Donald Trump’s administration will be asking the Holy See for a papal audience after high-ranking Catholic Republican figures urged for a meeting with the Pope to take place when the President travels to Italy next month.
White House spokesman, Sean Spicer, said yesterday that they would be “reaching out to the Vatican” to see if a meeting with Francis could be accommodated. President Trump is expected to attend a G7 meeting in Taormina, Sicily from 26-27 May and before that will be in Brussels for a Nato summit.
“We would be honoured to have an audience with his holiness,” Spicer told journalists yesterday.
It is normal for the Vatican to accommodate all requests from world leaders for meetings, although normally they are submitted several months in advance.
Greg Burke, Director of the Holy See press office, said that a meeting between Francis and President Trump would be “welcomed” although a formal request had yet to be made. And the spokesman added that he did not anticipate any timetable clashes.
It has become the norm for US leaders to meet Popes during visits to Italy with both of Trump’s immediate predecessors having their first audiences when in the country for G8 summits: President Barack Obama met Benedict XVI in 2009 while George W. Bush met John Paul II in 2001.
There had been reports that the president would not seek out the Pope during his visit to Italy due to logistical reasons but Spicer’s remarks mean that a visit is now looking more likely. A diplomatic source also pointed out that an audience makes “domestic political sense” given that Catholics make up the largest faith group in the United States.
It is also understood that Catholic Republican figures have urged the White House to include a visit to the Pope in the president’s Italy schedule. These include Speaker Paul Ryan, former Republican Party Chairman Jim Nicholson, and Congressman Francis Rooney: both Nicholson and Rooney are former US ambassadors to the Holy See.
There have been tensions between Francis and Trump with a number of commentators seeing the Pope as an upholder of the compassionate, liberal order, and an opponent to the nationalistic forces that Trump has unleashed.
The pair have already clashed over migration: Francis described the Republican candidate as “not Christian” for his plans to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico while warning against populist saviours that can result in dictators like Hitler.
Nevertheless some have argued that the Pope and Trump are both populist leaders shaking up their respective institutions by taking a message directly to the people.
US Vatican writer John Allen has made the comparison while adding: “it’s the nature of populists to be divisive, because they upset systems and challenge business as usual.”
He points out, however, that while Trump is “a politician and a celebrity” Francis is at heart a pastor who, unlike the president, “rarely personalises his rhetoric.”
The Holy See will, however, be keen to play down the tensions when the two leaders meet. The President, who created a global property empire and designed his home on the Palace of Versailles, is likely to be impressed by the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace. It is here, in the grand state rooms full of beautiful frescoes, that heads of state are welcomed by the Pope.
Differences between Trump and Francis will need to be handled by a new US Ambassador to the Holy See, although the president has yet to appoint anyone to the role. The latest name to be mentioned for the post is Callista Gingrich, the wife of former speaker Newt Gingrich.