A Vatican Meeting, and a Clash of Moral Visions

Trump is rather less welcoming to migrants. Photographer: Alessandra Tarantino/AFP/Getty Images

Donald Trump and Pope Francis embody two competing ideals of how humans should live.

Pope Francis and Donald Trump have been circling each other for a while now. Ever since Francis first visited the U.S., during the early days of Trump’s presidential campaign, it’s been hard not to ponder what they make of each other. Sometimes they’ve invited the comparisons: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” Francis told reporters after visiting Mexico last year, not mentioning Trump by name — but inevitably bringing to mind one wall in particular. Trump, for his part, has swung between suggesting the Vatican is weak on terrorism and praising Francis for having “a lot of energy.”

On Wednesday, Francis and Trump are to actually meet. If all goes according to plan, their encounter will be subdued. Ken Hackett, a former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, put it this way: “From the Vatican’s point of view, it’s pretty normal fare for them to deal with heads of state. They’ve been doing it for centuries.” The two leaders probably will spend less than an hour in each other’s company, including the exchange of gifts and requisite photo-ops. It seems unlikely the meeting will be anything other than, well, diplomatic.

But the juxtaposition of Trump and Francis, however brief, will be brimming with meaning. They offer nothing less than two competing visions of how humans should live together, two different ways of responding to the anxieties and dilemmas of our time.

The differences between the man in white and the one with the orange scowl may seem obvious. But ever since Trump shot to the lead in the Republican primaries, a number of conservative critics have argued he and Francis actually are quite similar. Once his nomination seemed a real possibility, Matthew Schmitz claimed in the Washington Post that Francis and Trump have “much in common” because, to take one example, they both are “outsiders bent on shaking up their establishments.” New York Times columnist Ross Douthat declared them “strangely alike” — after all, both “have become leading populists in our increasingly populist moment.” And after Trump’s surprise victory in November, Rod Dreher at the American Conservative said that the case for “comparing Francis to Trump is even stronger now than it was earlier this year.”

The analogies show no signs of abating: Just this week, the Wall Street Journal’s William McGurn began a column by plaintively asking, “Is Pope Francis the Donald Trump of popes?” (No surprises here: The leaders are “more alike than commonly supposed,” he observes, particularly on global trade.) It’s almost enough to make you hope Trump finishes his first term — who can imagine all the deep resonances between the two that will have been discovered by then?

Many of these arguments focus on style rather than substance; Schmitz, for example, notes supposed “rhetorical similarities” between Francis and Trump, while McGurn underscored that both have a “penchant for insults.” It’s easy to understand why such airy assertions, or deploying vague formulations like “populist,” are necessary. When it comes to actual issues, the two leaders differ dramatically.

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SOURCE: Bloomberg View
Matthew Sitman

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