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Pope Francis’ and Trump’s Common Ground

“There’s an expectation that the relationship between President Trump and Pope Francis will be difficult to establish [but] that is not the case at all,” Louis Bono, temporary charge d’affaires in the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, said. When the pope and Trump meet on May 24, “They’ll have the opportunity to speak frankly if there are any areas of differences, but more so, to focus on those areas where we do have common ground and to identify how we can work together further,” Bono said.

In a White House Rose Garden ceremony on May 4, Trump decried the “attacks against the Little Sisters of the Poor” before signing his executive order on “religious freedom.” He invited the sisters present to stand beside him and shook the hands of two of them.  Trump congratulated them and told the sisters that they “sort of just won a lawsuit.” He added, “I want you to know, your long ordeal will soon be over,” referring to  their lawsuit against Obamacare that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

After Trump’s announcement, Sister Constance Veit, a spokesperson for the religious community, “summed up her hopes for what lies ahead with a football analogy. ‘We’re on the one-yard line, first down. We just have to get it over the goal line,’” she said.

Pope Francis met with the Little Sisters of the Poor while in the U.S. in support of their lawsuit. The year before, the pope granted a private audience to Hobby Lobby’s Green family, asking them “how their Supreme Court fight against President Obama’s contraception mandate was progressing.”

Trump appointed Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. During his time at the U.S. Court of Appeals Tenth Circuit, Gorsuch took a “strong stance” for “religious freedom” in the Little Sisters of the Poor case. He also concurred in the Hobby Lobby case in favor of the Green family.

As of October 2015, over 100 lawsuits had been filed in federal courts at enormous taxpayer expense challenging the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit. The vast majority were brought by Catholic bishops and their affiliated institutions.

Contraception was not a “moral value” worth mentioning for even the Catholic Religious Right until it was needed to obstruct the ACA.

Tom Price, Health and Human Services director, made a statement after Trump issued his executive order: “We will be taking action in short order to follow the president’s instruction to safeguard the deeply held religious beliefs of Americans who provide health insurance to their employees.”

TRUMP’S CAMPAIGN AND ELECTION

Pope Francis’ speeches at the White House  and Independence Hall defended “religious liberty.”

Trump chose Mike Pence as his running mate. As governor, Pence signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2015.

“The phrases ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious freedom’ will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance,” Martin R. Castro, chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, recently stated.

“Religious Liberty” is the American Catholic Church’s most pressing issue. Pope Francis and his bishops want to continue to deny women healthcare, and gay and transgender persons’ human rights, but still receive government funding. The current configuration of their charities, social agencies, hospitals and schools would collapse without it.

According to their latest financial statement, 38% of the total revenue of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) came from government grants and contracts, including their programs for victims of sex-trafficking and immigrants who have been sexually brutalized.

In September 2016, Trump’s campaign announced a new group of high-powered Catholic advisers. Their website listed “ISSUES OF IMPORTANCE TO CATHOLICS.” The first is “Religious Liberty.” Trump promised that “If I am elected president, [t]he Little Sisters of the Poor, or any religious order for that matter, will always have their ‘religious liberty’ protected on my watch and will not have to face bullying from the government because of their religious beliefs.”

On October 6, Trump sent a letter to a Catholic Leadership Conference: “I am, and will remain, pro-life. I will defend your ‘religious liberties‘ and the right to fully and freely practice your religion, as individuals, business owners and academic institutions …. I will protect and work to expand educational choice.”

In the final days of the campaign, Trump gave an interview on the Catholic EWTN, “the largest religious media network in the world.” Trump again sympathized with the Little Sisters of the Poor. “People who are faith-based are not being accepted in our country anymore,” he told his audience. “Religious liberty” was in “tremendous trouble” and that “the biggest issue right now is the Supreme Court judges,” Trump said.

Trump won 52% of the total Catholic vote, 60% of non-Latino white Catholics, while receiving only 46% of the national popular vote. As public opinion seesawed during 2016 campaign, every poll that included the respondent’s religion showed Catholics choosing Trump at percentages higher than the general electorate. (See also herehere and here.)

As expected, Trump carried the South. But he was elected because he won Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin –  all states with large numbers of non-Latino Catholics.

The pope’s right-hand man, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, congratulated Trump. He praised the president-elect: “[T]he future leader has already spoken like a leader.”

