When the pope and the president meet in the Apostolic Palace — the official residence of the pope in Vatican City — this Wednesday, they will be setting a much-needed example for a nation convulsed by post-election tantrums. Conservative speakers are disinvited on college campuses, conservative professors become objects of career-ending derision, the major media is obsessed with destroying the Trump presidency. Meanwhile, the Democratic leadership shouts curse words and raises their middle fingers at the man America sent to the White House.
But these two men, who have exchanged harsh words in the past, and differ on significant public policy issues, are going to meet, converse, while seeking a better relationship — and greater mutual understanding.
Yet, we can be sure that whatever is wise or hopeful coming out of this first meeting will be ignored by the press, which will have already scripted a narrative of disaster and disagreement. On July 23, 2001, President George W. Bush and Pope John Paul II (now St. John Paul II) met for the first time. Their meeting could not have been more amicable. I met with the president at the U.S. Embassy immediately afterwards. Bush was filled with enthusiasm at meeting "that great pope of yours."
But, press accounts of the encounter focused on the one caution that Pope John Paul II expressed to the president; about his upcoming decision whether to allow federal funding for fetal stem cell research.
In his speech at Castle Gandolfo — just southeast of Rome — the Pope decalred, "In defending the right to life . . . America can show the world . . . (that) man remains the master not the product of his technology." The BBC headline read, "Pope warns Bush on stem cells." While The New York Times headline told the same story,"Pope Urges Bush to Reject Embryo Research."
On Aug. 9, 2001 President Bush went on television for the first time, announcing his decision not to fund research on new lines but allow research on lines already in use to continue. His speech to the American people did not entirely conform to the wish of the pope, but President Bush made the basis of his decision loud and clear, "I also believe human life is a sacred gift from our Creator. I worry about a culture that devalues life, and believe as your president I have an important obligation to foster and encourage respect for life in America and throughout the world."
When President Trump arrives at the Vatican he faces a more complex scenario, but one not without parallels to Bush’s 2001 visit. The president has made his pro-life convictions extremely clear in campaigning, in his inaugural address, and with his executive orders.
In fact, President Trump has been noticeably more open about anti-abortion issues than the 43rd president. Pope Francis will find common ground with Trump on the defense of innocent life and some related issues — though not on immigration.
Unlike 2001, when both the pope and the president shared opening remarks with journalists present, this meeting will take place almost entirely in private with journalists having very limited access. Two journalists and five photographers will be permitted to witness them shaking hands in the antechamber to the Papal Library, and sitting at the opposite sides of a table in the library itself. After less than a minute, everyone will leave except for the pope, the president, and a translator.
Journalists will clock the length of the meeting, comparing it to the 50 minutes Obama spent with Pope Francis in March 2011, though visits normally run 20 to 30 minutes.
The press will then be allowed back in the library to watch the traditional exchange of gifts along with whatever words are used to explain the significance of the gifts. This will be, in my opinion, the most vulnerable media moment for President Trump since the Pope usually gives visiting dignitaries copies of his encyclicals, "Evangelii Gaudium, Laudato Si'," and "Amoris Laetitia," which contain any number of themes that could be used as headline fodder.
Even if the official statement from the Vatican press office contains nothing but a record of cordial conversation and exchange of ideas, the mainstream media will be scrutinizing every detail of the meeting for a hook upon which to hang their agreed-upon headlines about; perhaps headlines that would read, "Pope Francis Reminds Trump Not to Build Walls" or "Pope Francis Calls Upon Trump to Sign the Paris Agreement." In other words, no mention of shared purpose or common ground will allowed into the reporting narrative.
Regardless of the subsequent headlines, I believe the meeting will be fruitful on many levels. Both President Trump and Pope Francis have outgoing, warm personalities which will immediately remove whatever tensions might be present at the beginning.
And the president has already shown a willingness (distressing to some) to reconsider strongly-articulated policy positions. Donald Trump is not afraid to compromise, for the sake of building a relationship important for the future of his administration.
Pope Francis knows that, in November of 2016, more than half of Catholic U.S. voters supported Trump over his liberal rival Hillary Clinton. He also knows those same voters ignored both the pope's and U.S. bishops' attempts to make the presidential election about immigration.
Catholic voters simply didn't care that Trump was at odds with church hierarchy on immigration. Both Pope Francis and the bishops should know well by now, that last year they didn't fully comprehend how Americans really felt about the challenges facing America.
Pope Francis has some fence-mending of his own to do, and, I believe, he will.
Dr. Deal W. Hudson took over Crisis Magazine in 1995, leaving in 2010 to become president of Catholic Advocate. While at Crisis, Hudson led the Catholic voter outreach for President George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, and later advised the campaigns of both John McCain and Donald Trump on Catholic outreach. In 2014, he began his weekly two-hour radio show, "Church and Culture," on the Ave Maria Radio Network, and launched www.thechristianreview.com in 2015. His books include "Happiness and the Limits of Satisfaction" and "Onward Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States." To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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