The Pope and the President
The arc of moral history will run through the center of Vatican City this week, but which way will it bend?
Wednesday there is a brief meeting scheduled between President Trump and Pope Francis as the president continues his week long trip through the Middle East and Europe. It is hard to think of two people on the world stage who command bigger audiences and represent more divergent views of how life should be lived. Trump scowls. Francis smiles.
The president rose to power by dividing the country and promising to put America’s self-interest above global interests in ways that exceed conventional standards. Pope Francis, on the other hand, has spent his papacy trying to bring people together and break down the traditions that have challenged the reputation of his church.
The pope has eschewed many of the trappings of power that traditionally come with the job. He understands the symbolism of self-sacrifice. President Trump would never consider the possibility. He has embraced every perk of office available to him — and his extended family — as if he bought and paid for it all himself. His staff has the audacity to suggest moving the White House to New Jersey for the weekend, as opposed to New York City or Florida, saves taxpayer money.
It is not fair to make a direct comparison between a religious leader and the leader of a nation, but it is fair to say that each man — by virtue of the positions they hold — have a daily opportunity to set an example for the rest of the world. Every American president before Trump understood this and tried to set a good example though they sometimes failed. The point is, they tried. Prior to his election, the motivating force in Trump’s life was the acquisition of personal wealth and asserting his financial dominance by branding his world TRUMP in gold plating. He defines success by what he can take from others. The pope measures success by how much suffering he can relieve and he tries to convince his followers to do the same.
During the 2016 campaign, Pope Francis directly criticized candidate Trump for promising to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. The pope suggested a true leader would build a bridge. Trump responded the only way he knows how. He assured the pope that if ISIS ever attacked the Vatican the pope would see things differently. For Trump, standing up to the pope demonstrated his willingness to stand up to anyone. He is always ready to engage any challenge and his supporters see that willingness to immediately move into a fighter’s stance attractive.
It is true the Vatican itself is surrounded by walls, but it is also true that the main entrance, through St. Peter’s Square, is designed to symbolize outstretched arms offering an embrace to the world. There are many reasons violence has rarely visited the Vatican. Some have to do with logistics and security, but what truly protects the church is its place as a symbol of peace and love. Any attack there, no matter the scale, would expose the emptiness of the ideology behind the violence. The church wins by refusing to engage the enemy on its terms.
The president and the pope are scheduled to meet only briefly, because every Wednesday morning the pope meets with the people in St. Peter’s Square. The people in the square will not mind if the pope is late. They will defer to the powerful. If the pope decides to keep to his schedule it may serve as a lesson for the president. By keeping the meeting short, the pope would demonstrate that leadership is not about popularity, crowd size, or television ratings, it is about service to those who follow. Trump may be impressed by the size of the crowd but there is not much hope he will grasp the larger lesson. The weight of the Oval Office has not changed him and it is unlikely a subtle lesson on leadership can break through.
Because of the scandals the Catholic Church has endured in the last decade many do not look to the church as a beacon of moral leadership. In fact, many reject it as strongly as Trump’s opponents reject him. They resist. Nevertheless, Wednesday’s meeting in Vatican City will provide the world a contrast, because of who these men are at their core, not the positions they hold.
Trump has always been concerned with triumph. The pope has been concerned with humility and service. Photographs and video will record the meeting between these two opposing forces and the world will react to the comparison. It will also be interesting to see how Trump reacts. Will he see the pope as a loser in a funny hat, or will the power of Francis’ humility reveal to Trump that brute force is not the only way to win. Soft power can win and sustain.
Suggesting an epiphany for this president feels naive, but it also shows the power of hope.