Spin machines whir as presidents meet Pope Francis

Photo opportunities with pontiff do not equate to sharing his moral vision

Being the pope should probably involve training in tightrope walking. There is a constant need to reach out and conduct dialogues with powerful but not necessarily good people, all the while trying to avoid giving them legitimacy via photo opportunities.

And why are those photo opportunities so sought after? Stalin dismissively inquired how many battalions the pope has. None, because what the pope has is something far greater: moral authority. And no matter how powerful you are, moral authority is an impossible quality to manufacture.

Standing beside the man in the white cassock is often an attempt to share in the reflected light.

Many commentators wondered whether last week's meeting between US president Donald Trump and Pope Francis would ever happen, given how frequently their values have clashed.


Interestingly, Melania Trump is Catholic and asked the pope to bless a rosary for her. However, on the vanishingly rare occasions that the Trumps attend a religious service, they choose the Episcopalian Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach. (Episcopalians are members of the Anglican communion.)

Could the pope and the US president be further apart in their view of what constitutes the good life? One worships economic riches, the other says the poor have first claim on the Earth’s resources.

One believes grabbing women’s private parts is fine if you are rich and powerful: the other says that sexual love in the context of marriage is a powerful reflection of the love of God.


The other president the pope met in recent times was President Michael D Higgins. The President is very comfortable with the notion of spirituality. In the report on his ethics initiative, it is stated that "we might identify a decline not so much of the importance of religion per se in people's lives, but rather the decline of the importance of one particular faith, and the emergence of many different faiths and expressions of spiritualities".

The President focuses on ethics and spirituality influenced by left-wing views. In contrast, although Presbyterian by upbringing, Trump is as crass about spirituality as he is about everything else.

When asked about whether he felt the need for forgiveness, Trump looked bemused and then talked in terms of drinking his “little wine” and eating “his little cracker” at communion services.

Although the American mainline Protestant view of communion is different from the Catholic understanding, one cannot image his response going down well with either community.

Trump did a whirlwind tour of the birthplaces of the three monotheistic religions in recent days, as well as his trip to Rome, but seems little moved by the experience.

President Trump is a living parody of the excesses of capitalism. President Higgins is a man of the left, but sometimes lets his ideology blind him. He thinks that Fidel Castro is "a giant among global leaders whose view was not only one of freedom for his people but for all of the oppressed and excluded peoples on the planet".

The people who were gay, and the dissidents incarcerated and tortured by Castro might beg to differ. However, presumably the President would have been much more delighted by the elevation of auxiliary bishop Gregorio Rosa Chávez to cardinal in El Salvador this week than Donald Trump would be.


Chávez was close to Archbishop Óscar Romero, the mild, traditional prelate who was assassinated by a right-wing death squad while saying mass in 1980.

He was shot because he continually denounced torture, assassinations and exploitation of the poor by the Salvadoran military regime, which was backed by millions in US military and economic aid.

When the President visited the pope, he brought a bell made by artist Vivienne Roche, to symbolise urgency on the issue of climate change.

It was a thoughtful gift, as was Trump's gift of the writings of Martin Luther King, who, like Romero, espoused non-violent love as a response to oppression.

Pope Francis quotes King extensively in his exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia. (This latter document is key to the preparation for the World Meeting of Families in Ireland in 2018, which most believe the pope will attend.)

While Trump and the President have little in common, they both have, like many who choose to be photographed with the pope, an ability to ignore parts of his message when it suits them.

The press release from the Vatican after the President's visit spoke of focusing on "the protection of the rights of humanity and its dignity in every stage and condition of life, the issue of migration and the welcome of refugees, safeguarding the environment, and sustainable development".

In his complimentary comments on the pope, the President notably omitted the “every stage of life” discussion.

In fairness, all the White House press release was willing to admit was that the pope and Trump had discussed fundamental human rights, religious freedom, relief from human suffering and famine. No mention of climate change.

It is part of the pope’s tightrope walk that, while happy to stand for a while in his reflected light, very few are willing to take seriously the profoundly interconnected nature of his moral vision.