In our more global and secular context, it’s arguably the principal figure in the White House — not the Holy See — who commands such consequential power on earth. And in the age of President Trump, there are plenty of candidates for a putative anti-POTUS: Consider liberal leaders like the German chancellor or New Zealand’s charismatic prime minister, let alone geopolitical adversaries like the Chinese president.
But what about the pope himself? Over the course of Trump’s tenure in office, few people have cut a more contrasting figure than Pope Francis, the former Buenos Aires bishop with a Jesuit dedication for social justice and the rights of the poor and marginalized. The two have already squabbled: In 2016, Francis suggested Trump was “not Christian” because of his anti-migrant rhetoric and desire to build walls between nations. Trump reacted angrily at the time, calling the comments “disgraceful” and warning darkly that when Islamist terrorists strike the Vatican, the pope would regret not supporting a Trump presidency.
The following year, Francis questioned how Trump could be “pro-life” while pursuing policies that broke up the families of immigrants and asylum seekers. In their sole meeting, in 2017, he presented Trump a copy of his treatise on protecting the environment and reckoning with climate change, but that hardly dissuaded the president from withdrawing from the Paris climate accord and undermining international efforts to curb emissions.
Their differences abound. The pope participated in a ceremony where he washed the feet of Muslim asylum seekers; Trump scaremongers over the threat of Islam and has blocked immigration from a number of Muslim-majority countries. The pope recently published an encyclical where he warned against “extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism”; Trump’s brand of nationalist politics can indeed be seen as extremist, often aggressive and steeped in resentment. The pope has likened contemporary capitalism to “the worship of the ancient golden calf … returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money”; Trump, with his gilded mansions and debt-ridden business empire, is an acolyte of that cult.
Francis is back in the news this week with dramatic revelations that he appears to back civil unions for homosexuals. “Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God,” Francis said in a new documentary. “You can’t kick someone out of a family, nor make their life miserable for this. What we have to have is a civil union law; that way they are legally covered.”
There are questions about the newness of the footage, which my colleagues reported may actually stem from an earlier 2019 interview with a Mexican broadcaster. Vatican watchers also note that Francis’s position on civil unions is not particularly new or that radical. Francis is hardly supporting same-sex marriage, and he presides more broadly over a church still saddled with the burdens of the past, including myriad allegations of sexual abuse and coverups that go all the way to the top of the papacy.
But his statement on civil unions underscores the general inclusivity of his worldview, which has earned him a set of hard-line opponents within the Catholic Church.
Former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon attempted to court some of them in recent years during his adventures in Europe. In a 2019 interview, Bannon declared the pope to be “dead wrong” and reportedly also advised far-right politicians in Italy to view Francis as “the enemy.”
Trump, meanwhile, has allied himself with a camp that’s also ill-disposed to the pope. “The president has aligned his reelection campaign with a proudly revanchist corner of the Church, one unfamiliar to many American Catholics, even those adamantly opposed to abortion,” Tish Durkin wrote in the Atlantic this week. “This faction’s positions on women, gay people, Muslims, immigration, socialism, and climate change are much closer to those of pro-Trump white evangelicals than to those of liberal Catholics, whom they consider not to be Catholics at all.”
“Some of the Pope’s most sulphurous critics, such as Carlo Maria Viganò, former Vatican envoy to Washington, who launched an extraordinary attack on Francis in 2018, have come out for Trump, who has tweeted approvingly of the controversial Italian archbishop’s conspiracy theories about a ‘deep church’ peopled by the ‘children of darkness,’ ” David Gardner wrote in the Financial Times.
The pope’s views, Gardner added, fit far more easily with the Catholicism of Trump’s challenger, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. That’s not surprising. Carolyn Woo, former president of Catholic Relief Services and a co-chair of Catholics for Biden, told the Associated Press that the pope’s unconditional prioritizing of the “dignity of people” echoes the center-left politics preached by Democrats.
“Overall the Democratic platform is: We’ve got to help people where they are at. We’ve got to protect their rights, we’ve got to help them flourish,” she said.