Parolin said the first issue on which the Vatican would collaborate with Trump was peace. The second was “the internal [i.e. domestic] issues” of the U.S. Church such as “religious freedom.”

As has been widely reported, earlier Pope Francis had said that someone who would build a wall is not Christian and Trump responded that it was “disgraceful” for the pontiff to question his faith. Both sides walked back their criticism. Trump said that he likes the pope and what he represents – “I don’t think this is a fight.” The official Vatican spokesman said that the pope’s comment was “in no way a personal attack, nor a voting indication.”

Asked about the polemics that arose earlier in the year between Trump and the pope about building a wall, Parolin responded, ‘Let’s see how the president acts ….  It seems premature to make judgments.”

On the day of Trump’s inauguration, Pope Francis was asked about the new president. “I don’t like to get ahead of myself nor judge people prematurely. We will see how he acts, what he does, and then I will have an opinion.”

Pope Francis does have some agreement with Trump on border policy. “Yes, each country has the right to control its borders, who comes and who goes, and those countries at risk – from terrorism or such things –  have even more the right to control them more, but no country has the right to deprive its citizens of the possibility to talk with their neighbors.”

The week before the U.S. elections, Pope Francis said, “The migrant must be treated with certain rules, because to emigrate is a right, but it is a very regulated right.”

“MY CARDINALS”

During the primaries, the USCCB video, “The Right to Religious Freedom,” showed a clip of Hillary Clinton while a voice-over intoned that “the government is stopping us from practicing our faith.”

When Wikileaks released the “hacked Democratic National Committee data from Russian intelligence” on Oct. 11, Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails were included. His correspondence relating to the Catholic Church was seized upon by the U.S. bishops, although it was several years old and had nothing to do with Clinton or any political campaign.

In short, the bishops’ attacks against Clinton and Podesta were hyperbolic, dishonest and highly partisan, including those made by the prelate of Wall Street, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, the elected president of the USCCB.

Congratulating Trump on his victory, Kurtz stated the bishops “look forward to working with the president-elect” on abortion. “We will look for the new administration’s commitment to domestic ‘religious liberty,’ ensuring people of faith remain free to proclaim and shape our lives around the truth about man and woman , and the unique bond of marriage that they can form .”

"We are firm in our resolve that our brothers and sisters who are migrants and refugees can be humanely welcomed without sacrificing our security.,” Kurtz continued.

A week later, the USCCB repeated that their pro-immigration efforts would “honor and respect the laws of this nation," still echoing Pope Francis' position.

While the U.S. episcopate has been very vocal since the election in demanding humane treatment for immigrants, unlike religious leaders of other faiths not one has offered any of his properties be made available as a sanctuary where “cooperation with the national government effort to enforce immigration law” would be limited.

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, elected to replace Kurtz in mid-November, said “he saw opportunities for dealing with a new Trump administration on pro-life issues and 'religious freedom' issues, such as the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act.”

Cardinal Dolan began the inauguration ceremony by offering a prayer for wisdom.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, helped plan the National Prayer Service at Washington National Cathedral. Wuerl led the “Prayer for Our Country” and members of the Little Sisters of the Poor were in the audience.

White House statement on May 4: “President Trump will meet with His Holiness Pope Francis at the Vatican to discuss cooperation between the United States and religious communities."

Trump also referenced the meeting when he announced his executive order on "religious freedom." “My first foreign trip as President of the United States will be to Saudi Arabia, and then Israel, and then to a place that my cardinals love very much — Rome,” Trump said, gesturing as he spoke towards Wuerl and DiNardo who were both present at the event.

Wuerl and DiNardo met with Trump the day before. “We had an opportunity to thank him first of all, for this executive order on 'religious liberty' which is so important,” Wuerl said. Trump “was also very, very, I thought, focused on this trip he’s going to take that will include a visit to the Vatican. So it was a very good meeting.” Wuerl concluded.

Following the ceremony, DiNardo said the executive order “begins the process of alleviating the serious burden of the HHS mandate.” He noted that Church agencies have experienced restriction on "religious freedom" in "adoption, education, health care and other social services.” Dominican Sister Donna Markham, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, also welcomed the order.

FOREIGN AFFAIRS

On May 13, Pope Francis was asked about his upcoming meeting with Trump. He responded: “Always there are doors that are not closed. Look for the doors that are at least a little bit open, enter and talk about common things and go on.”

