Two Presidents and Two Popes…
Reagan and John Paul II vs. Trump and Francis: Two Historic First Meetings
On June 7, 1982, Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II met for the first time at the Vatican. The two were of one mind and one mission.
It had been a little over year since both had been shot and nearly bled to death. Now, they talked alone for about an hour in the Vatican Library. The attempted assassinations were raised right away. Pio Laghi, the pope’s representative to the United States, later said that Reagan told the pontiff: “Look how the evil forces were put in our way and how Providence intervened.”
Bill Clark, Reagan’s closest aide, said that both men referred to the “miraculous” fact they had survived. And now, “because of their mutual interests,” said Clark, they came together to “form some sort of collaboration.”
What kind of collaboration? One that would truly change history.
The Protestant and Catholic, said Clark, shared a “unity” in spiritual views and in their “vision on the Soviet empire.” That day in Rome, said Clark, they discussed their joint sense that they had been given “a spiritual mission — a special role in the divine plan of life,” and agreed that “atheistic communism lived a lie that, when fully understood, must ultimately fail.”
The two leaders, temporal and spiritual, also had mutual ideas on what should be done to end the Cold War. Reagan told the pope that “hope remains,” most notably in the battleground that was Poland. “We, working together,” he told the Polish pontiff, “can keep it alive.”
They sure did. Cardinal Laghi would say of this Reagan-John Paul II meeting: “Nobody believed the collapse of communism would happen this fast or on this timetable. But in their first meeting, Holy Father and president committed themselves and the institutions of the Church and America to such a goal. And from that day, the focus was to bring it about.”
And aside from the singular purpose, the two men held much more in common. Both bravely fought what John Paul II dubbed the “Culture of Death,” affirming what Reagan called “the transcendent right to life of all human beings, the right without which no other rights have any meaning,” and what John Paul II almost identically called “the first of the fundamental rights, the right to life.” Reagan said that “every person is a ressacra, a sacred reality;” John Paul II said that every person is “a unique and unrepeatable gift of God.” They both insisted upon the interdependence of faith and freedom, the principle of subsidiarity, and the need to speak out unequivocally against evil.
All of which brings me to Donald Trump and Pope Francis.
Such crucial and even touching presidential-papal commonalities — which, for Reagan and John Paul II, enabled them to change the world — is lacking in the case of Donald Trump and Pope Francis. The presidential-papal meeting at the Vatican on May 24, 2017 will be utterly unlike the presidential-papal meeting at the Vatican on June 7, 1982.
Think about it. Regardless of their respective strengths and weaknesses, it’s hard to find much shared outlook between the man in the White House today and the man in the Vatican today. Do they possess a mutual understanding of what currently serves as the great international threat or global menace, or how to defeat it? What would President Trump and Pope Francis list as the dominant threats today? Radical Islam? Trump might, but not in the way — or certainly not with the preferred response — that Francis would.
Do their top priorities intersect anywhere? Immigration? Certainly not. “Climate change?” No way. Economic “inequality?” Nope.
Now, that said, this meeting could surprise people, and disappoint those looking for fireworks. Sure, the optics will be intriguing; mere photos of these two men together will seize interest. But as for pundits hoping for a fight, I think they’ll be disappointed.
After all, personality-wise, maybe the two men aren’t terribly dissimilar. Both of these strong personalities are colorful, outspoken, and infamous for off-the-cuff comments. Neither is afraid to speak his mind, or stick his foot in his mouth. Pope Francis on an airplane with an open mic and group of reporters can be as freewheeling as Donald Trump with his Twitter account unmonitored by Kellyanne Conway, leaving lots of clean-up for his spokespeople to handle. The two men both operate with a folksy candor sometimes endearing and sometimes maddening. They might get along better than people expect.
I don’t expect a verbal sparring match over “building walls.” Francis is too winsome to provoke a contentious disagreement. He’s a pope of mercy who preaches forgiveness and decries malevolence. I expect him to treat Trump well. And when Trump is treated well, he usually responds in kind.
Surely, Francis should be pleased and heartened that Trump — for his first presidential trip abroad — chose to go to the Vatican. That’s a significant gesture.
As for Trump, the brash New York swagger might be tempered by the sheer majesty of the St. Peter’s environs. As one pundit told me, “trips to the Vatican” change people. They do. So do meetings with the pope. They tend to affect people.
But again, unlike Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, I don’t perceive a grand historical-spiritual vision among Donald Trump and Pope Francis. I have no lofty historic hopes for this relationship. However, if a lesson can be learned from Reagan-John Paul II, it’s this: When a president and a pope come together with some significant goal in mind, really important things can happen. Good things can result. That’s something for this president and his staff to think about very prudently.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. His latest book is A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century.