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Can God save Donald Trump?Who knows, but Pope Francis actually has a better shot than anyone else.Early in his pontificate, Pope John Paul II met with Kurt Waldheim, the Austrian prime minister with a Nazi past; a few years later, he welcomed the Harlem Globetrotters to the Vatican and was named an “honorary Globetrotter.” Donald Trump’s state visit to Pope Francis on Wednesday falls somewhere between those two encounters—between the unnerving and the tacky, between the unseemly and the unlikely.Whatever else it does, the visit upends the conventional wisdom about the discerning power of democracy and the nature of so-called “populism.” How strange is this: a group of 115 unelected celibate men of advanced age, bound to secrecy, choosing from amongst themselves and casting paper ballots in the Sistine Chapel, elects a relatively unknown man who turns out to possess abundant virtue and wisdom, and who is also clearly a man of the people; whereas an American voting public of 126 million men and women, working from the copious information produced by a robust free press and an endless run of presidential debates, has its votes channeled through arcane electoral math and bestowed on a self-serving huckster who has a poor grasp of notions like “public service” and “the common good,” and whose idea of “the people” is “my people.” It’s enough to make you want to swap the Electoral College for the College of Cardinals.On Wednesday, the most credible world leader of our time will meet the least credible; a person who shows the dynamism of character will meet a person who demonstrates the limits of character. If Donald Trump’s presidency has clarified anything, it is the perdurance of character—and the improbability of people, especially wealthy and powerful people in their 70s, to change dramatically. A person rich in character can deepen and ripen, increase and multiply. Such a person is in St. Peter’s chair now. A person of poor character is reduced, even impoverished, by circumstances, until he is morally bankrupt. Such a person is in the White House now. Truly, Donald Trump is a walking, talking, tweeting demonstration of St. Augustine’s proposition that there is a stone so heavy that even God cannot lift it—and that this stone is the human heart, weighed down with selfishness, pettiness, greed, envy, and all the other sins.Only fools and moderate Republicans ever believed that Trump would undergo a conversion to statesmanship in the White House. It wasn’t going to happen. No, Trump puts in mind the amoral, bounding industrialist Rex Mottram in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, a wealthy, showy man of “invincible ignorance,” as the Catholic tradition used to call it—a person who, a priest in the novel dryly reports, “doesn’t correspond to any degree of paganism known to the missionaries.”It is hard to imagine Trump receiving words of spiritual insight from Pope Francis: has a seed ever been sown on stonier ground? And it is hard to imagine this pope flattering this president: leave that to the petroleum potentates of Saudi Arabia. What good, then—if any—can come of this meeting?Donald Trump vs. Political CorrectnessIf any piece of Francis’s wisdom could get through to Trump—and stabilize his silly presidency, more Gong Show than reality TV—it might be the rubric for discernment that Francis has followed since his days as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Jesuit provincial (superior) and archbishop of Buenos Aires. Here it is, cited time and again in the accounts of his life: “Time is greater than space; unity prevails over conflict; reality is more important than ideals; the whole is greater than the part.”That’s it, the whole thing: concise, clear, and simple enough to fit onto the one-page briefs required by a president whose attention span is as short as his fingers. Each part of the rubric, applied to Trump’s presidency, can offer some of the clarity that he and we sorely need just now. Let’s take each in turn.Time is greater than space. As Francis’s biographer Paul Vallely summarizes it, “We live in tension between the present and what is to come, between trying to possess the space around us and trying to initiate processes that will bear fruit in an uncertain future.” What does this mean for the presidency? The appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel is likely to slow the brakeless roller-coaster of the Trump administration. While Mueller’s team does its work, the rest of us can work to undo some of the changes that Trump has jammed through in between controversies—namely the rollbacks of regulations pertaining to the environment, climate, oil drilling, and natural resources. In matters of climate, especially, “time is greater than space,” but if we don’t act quickly the human race will have to live, for many centuries to come, in our limited space—a planet that is barely habitable.Unity prevails over conflict. Polls and approval ratings suggest that right now there is considerable unity around the idea that Donald Trump is faltering as president. Alas, the president himself is the person least likely to recognize this truth; but a man used to getting his way, accustomed to gaining the appearance of unity by purchasing subservience and demonizing resistance, will tire of pushing against super-majorities. And the reason for this is bound up with part three of the rubric.Reality is more important than ideas. This maxim is sometimes translated as “Reality over the ideal.” Put that way, its pertinence to this presidency is all the more clear. Donald Trump has no ideals, and his only strongly held idea is that he is better at everything than everybody else—or could be if only everyone else would let him be. Because Trump is “a supremely talented demagogue” (as Andrew Sullivan has put it) rather than an ideologue, it’s likely that the vigorous application of reality stands a chance of overcoming him. In many respects, reality is already overcoming him—for example, through the events following his firing of F.B.I. Director James Comey and the huge body of reportage (much of it sourced to people in “his” government) that delineated his motives for the firing, forcing “his” administration to recalibrate its ideas to reality every few hours. It is now clear to everyone but Trump himself that even a president with both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court going his way can’t do away with the reality of governing—or with the ideas and ideals in which the thousands of career civil servants in the federal government have rooted their own careers.The whole is greater than the part. Four months into his presidency, Trump seems not to understand the truths that the president works for us and not the other way around, and that the president is not the C.E.O. of America, Inc. but the head of one branch of the United States government. It is hard for people in positions of great power to recognize that they are only one part of a whole, but some do.One example will be near at hand during Trump’s state visit to the Vatican: in fact, it will be right up the hill from the Vatican Palace, in the monastery behind St. Peter’s Basilica. Four and a half years ago, the world’s last absolute monarch—Pope Benedict XVI—recognized that the whole of the Catholic Church was greater than the part that was his embattled pontificate. Elected for life, he was beholden to nothing and no one under God. And yet he resigned, the first pope to do so in nearly 600 years, stepping out of his part for the sake of the whole. (Alas, some individuals in his immediate circle can't seem to accept this fact.) God willing, something of this will get through in Rome, and Donald Trump will go and do likewise.