Pope Francis has called abortion an “abominable crime,” “horrific,” part of a new “throwaway culture” Even to save a mother’s life, abortion is “what the Mafia does - throw someone out in order to save another. It is a crime, an absolute evil,” the pope said.

Cardinal Peter Turkson, appointed by Pope Francis as prefect of his new Dicastery for Integral Human Development, addressed an International Women’s Day seminar in March 2016. He stated that the Holy See rejects abortion and contraception as part of the UN’s “Reproductive Health” goals.

In June 2016, the UN released its document "Political Declaration: On the Fast-Track to Accelerate the Fight Against HIV and to End the AIDS Epidemic by 2030.” Pope Francis’ UN ambassador, Archbishop Bernardino Auza, responded with an objection. “[T]he Holy See reaffirms its well-known position” that neither abortion nor contraception are considered rights by the Catholic Church.

On Jan. 23, Trump reinstated the “Mexico City Policy” repealed by Pres. Obama in 2009. “The policy requires foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to certify that they will not ‘perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning’ using funds from any source (including non-U.S. funds), as a condition for receiving U.S. government global family planning assistance and, as of that date, any other U.S. global health assistance.”

On May 15, Trump extended the ban to other forms of aid like “international health programs, such as those for HIV/AIDS, maternal and child health, malaria, global health security, and family planning and reproductive health.”

Russia

In an article titled “Trump and the Vatican, a relationship to be built,” trusted  Vatican reporter Andrea Tornielli wrote that, in addition to anti-abortion policies, “There could be other possible agreements with the Holy See in the less exclusionary approach with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.”

While investigations continue over the breadth and duration of Trump administration's ties with Russia, Pope Francis positioned himself as Putin’s ally early in his pontificate. Although the massacre of civilians had been ongoing since the day he was elected, only after Pres. Obama proposed a limited air strike to deter the further use of chemical weapons against civilians did the pontiff hold a peace rally for Syria. Putin credited Pope Francis “for stopping the military action” and “with being decisive in halting the momentum with the G8 towards supporting the initiative.”

Papal diplomacy in Syria has helped Russia and Assad” according to Fr. Raymond J. de Souza, Senior Fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto, and a Senior Fellow at Cardus, Canada’s leading Christian think tank.  The pope “advanced a resolution that favored the interests of both Assad and Putin …. Putin certainly regarded [Obama’s failure in Syria] as a major victory. He immediately began to flex Moscow’s muscles in Ukraine, directing his ally there to abandon a proposed agreement with the European Union in favor of an alliance with Russia and Belarus."

Between Pope Francis’ first and second meetings with Putin, “some 1.2 million Ukrainians have been internally displaced according to the United Nations humanitarian office [while] Pope Francis is working to build diplomatic relations with Russia … especially to advance some of the Vatican’s other diplomatic interests.”

A meeting between Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill was held in February 2016. The meeting “could not happen without a green light from Putin … and he may be one the beneficiaries. Putin has aligned himself closely with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), making [the] private meeting politically charged, especially when Russia is at odds with the West over Ukraine and Syria. Putin clearly sees the value of his relationship with the ROC and the ROC’s relationship with the pope.”

The Economist: "Did the pope just kiss Putin’s ring?"

Russia wants its people to believe that Western republics are not as hostile as their leaders. Pope Francis just helped. [The meeting] is a diplomatic victory for Putin [and] helped to underscore Russia’s renewed standing as a global power...

Francis made clear in his interview before the meeting that on certain issues he agrees with Mr. Putin and disagrees with America and its allies...

The joint declaration issued after the meeting hewed close to the Kremlin’s positions on the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine...

The joint declaration deplores “hostility” in Ukraine, but omits any mention of Russia’s role, casting it as an internal struggle...

The joint declaration also included a denouncement of same-sex marriage.

Putin “also takes the position held by Pope Francis that ‘tolerance of gender choice results from a Western imperial ideology.'”

“The Foreign Office of the Moscow Patriarchate held an international seminar at the end of January [2017] during which the Orthodox and Catholic Churches jointly addressed the issue of abortion.” The seminar was “a direct result” of the pope and patriarch meeting.

On April 7, 2017, “Pope Francis called the latest attack by chemical weapons on Syrian civilians ‘unacceptable carnage,’ but was careful to avoid anything that might be read as direct criticism of Assad …. Strikingly, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s top diplomat, took part Wednesday in an EU summit in Brussels on Syria, after reports of the chemical attack had already made the rounds, and never mentioned either the attack or Assad."

