Leaders aim to get past public rancor but are left with few key points of agreement
Pope Francis at the Roman Parish of San Pier Damiani on Sunday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGE
Francis X. RoccaMay 23, 2017 5:30 a.m. ET
VATICAN CITY—When President Donald Trump visits Pope Francis on Wednesday, at the halfway point of a trip the White House has cast as a pilgrimage of peace, the two leaders will have a chance to reset an acrimonious public relationship.
Yet the two men, famously divided on the pope’s signature issues of migration and climate change, could struggle to find significant areas of agreement.
As of last week, representatives of the White House and the Vatican working on the agenda for the meeting had found few common policy priorities, according to someone familiar with the preparations.
Vatican meetings between pontiffs and heads of state are more stagecraft than hard-nosed politics. Wednesday’s meeting carries extra weight given the public sparring match last year, when the pope said Mr. Trump’s opposition to migration made him “not Christian,” and Mr. Trump shot back that questioning his faith was “disgraceful.”
“They have a little fence-mending to do. They got off to a bad start,” said Jim Nicholson, ambassador to the Holy See under President George W. Bush.
“Everyone knows there are areas of disagreement,” said Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington. “It’s just important that they’re getting together to say, ‘What are some of the areas where we have common ground?’”
Mr. Trump stands to gain, amid the many controversies besetting him at home, from images of a friendly encounter with the enormously popular pope. The Vatican is sensitive to the White House’s concerns and eager to avoid anything that could appear like a scolding, according to someone familiar with the preparations.
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Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Holy See’s secretary for relations with states, declined a request for an interview about the meeting.
The pope himself has sought to play down the tensions. When asked about the coming meeting with Mr. Trump, he said that “we need to look for the doors that are at least slightly open, to enter and talk about the things we have in common, and to go on. Step by step.”
On the eve of his departure, Mr. Trump said: “I look forward to speaking with the pope about how Christian teachings can help put the world on a path to justice, freedom, and peace.”
Abortion, an issue uniting the Trump administration and American Catholic bishops, is a point of common ground, but isn’t a priority for the pope.
Pope Francis has made a priority of addressing global warming, describing it as a real threat to life on the planet and calling for cutting fossil fuel use to stem it. The White House, to the contrary, is deciding whether the U.S. should withdraw in full from the Paris Agreement to cap emissions.
A main goal of Mr. Trump’s foreign trip—outreach to the Muslim world—is in principle one that could appeal to Pope Francis, who has fervently promoted close relations with Islam. On Sunday in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Trump addressed leaders of dozens of Muslim countries on the need to confront extremist ideologies and promote a peaceful version of Islam.
That could offer a point of convergence with Pope Francis, who issued a forceful call against religiously inspired violence in a speech in Cairo, Egypt last month.
“That’s a way to start a conversation,” said Ken Hackett, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See under President Barack Obama. Mr. Trump “can say, ‘I just came out of Saudi Arabia and you were just in Egypt.’ That sort of thing can lead to common ground.”
Pope Francis and Mr. Trump have both voiced concern for besieged Christian minorities in the Middle East, but the Vatican’s call to increase aid for displaced Christians and other minorities in the region clashes with the White House’s aim to cut budgets. The topic of Mideast peace is a thorny one, with Vatican diplomats wary of what they view as the Trump administration’s pro-Israel tilt.
With the two differing on migration, only narrow areas of that theme, such as combating human trafficking, are likely to bring them together.
“The only way I can see them talking (about migration issues) is perhaps on the human trafficking thing,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
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Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and one of his White House advisers, has embraced the cause and is scheduled to meet trafficking victims Wednesday at an event sponsored by a Catholic organization in Rome.
Other topics that traditionally unite Republican administrations and the Vatican could prove less fruitful this time.
For instance, the U.S. bishops have welcomed President Trump’s antiabortion stance and have expressed cautious optimism about his moves to exempt them from the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act, which requires employers to provide birth control to their employees, which they consider a violation of religious liberty.
But the two issues aren’t likely to figure prominently in Wednesday’s meeting. Pope Francis has generally played down such topics in his pontificate.
Abortion and religious liberty came up during President Obama’s 2014 visit, following the urging of U.S. bishops. But that was before the departure of a high-ranking American from the Holy See’s Secretariat of State left U.S. bishops without a strong advocate inside the Vatican.
The White House’s announcement Friday that the president would nominate Callista Gingrich, wife of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, removes one potentially awkward element from the meeting with the pope.
By moving to fill the job while many other ambassadorships and other posts in his administration remain unfilled, Mr. Trump shows the pope that he values Washington’s relationship with the Vatican.