Will Trump and Francis Discuss Pro-Life, Religious-Freedom Issues?
Past comments by pope and president highlight possible talking points for meeting tomorrow.
Editor’s Note: Register editorial addresses tomorrow’s meeting.
VATICAN CITY — When Pope Francis was asked last week about his upcoming meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, he made headlines for answering that he always tries to look for common ground.
Given that they have vocally disagreed on prominent issues in the past, what will the areas of shared agreement be?
The two are set to meet at the Vatican Wednesday at 8:30am, before Pope Francis’ weekly general audience.
President Trump arrives in Italy May 23, after stopping in both Saudi Arabia and Israel as part of his first international trip, which lasts nine days. He will also attend a NATO meeting in Brussels on May 25 and a G7 summit in Sicily on May 26.
Perhaps the most prominent area of disagreement between Trump and Francis is immigration.
During a Feb. 18, 2016, in-flight press conference, the Pope was asked to respond to President-elect Donald Trump’s immigration stand, particularly his pledge to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Pope Francis responded by saying that “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel.” However, he also said that he would “give the benefit of the doubt” to the political candidate.
One week prior, Trump said Pope Francis was a “pawn” for the Mexican government and “a very political person” who does not understand the problems of the United States.
After the fact, then-Holy See spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told Vatican Radio that the Pope’s comment “was never intended to be, in any way, a personal attack or an indication of how to vote” and had repeated a long-standing theme of his papacy: bridge-building.
During Trump’s time in office so far, U.S. bishops — who have Francis’ full backing on the issue — have been critical of Trump’s moves on immigration, criticizing the “ban” he implemented in his first week in office halting refugee admissions for 120 days (indefinitely for Syrian refugees) and temporarily banning visa permissions for people seeking entry to the United States from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.
Trump and Francis also have very divergent opinions on climate change. Francis insisted on the need to protect creation in his environmental encyclical, Laudato Si, saying problems such as global warming are caused by human activity.
The Pope gave his full support of the Paris Climate deal in 2015, sending Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin to the Nov. 30-Dec. 11 summit as his personal delegate to the gathering.
Trump later threatened to back out of the deal, but delayed the process until after the G7 summit he’ll be participating in this week.
While there will certainly be these and other points the two disagree on, there are several issues — other than their shared disregard for formal protocol — that could actually bring the two together.
These, to name a few, could be: pro-life issues, above all defense of the unborn; religious freedom, particularly for Christians in the Middle East; and the push for a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Since his campaign days, Trump has identified himself as pro-life, and even gave a shout-out to the Jan. 27 March for Life in Washington, D.C., in an interview with David Muir of ABC.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence became the first vice president to participate in the march, giving a keynote speech that stressed the “sanctity of life.”
Pro-life issues are likely to be at least one strong point of union for Trump and Francis, who has often spoken out against abortion and other concerns such as euthanasia, calling them in one audience in 2014 “sins against God.”
He has also encouraged the use of conscientious objection based on religious convictions, at one point describing it as “a basic human right.”
When it comes to the Trump administration, the pro-life issue remains a big issue for many U.S. Catholics, who praised the president’s reinstatement of the “Mexico City Policy,” which prohibits U.S. funding of non-government organizations that either promote or perform abortions through family-planning funds.
Trump was also lauded for his appointment of Neil Gorsuch to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left when Justice Antonin Scalia passed away last year. Gorsuch has been praised not only for his pro-life stance, but also for his commitment to religious freedom.
Pope Francis and Trump are also likely to share concern for persecuted Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.
Both Trump and Francis have called for greater solidarity and protection of persecuted Christians.
Francis has repeatedly spoken out on modern persecution, saying there are more martyrs today than in the early Church, with the “ecumenism of blood” having become a watermark phrase of his pontificate.
Trump himself said during his campaign that protecting persecuted Christians would be a priority. As evidence of this intent, at a May 11 summit on persecuted Christians Vice President Pence said, “We’re with you — we stand with you,” and assured of both his and Trump’s prayers.
As with any political figure, questions still loom as to how much Trump will actually do, especially if differing political opinions get in the way. But overall, the topic will likely be a point of agreement and collaboration with the Vatican.
And while Trump’s previous rhetoric on Islam is something Francis would likely hastily disagree with, a recent shift in the president’s tone is something the Pope would certainly welcome.
During his election campaign, Trump called for the “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” voicing his opinion that “Islam hates us.”
However, so far, Trump’s rhetoric on Muslims has cooled during his first international trip abroad.