During an April 29 press conference, Pope Francis said relations with Patriarch Kirill are good. “Also, Metropolitan Archbishop Hilarion has come many times to speak with me and we have a good relationship….. I know that the State [of Russia] speaks of the defense of Christians in the Middle East. This I know and believe that it is a good thing to fight against persecution.”

When Vice President Pence addressed the World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians on May 12, Cardinal Wuerl, along with the pope’s ambassador to the U.S., Archbishop Christopher Pierre, and Archbishop Hilarion were present. Pence said, “Nowhere is this onslaught against our faith more evident” than in the Middle East.

On April 27, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom issued its annual report listing “countries of particular concern” according to the U.S. State Department. Both Russia and China are among the “Tier 1” offenders.

China

Trump said in regard to Xi Jinping: “I believe he is trying very hard. He certainly doesn’t want to see turmoil and death. He is a very good man and I got to know him very well .... I know he would like to be able to do something, perhaps it's possible that he can’t.”

“After the two had meetings and dinner at Mar-a-Lago, [they] reached no known accommodations on trade or Chinese military expansion in the South China Sea.”

Pope Francis told Xi Jinping, “The world looks to this great wisdom of yours” in a February 2016 interview. The pope also “described the excitement he felt when he was about to enter Chinese airspace on the flight from Seoul to Rome in August 2014.”

During that in-flight press conference, the pope said, “I think of the great Chinese sages, theirs is a history of knowledge, of wisdom” and that he wanted to go to China “Tomorrow! Oh, yes!”

The pope has not been invited to China. He has not met Xi Jinping. He has never mentioned China’s military aggression, “egregious violations” of religious freedom or any other human right for the Chinese.

Pope Francis began negotiating with the Chinese government in June 2014 over the recognition and appointment of bishops. “A deal between the Church and the communist government would be seen by many as a diplomatic coup for Pope Francis, after more than six decades of difficult relations with China. But it is feared such an agreement could carry with it a resolution in China’s favor of the highly controversial issue of selecting bishops.”

The agreement is that the government would create a list of candidates for bishop acceptable to Beijing and the pope would pick one. This control over the Church is not granted to any other civil government in the world.

In another deal, the pope “would recognize eight bishops who have been ordained by the Chinese government without the Vatican's permission …. The pope surely thinks of such a deal as a coup. But, if approved, it would be an unmitigated catastrophe. It would not only be morally indefensible, it would also amount to nothing less than a dynamiting of Chinese Catholicism.”

So far, Beijing has made no concessions and no official agreement has been reached.

FUTURE ALLIANCES

Carefully attuned to the U.S. media which made him a superstar (the Dalai Lama is the most admired religious figure in the rest of the world), the Vatican press office will spin coverage of the meeting in a way most pleasing to Americans.

But make no mistake, the pope is as right-wing as his two predecessors and as relieved as the rest of the Vatican to have a Republican in the Oval Office.

Trump's visit will include a tour of St. Peter's by Parolin -  a personal attention that, as far as I know, has not been given any other head-of-state.

Before the U.S. media noticed that a Pope Santa Clause generates more readers, viewers and clicks – i.e. more advertising revenue – than a Pope Grinch, the first reporting after the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio centered on his good relations with the military junta during the Argentine Dirty War. The Vatican press office responded that the “accusations” came from “left-wing anticlerical elements.”

The Brazilian philosopher and feminist theologian, Ivone Gebara, wrote about Bergoglio’s election:

The Catholic press does not mention his well-known criticism of liberation theology or his disdain for feminist theology….

The See of Peter and the Vatican State are positioning their pieces in the world game of chess in order to empower political projects championed by the North and its allies in the South … part of a global power project in which the forces of order are seen as being threatened by the social and cultural revolutions underway in today’s world….

[Bergoglio] will help balance the forces in the world chess game, which have been displaced a good deal in recent years by left-leaning governments in Latin America and by the struggles of many movements….

To go out into the streets and give food to the poor and pray with prisoners is somewhat humanitarian, but it does not solve the problem of social exclusion that afflicts many of the world’s countries.

Immediately after his election, Pope Francis formed a Council of Cardinals. He named Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga as head of the council, “some might say vice pope.” Rodríguez Maradiaga was “the leader of Opus Dei” in Honduras which “participated actively” in the 2009 military coup against the constitutional and progressive president, Manuel Zelaya. Some members of Opus Dei became government officials after the coup.

