Vatican Francis-Trump meeting on for May 24

What do you call it when two world leaders, each with his own populist streak, meet?

That’s easy. If the world leaders are Pope Francis and President Donald Trump, and the meeting is held at the Vatican, you call it a papal audience.

At 8:30 Rome time on the morning of May 24, Pope Francis will receive the president of the United States in audience — the 30th time a sitting pope has granted an audience to an incumbent U.S. president. Following the audience, Trump will meet with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, and Archbishop Paul Gallagher, secretary for relations with states.

Populist poles

As for the pope, president and populism, in 2016 Trump campaigned as a people’s candidate, and before and since the election he has often appealed to his base over the heads of an “establishment” in which he includes more conventional politicians and the mainstream media.

Pope Francis’ populism is more complicated, since he is a critic of what he calls “demagogic” populism that divides people and leads to conflict.

But he also has followed the populist playbook with gestures that earn him high approval ratings while pursuing changes in the Church in the face of an ecclesiastical establishment of which much of his own curia is part.

Both men also are famous for sometimes controversial off-the-cuff remarks — Trump on Twitter and the pope via in-flight press conferences and one-on-one interviews.

Some speculation about the upcoming meeting between the two men suggests it might bring a semi-public clash. But papal audiences are generally decorous affairs conducted according to protocol. This one will almost certainly be no exception.

The pope and the president are nonetheless likely to highlight differing priorities on issues about which they really do disagree.

Francis, for example, may speak of the need to take a welcoming approach to migrants and refugees. In February 2016, with the U.S. presidential campaign in full swing, he called building walls to keep people out un-Christian. Trump, who declared that as president he would build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, took umbrage at that.

Environmental policy is another issue dividing the two. Trump has called for scrapping international climate control accords, while Pope Francis stressed the importance of ecological concerns in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’.

The pope repeatedly has championed diplomacy as the solution to problems like North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Trump has threatened a military response if the North Koreans don’t back off.

Religious concerns

One area of mutual concern — religious liberty — offers an opportunity for at least general agreement between the two. Here Trump may point to his new executive order on “promoting free speech and religious liberty” issued at the White House on May 4, at the same time his meeting with Pope Francis was announced.

Declaring it the administration’s policy to “vigorously enforce federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom,” the executive order was partly a corrective to existing legislation called the Johnson Amendment that bars churches from endorsing political candidates on pain of losing their tax-exempt status.

This was in fulfillment of campaign promises made by Trump to religious conservatives who provided him with much of his support last year.

According to exit polls, Catholics, 23 percent of the total electorate, voted 52 percent for Trump, with 60 percent of white Catholics backing him while 67 percent of Latino Catholics voted for Hillary Clinton. Among evangelicals, the Trump vote was 81 percent. Overall, support for Trump was at 56 percent among weekly churchgoers but fell to 31 percent among people who never go to church.

Trump’s order directs the Secretary of the Treasury to ensure the Internal Revenue Service doesn’t withdraw or withhold tax exemption from religious groups for speaking on moral or political issues in a manner that “has ... not ordinarily been treated” as supporting or opposing a candidate for office. How far that language will go in relieving that particular concern remains to be seen.

The order also directs federal agencies to “consider” issuing amended regulations “to address conscience-based objections” to things like the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act, which would have required groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor to include coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortion-causing drugs in employee health plans. As with the section on speech, the impact this will have depends on how it is interpreted.

The order received mixed reviews, with some religious and conservative groups hailing it and some voicing reservations.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, called it “a clear reflection of [Trump’s] promise to protect the religious freedoms of Americans.” But others pointed out that one president’s orders can be undone by another president and expressed skepticism that Trump’s action would accomplish much.

Matters of conscience

A source of disappointment was the order’s silence on protecting people with religious objections to same-sex marriage from having to lend it their support. The Supreme Court currently is weighing whether to grant review to the case of a Colorado baker convicted of violating state anti-discrimination law for refusing to bake a cake celebrating a gay marriage.

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the presidential order “begins the process of alleviating the serious burden” of the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate.

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But, citing “pressing restrictions on religious freedom” imposed by government in areas like adoption, education, and health care, Cardinal DiNardo said the bishops will continue to seek permanent relief through the enactment of new legislation.

Cardinal DiNardo and Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington met with President Trump before the White House released the executive order amid a flurry of activities linked to celebration of a National Day of Prayer. In tone and substance, the meeting between Pope Francis and Trump will likely be very different from the hubbub of a White House event.

Russell Shaw is an OSV Newsweekly contributing editor.

Meetings of Popes and U.S. Presidents
◗ Benedict XV and Woodrow Wilson, 1919, the Vatican