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Pope Francis presents Trump with a ‘politically loaded gift’: His encyclical on climate change

President Trump met with Pope Francis at the Vatican on May 24 for a closed door meeting. (Video: The Washington Post)
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VATICAN CITY — On Wednesday, Pope Francis appeared to make his point with a gift.

During an initially awkward meeting in Vatican City, Francis presented President Trump with a signed copy of “Laudato Si” — the pontiff’s 192-page work calling for a new partnership between science and religion to combat human-driven climate change. In doing so, the pope seemed to make a clear statement to a president who once called climate change a Chinese plot and is on the cusp of deciding whether to honor the Paris agreement on addressing global warming.

In the document, the pope lays out in highly scientific terms the challenges of climate change and pollution, speaking of “synthetic agrotoxins” harming birds and insects and “bioaccumulation” from industrial waste. He calls for an “ecological conversion” of the faithful, while chiding the “denial” of skeptics.

“It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment,” he writes.

The pope’s document — known as a papal encyclical — was part of a package of three of his works presented to Trump. The others: an opus on the family in which the pontiff preaches inclusion and forgiveness, and another on the joy of the gospel.

“Well, I’ll be reading them,” Trump replied.

The moment came during the warmest portion of their encounter, after a dour beginning in which the pope noticeably lacked a smile and after the two men had spoken for nearly half an hour behind closed doors. Their body language seemed more open. Both men offered grins.

Trump meets Pope Francis, his antithesis

The pope also gave Trump another equally telling gift: a large medallion in the shape of an olive tree, a symbol of peace.

“We can use peace,” Trump quipped.

While it is standard procedure for the pope to offer his writings to visiting dignitaries, a senior Vatican official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the issue candidly said the gesture was in no doubt meant as “a message” in Trump’s case. Francis did not refer to the encyclical by its official name, but rather, introduced it by saying it was a work about the “care of our common home, the environment.”

In addition, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, briefing reporters on Air Force One following the meeting, said the Vatican’s Cardinal Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, had encouraged Trump to remain in the Paris agreement. Parolin met with Trump following the president's meeting with the pope.

Activists hailed the Vatican’s efforts to lobby on behalf of the Paris accord.

“Receiving a copy of Laudato Si directly from Pope Francis is an extraordinary gift, and Trump would do well to heed its critically important message on the moral obligation to act on climate as he meets with world leaders in the coming days,”  John Coequyt, director of Global Climate Policy for the Sierra Club, said in a statement.

Observers noted the gift of the encyclical as a standout moment in a much-anticipated meeting between two leaders who last year exchanged barbs over Trump’s call to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico.

Federico Rampini, a columnist for Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper, described the environmental encyclical as a “politically loaded gift.”

“The church most decidedly sided with respecting the Paris agreement on climate change,” Rampini wrote.

It also appeared to put the pope squarely among the ranks of leaders — including European powers and China — seeking to persuade the Trump administration to honor the Paris accord. The administration is expected to make its decision after Trump’s appearance at the Group of Seven summit in Sicily this weekend.

Pope welcomes Trump at the Vatican despite past disagreements

Concern has grown internationally as Trump signed an executive order in March aimed at unraveling President Barack Obama’s plan to curb U.S. carbon emissions. The administration also has announced that it will reconsider stricter fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks and has approved two major oil pipelines, Dakota Access and Keystone XL.

In Francis’s 2015 encyclical, he chastises the world’s leading nations for lacking the will to address man-made climate change. “The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming,” he wrote.

10 key excerpts from Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment

Senior Vatican officials have openly criticized the U.S. stance on climate change. The Rev. Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, last week described Trump’s beliefs as “against science, even before being against what the pope says.”

“In the election campaign, he even said it was a Chinese invention . . . . But this president has already changed on several things, so perhaps on this, as well.”

Sánchez added that he believed Trump would heed Francis’s call.

“They will come to an agreement. Since the president claims to be a Christian, he will listen to him,” Sánchez said.