Although he has been "a staunch critic of rampant capitalism," Pope Francis appointed a score of vulture capitalists to maintain and prosper his assets. No experts in NGOs or international charities have been invited to help "reform" Vatican finances. No forensic accountants or experts in the prosecution of financial crimes have been asked to help "clean up" the same.

Pope Francis replaced the only Jesuit official in the Vatican, Fr. Federico Lombardi, with Greg Burke as head of his PR office. Burke is a former correspondent for Fox News and a member of Opus Dei.

The only other American laity appointed to the Vatican by Pope Francis are Mary Ann Glendon and Juan Zarate, both former members of the Bush 43 administration. Glendon was awarded an honorary doctorate by Opus Dei’s University of Navarre and was one of Mitt Romney’s advisers.

“Pope Francis referred to detractors of Bishop Juan Barros of the Chilean city of Osorno as ‘lefties,’ according to a video posted on the website of Chilean broadcaster Mega TV yesterday. [The pope’s appointment of Barros] as bishop has been controversial due to his alleged covering up of dozens of sexual abuse cases.”

Pope Francis has not appointed or promoted a single prelate who favors women’s reproductive rights or full human rights for LGBTQ persons.

What Republicans can do for Pope Francis

In the U.S., not only do Republicans support government funding of the Church’s social agencies and schools (the 2018 budget proposal “devotes $250 million to a new private-school choice program”) but they also block “simple legislative change that would identify the hidden predators and provide justice to victims” of child sex abuse.

Additionally, a Republican administration will partner with the Vatican in the global obstruction and suppression of women and LGBTQ human rights most often identified with right-wing movements, parties and governments.

Calista Gingrich is a good choice for a Trump/Pope Francis alliance. Newt Gingrich was an early and constant supporter of Trump. Calista provides the Vatican with direct access to Trump. For Trump, he has trusted eyes and ears in a diplomatic corps described as a “prime listening post” in global affairs.  Newt’s prior marriages were annulled when he became Catholic, so there is no problem in that area.

What Trump can do for Pope Francis

Recall that Parolin said the first issue on which the Vatican would collaborate with Trump was peace. Pope Francis wants the world to see him as a “moral authority” for peace and be more involved in international negotiations. At one time, Parolin reportedly considered creating an “Office for Papal Mediation” for that purpose.

An accord with China would bolster the pope’s diplomatic credentials. Pope Francis and his secretary of state have said that their dialogue with China will bring “a more fraternal world society and with a greater level of social equity,” “is the only way to achieve peace,” can be an “example for the world as a whole, building bridges of fraternity and communion everywhere,” would have “immense benefits for world peace, very, very big benefits,” and that “the blossom [of relations with China] will flourish and bear good fruits for the good of the same China and of all the world.”

Pope Francis even went so far as to admonish other governments that “fear of the rise in China’s economic and geopolitical influence ‘is not a good counselor.’”

Perhaps even the power of the President of the United States won’t sway the independent and confident Xi Jinping to reach a settlement with Pope Francis. But there are, or will be, other areas in which Trump can include, or even just reference the pope, as being involved in some peace initiative.

Betty Clermont is author of The Neo-Catholics: Implementing Christian Nationalism in America (2009) and “Duped by the Media on Pope Francis, Progressives Wonder How Republicans Get Elected” (2014)

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4 Responses

  1. BC underscores the scenario of power embracing power; Francis & Donald using each other for their own ends which too often are common ends. About the only detail BC omitted was the portfolio of Vatican properties worldwide that Francis will hope to sell off to Donald. And, of course, for a papal discount.e
    Our so-called president will boast to beguiling American RCs what a “beautiful” meeting that had. And it will be a beaut!

    • You made me laugh out loud abut the papal properties!! As always, thanks for the astute and perceptive comment.

  2. For several years I have followed the stories of the institutional cover up of the abuse of children, from around the world. This is not a subject people I know want to hear.
    In time you understand that each victim that comes forward is a hero; however, certain names stand out for the courage they show over and over. I feel so sad at the death of Anthony Foster. I just had to say that somewhere.
    I am happy that names I have learned to respect out of that Australia story have written such wonderful and moving pieces about him.

    • Thanks so very much for mentioning the death of Anthony Foster. A most courageous man who is admired and honored by an entire nation. And to all those whose bravery have inspired us.

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