In his May 21 speech at the Arab Islamic American Summit in Ridyadh, Saudi Arabia, Trump avoided the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” referring instead to “the crisis of Islamist extremism and the Islamist terror groups it inspires.”
“The nations of the Middle East will have to decide what kind of future they want for themselves, for their country and, frankly, for their families and for their children,” Trump said, speaking to leaders from more than 50 predominantly Muslim countries.
The choice is “between two futures,” and “it is a choice America cannot make for you,” he said, adding that “a better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and drive out the extremists.”
He said he didn’t come to “lecture,” but to seek an end to terrorism and the beginning of peace in the Middle East region, noting that roughly 95% of terrorist victims are themselves Muslim.
The president said he wants a partnership with people who share the same “interests and values” as the U.S., calling Islam one of the “great faiths” with an “ancient heritage” that has served as the “cradle of civilization.”
In addition, Trump said the problem of terrorism is not “a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations. This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it. ... This is a battle between good and evil.”
The U.S. president’s more moderate tone on Islam, and indeed his unprecedented praise of some aspects of Muslim culture, is something Pope Francis would likely appreciate. The Pope has on multiple occasions warned against “Islamophobia,” insisting that not all Muslims are terrorists.
However, while the two might have newfound common ground in terms of how they refer to the Muslim community, at least in the public sphere, Francis will likely take issue with the weapons deal signed by Trump and Saudi King Salman.
The deal guarantees the Middle Eastern powerhouse some $350 billion in weapons over the next 10 years, with $110 billion going into effect immediately.
Francis has consistently called for an end to the arms trade, criticizing nations that sell weapons to warring countries in order to keep the conflicts going that line their own pockets. The Pope has used countless occasions to insist for an end to this “scourge.”
Saudi Arabia has also been criticized by many other Mideast nations for funding ISIS, most directly through weapons sales.
But regardless of the deal, terrorism is sure to be one of the key topics discussed by pope and president, and if Trump’s speech in Saudi Arabia is an indication of how he intends to address the issue from here on out, the two just might be able agree on this point.
After leaving Saudi Arabia, Trump flew to Israel for an official visit in a bid to cement Israeli ties and help move forward on a peace deal with Palestine. After arriving, he voiced hopes to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin of a broader peace deal in the region.
“You have a great opportunity right now. Great feeling for peace throughout the Middle East. People have had enough of the bloodshed and the killing. I think we’re going to start see things starting to happen,” he told Rivlin.
In a speech to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu on the tarmac, Trump said: “We have before us a rare opportunity to bring security and stability and peace to this region and its people, defeating terrorism and creating a future of harmony, prosperity and peace, but we can only get there working together. There is no other way.”
In a previous encounter, Trump had asked Netenyahu to “hold off” on building more settlements in order help give space to further peace discussions in the region.
Earlier this month, Trump met with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas at the White House, telling him that when it comes to a deal that pleases both parties, “we will get it done.”
The commitment to a two-state solution has been a long-standing priority for the Vatican, which was reinforced during a recent 2015 agreement between Palestine and the Holy See to promote religious freedom in the area.
Trump himself, however, has said his administration is “not married” to the idea of a two-state solution to the decades-long conflict, deviating from previous administrations on the issue.
While the Vatican and Trump might not agree on what a peace deal looks like, it’s likely to be a shared concern.
Another topic that could be a point of union between the Pope and the president is human trafficking; not necessarily because Trump himself has been a hardliner on the issue, but more likely because the president’s daughter and high-profile adviser Ivanka Trump has made a commitment to it.
It is in this capacity that she is participating in each of the nine days of Trump’s first trip abroad as president, including the public portion of his meeting with Francis.
While in Italy, Ivanka is also set to meet with the Community of Sant’Egidio, a group often praised by Pope Francis for its work with the poor and refugees, to discuss putting an end to human trafficking.
During the meeting, Ivanka is expected to meet with several women who are victims of trafficking and discuss various ways in which the Church and the U.S. government can collaborate on the issue.
So while there are clearly many areas in which Pope Francis and Trump diverge, the meeting will likely find both men seeking to find common ground.
Francis, during his May 13 press conference, refrained from making a premature evaluation of Trump, saying: “I never make a judgment of a person without listening to them. I believe that I should not do this.”
When the two finally meet, “things will come out, I will say what I think, he will say what he thinks, but I never, ever, wanted to make a judgment without hearing the person.”
Peace and friendship are things that can’t be forced, he said, explaining that they take daily effort and are “handcrafted.”
“Respect the other, say that which one thinks, but with respect, but walk together,” he said. Even if someone thinks differently, “be very sincere” and respectful.