People remember that Pope Francis commented on the American election earlier in the year saying, in direct response to a question about Trump, that people who thought as he did on immigration policy were “not Christian”. So it likely follows that Francis, who, until recently (see last week’s column), had put open immigration at the centre of his agenda, is dismayed that Trump will be president.
More generally, there is much evidence that the Holy Father has leftist political views. On his flight to the United States last year he acknowledged as much with uncharacteristic understatement: “Maybe I have given an impression of being a little bit to the left.” Thus the rise of a candidate from, in certain respects, the far-right of American politics would no doubt alarm him.
On specific issues, there are sharp contrasts to be sure. Trump is generally opposed to the environmentalism of the Holy Father. Aside from immigration in general, refugee policy is another disagreement, with Trump willing to accept very few refugees. And it cannot be overlooked that Francis’ frequent invocations against the “idolatry of money” would appear to be aimed at precisely the business philosophy and cultural symbol that Donald Trump embodies. So one expects that there is a certain Vatican distress that the “Francis effect” seemed not to have much purchase in the recent American election.
On the other hand, on two broad themes Trump and the Holy Father have much in common.
“By reaching people who usually tune out churchmen and politicians, they have become leading populists in our increasingly populist moment,” wrote Ross Douthat of the New York Times earlier this year, one of America’s finest Catholic analysts. “The popular constituencies they speak for are very different, of course. Trump is a nationalist, speaking on behalf of the unhappy Western working class, while Francis is a Latin American and a globalist, speaking for the developing world’s poor — which is why immigration policy naturally puts them at loggerheads.
“But they nonetheless share a common enemy . . . the wider Western ruling class. Whether it’s the Donald attacking ‘the very, very stupid people’ making policy in the United States, or Francis deploring the greed and self-interest of rich nations and wealthy corporations, the Pope and the mogul are now leading critics of the neoliberalism that has governed the West for a generation or more.”
To take one specific example, Trump’s opposition to trade deals to export American goods but import unemployment would find some support in Francis’ criticism of economic policies that maximize economic growth but ignore the human costs.
The other broad issue of agreement would be religious liberty. When Pope Francis visited the United States he made an unscheduled stop to the Little Sisters of the Poor, then locked in a court battle with the Obama administration, which was forcing them to provide contraceptives and abortifacient drugs through their employee health plan.
The Supreme Court eventually told the government to find another way to pursue its goals which didn’t force the Little Sisters and other religious entities to violate their religious beliefs. The fact that the Obama administration refused, until forced, to acknowledge the religious liberty of the Little Sisters remains an ominous sign. Pope Francis’ visit was a clear sign of solidarity with the Little Sisters.
Trump was very specific on that issue, writing to Catholic leaders in early October to make the point.
“On life, I am, and will remain, pro-life,” Trump wrote. “I will defend your religious liberties and the right to fully and freely practise your religion, as individuals, business owners and academic institutions. I will make absolutely certain religious orders like The Little Sisters of Poor are not bullied by the federal government because of their religious beliefs. I will protect and work to expand educational choice (and) the rights of homeschooling families.”
There is certainly reason to wait-and-see whether Trump will follow through on what he promised, given the unpredictable, even erratic, nature of his campaign. On religious liberty though, he took a strong and consistent stand throughout. I would not be surprised if a few of the Little Sisters voted for him to end their persecution by the Obama administration, even though it would be hard to imagine a greater contrast between the Little Sisters’ poverty, chastity, obedience and closeness to the poor with Trump’s vulgar wealth, lechery, flaunting of power and his promotion of the cult of celebrity.
So it may be that the Holy Father and Trump get along better than would be expected.
(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine: www.conviviummagazine.ca.)