a U.S. version of Silvio Berlusconi — the Italian media magnate and former prime minister — a common perception among Vatican officials is that the U.S. election result resembles the Brexit vote, when the majority of the British electorate, having lost confidence in the European Union, voted in June to leave the economic and political bloc.
According to others in the Vatican contacted by the Register, they and their colleagues recognized that many of those who voted for Trump felt disrespected by the political establishment, but the officials themselves seemed generally open to what the future holds under a Trump presidency. Republicans, said one optimistically, “tend to work better with the Church.”
In Nov. 9 comments to the Register, Cardinal Raymond Burke, patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, signaled a similarly hopeful note, saying he was confident Trump would follow the “long tradition” of U.S. presidents, in terms of “cooperation and communication” with foreign powers, and said he believes he has a “great disposition” to listen to the Church’s position on the moral law.
On life issues, Cardinal Burke said, Trump is “right on the money,” but, aware of inevitable areas of divergence with Church teaching, he stressed the importance of Catholics continuing to make objections known whenever necessary.
Jim Nicholson, a prominent Republican who worked closely with the Vatican as ambassador to the Holy See during President George W. Bush’s first term, predicted Trump will have “a good relationship” with the Apostolic See and the Pope.
“It’s a victory for working-class people, for underemployed people and unemployed people, people for whom the Pope has great concern, so they have a great amount in common in their priorities,” he told the Register Nov. 10.
The two leaders “recognize the external challenges of secularism and terrorism,” said Nicholson, who served as ambassador during the Iraq War. “I think they’re both smart men, and they’ll realize that there’s a lot to be gained by them working closely together than by not doing so, by stressing the important priorities they have in common rather than some important things about which they don’t agree,” he said.
Going forward, Nicholson believes that, given clear differences between Trump and the Pope on immigration and the free market, much is going to depend on “how effective” Trump’s pick for ambassador to the Holy See will be.
“If [Trump] gets a very good, articulate interlocutor to explain what he wants to do and what his thinking is to the Holy See and to the Holy Father, it will go a long way, because the Pope respects the rule of law; he respects sovereignty. So that’s a very important issue in the immigration debate.”
“The Pope is also concerned about the humanitarian aspects for people, migrant people, so those are issues that need to be discussed openly, a common set of foundational values about the dignity of people, their welfare,” Nicholson said.
“Trump and I agree with him on this: that the best thing you can do is help people get a job, help them get on their feet, and get back to dignity of having a purpose in life. That has got to be very consistent with the Pope’s values at a human level. How that’s done on an economic level, they might not agree, so that has to be dealt with.”
But, overall, he said he thinks “Trump has a healthy respect for the Pope; he recognizes his moral authority. And I think it could be a very enduring relationship.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.