The meeting May 24 between two opposing titans, U.S. President Donald Trump and Pope Francis, attracted attention mainly for the stylistic and substantive differences between the two men, not because anything serious was expected to come out of their abbreviated 30-minute encounter. Indeed, considering past heated exchanges between the Pope and Trump, it might seem surprising the Vatican was added to the president’s whirlwind itinerary at all. In February 2016, Francis implicitly challenged the then-presidential candidate’s faith by telling reporters that “a person who only thinks of building walls…and not building bridges is not Christian.” Trump responded by calling the Pope’s comments “disgraceful,” only to hear Francis repeat a new version of the charge just a few months ago. But throughout his papacy, Francis has urged encounter and dialogue, so it is in character that he agreed to look for doors “at least a little bit open…and go on, step by step” with Trump.
Two factors put the antagonists together. The first is tradition: every U.S. president since Harry Truman has visited the Holy See while in Italy. (Trump was there attending a G–7 summit in Sicily.) The second is that the White House cast the first portion of his first presidential trip abroad as a tour of religious homelands. So Trump’s Vatican visit was the final act in a theatrical production that opened in Riyadh.
In the end, though, the framing might have been a problem. Indeed, it perturbed the Vatican last week that Trump was so triumphalist in Saudi Arabia, one of the few countries to have no diplomatic relations with the Holy See. From the Kingdom’s treatment of Christians living within its borders, to its international export of intolerance, to the devastation wrought by its war in Yemen, Francis and the Vatican take a much more critical line toward Saudi Arabia than does the Trump administration. U.S. administrations have collaborated on a variety of diplomatic initiatives with the Holy See, normalization of U.S.–Cuban relations in 2014. Church officials worldwide also regularly share information with U.S. diplomats. But the whole Vatican apparatus is leery of an American foreign policy bonded to the Saudi absolute monarchy.
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