Popes and Presidents

Next Wednesday will be the 30th time an American President has met with a pope. Inés San Martín, Vatican correspondent for Crux, provides interesting historical background on these meetings.

Ahead of Pope Francis’s May 24 meeting with United States President Donald Trump, it’s worth looking back at previous times popes and presidents have met in person, and what was said about those encounters at the time. (Read the whole article.)

Both the president and the pope have earned their reputation as mavericks, so it is impossible to predict and useless to speculate how this meeting will proceed and what the outcome may be. John Allen,. Jr. gives us his usual insightful commentary on the issues that divide and unite them. It could be a helpful checklist when we’re hearing reports on the meeting and its aftermath:

When Pope Francis and President Donald Trump meet next Wednesday, issues may surface from immigration and climate change to religious freedom and the pro-life agenda. Here’s a scorecard of where the two leaders may clash, where they may find a meeting of minds, and why both may turn out to be surprisingly complicated. (Read the whole article.)

We often let ourselves be short-sighted in looking at current events apart from the perspective of history. Let’s go back to Pio Nono (Pius IX) and the time of the American Civil War, which was also a time of rampant nationalism and revolutions throughout Europe.

The lowest point in the history of relations between the United States and the Vatican was over 150 years ago. The events surrounding the U.S. Civil War and the unification of Italy led to the breaking off of diplomatic relations between the two states, and it wasn’t helped by anti-democratic feelings from the Vatican and anti-Catholic attitudes in America. (Read the whole article.)

One lesson, and perspective point, that we can learn from Ameican history is that the Catholic Church and the U.S. government (and often the “WASP” majority of the population) never got along very well. (“Not getting along well” is a euphemism for what was often overt hatred, oppression, and violence.)

Historian John Higham once referred to anti-Catholicism as “by far the oldest, and the most powerful of anti-foreign traditions” in North American intellectual and cultural history. But Higham’s famous observation actually elided three different types of anti-Catholic nativism that have enjoyed a long and quite vibrant life in North America: a cultural distrust of Catholics, based on an understanding of North American public culture rooted in a profoundly British and Protestant ordering of human society; an intellectual distrust of Catholics, based on a set of epistemological and philosophical ideas first elucidated in the English (Lockean) and Scottish (“Common Sense Realist”) Enlightenments and the British Whig tradition of political thought; and a nativist distrust of Catholics as deviant members of American society, a perception central to the Protestant mainstream’s duty of “boundary maintenance” (to utilize Emile Durkheim’s reading of how “outsiders” help “insiders” maintain social control). (Read the whole article here.)

This may not be the “best of times” but it arguably is not the “worst of times” either, at least as regards religious liberty for Catholics in the United States. Although emphasis on particular issues and opinions may change, it’s difficult to make a case that the Catholic Church as a whole is worse off — or significantly better off — now than in the past, recent or distant.

One interesting, perhaps important, sidelight about the President’s  — or rather, his daughter’s — visit to Rome next week:

While in Rome with her father, Ivanka Trump is scheduled to meet with the Community of Sant’Egidio, one of the “new movements” in the Catholic Church, to discuss efforts to combat human trafficking. As part of that session, Ivanka will meet several female victims of trafficking. It’s an issue on which the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See and Sant’Egidio have long collaborated. (Read the whole article here.)

Another impressive bit of analysis just came in from the intrepid Austin Ivereigh, one of the earliest and most impressive biographers of Jorge Bergoglio/Pope Francis.

Pope Francis wants to be in relationship with world leaders, whomever they are, and whatever their views, so that when the opportunity to work together arises, the bond is there. That doesn’t mean he won’t have an agenda when he meets President Donald Trump on May 24. He is conscious that Trump, by virtue of his office, holds the well-being of millions of people in his hands. (Read the whole article.)

Francis is nobody’s fool, and he’s entering this meeting with eyes open and stark realism born of experience with politicians of every stripe. But he also comes with a heart that is open to building bridges and forging relationships and open communication.

No matter how you or I may personally feel about the President and/or the Holy Father, the most important thing you and I can do is pray. Pray that the Holy Sp[irit may guide them in to seek the common good of humanity, in mutual understanding and endeavors that may bear lasting fruit in these troubled and dangerous times.

P.S. Can you name them all? The featured image is a collage of all the popes of the past 150-or-so years. Very different in appearance and in personality, yet all of them made a positive and significant contribution not only to the Church but to the world. Providence has blessed us with each one of them. 

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Author: tomwelbers

I have been a Catholic priest for nearly fifty years, most of that time serving in parish and college campus ministry. I also have professional degrees in theology and liturgy, as well as institutional management, and continue avidly to explore pastoral theology, Scripture, liturgy, ecumenical and interfaith relations, and spiritual direction. I have a passion for sharing insight into our Christian heritage through teaching, writing, and leading pilgrimages, especially to Early Christian World sites in Turkey. Now actively retired from parish ministry, I live at Nazareth House in Los Angeles.

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