Pope Francis is pretty clear about where he stands on immigration. Welcoming refugees and migrant workers is a “moral imperative,” he said last February. You can’t call yourself a Catholic and be anti-refugee at the same time, he said last October. To the pontiff, keeping borders open to those fleeing wars and poverty is a duty stemming from the Christian virtue of “caritas,” compassion toward fellow humans.As populism shapes the global immigration debate, Pope Francis has so oftenspoken out in support of migrants and urged Europe’s parishes to take in refugees that some say the Catholic Church has, under his leadership, emerged as one of “the most influential opponents of immigration crackdowns backed by right-wing populists in the United States and Europe.” The pontiff has even called populism “evil.”Right-wing populists seem, at times, no fonder of Pope Francis than he is of them. President Trump, who will visit the pope at the Vatican on Wednesday, is arguably one such populist. After the pontiff suggested last year that Trump was “not a Christian” because of his plan for a Mexican border wall, Trump called him “disgraceful.”What Is a Populist?Despite the pope’s stances, some Catholics have been embracing right-wing populism. In Italy, the mainstream Catholic press—especially the prestigious newspaper Avvenire and the widely popular magazine Famiglia Cristiana—has remained skeptical of Trump, and has so far been relatively subdued about the upcoming visit. But Tempi, the magazine of choice for conservative Catholics, toward which some populists also gravitate, has praised the U.S. president and even features a satirical column mocking those who criticize him; dubbed “Trump che rovina cose,” or “Trump spoiling things,” it includes jokes such as “It’s raining, because of Trump” or “Trump scares children.”Ultra-conservative Catholic bloggers have gone further: Mario Adinolfi said he had “a very high opinion” of Trump, while Costanza Miriano defended Trump against the accusation of misogyny. Paired with their open nostalgia for Benedict XVI, the more conservative pope who resigned in 2013, one may well wonder whether these Catholics like Trump more than they like their current pope.Analysts have been pointing out the emergence of a so-called “Catholic populism” for years. It’s not just that some Catholics are embracing the populists’ anti-immigrant stances, but also that some of them are beginning to feel that the Church’s leadership is out of touch with them on this and other issues. (The perception that leaders are out of touch with common people is, arguably, the main ingredient of populism.) Some may also feel, as John Allen has suggested, that the leadership is bound by political correctness, “so other Catholics have to say and do the things that bishops, for political or bureaucratic reasons, can’t or won’t.”Catholics in the U.S. were supportive of Trump, who eschews political correctness, during the presidential elections: As much as 52 percent of Catholics and 60 percent of white Catholics opted for the Republican candidate over Hillary Clinton. In France’s elections, the far-right National Front party performed well in the first round of voting, in part by presenting itself as a defender of the country’s Catholic identity, even as it accused the Vatican of trying to interfere with its immigration policy.In Italy, where as much as 71 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, this phenomenon is even more blatant. All the country’s major populist forces have tried to court the Catholic vote at some point. Beppe Grillo, the leader of the Five Star Movement, an anti-establishment party that is left-leaning on economics but right-wing on immigration, recently praised the pope in an interview and participated in a pilgrimage to Assisi, the birthplace of Saint Francis. The anti-immigration Northern League has rallied around Catholic traditions—by, for instance, defending the practice of setting Nativity scenes in public schools—but it has also criticized the pontiff for siding with asylum seekers.Meanwhile, some hardcore Catholic groups operating at the fringes of the political spectrum, such as “Forza Nuova” and “Militia Christi,” try to reconcile far-right xenophobia with their faith.Matteo Cavallaro, a political scientist at the University Paris 13, argues that there are two separate strands here worth picking apart. “On one hand, anti-immigrant movements are trying to exploit Catholic themes to appeal to voters. On the other hand, there are conservatives inside the Church who are feeling at odds with the pope’s friendliness toward immigrants, and especially Muslim immigrants,” he said.“Many feel strongly about their Catholic identity but don’t feel obliged to listen to everything the pope says, especially if it doesn’t suit them.”The major difference between these two groups, according to Cavallaro, is that secular populists can afford to “be either pro-pope or anti-pope, depending on what suits them at the moment,” while conservative Catholics who oppose immigration are struggling to reconcile their political views with their faith. As an example, he pointed to “Comunione e Liberazione” (or CL, Communion and Liberation), Italy’s largest conservative Catholic movement.After having sided for decades with former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s brand of right-wing populism, CL is currently torn on immigration: The movement’s new leader, Giorgio Vittadini, has embraced Pope Francis’s stances, while part of its base has remained faithful to the movement’s right-wing tradition.The extent to which right-wing populism can gain a foothold with a religious group whose leader openly preaches against populism may all come down to what we mean by “Catholics.”“Practicing Catholics can hardly embrace xenophobia, and Catholics in name only don’t care about religious issues at all,” said Jacopo Tondelli, a political analyst who edits the popular blog Stati Generali. “In between, there’s a large group of people who feel strongly about their Catholic identity but don’t feel obliged to listen to everything that the pope says, especially if it doesn’t suit them. You know, people who fight to keep the crucifix in every classroom, but don’t attend Mass.” It’s among these Catholics that anti-immigrant sentiment can spread, Tondelli argues.Although it may seem paradoxical for Catholics to oppose immigration even as their pope embraces it, those who run in conservative Catholic circles claim this is only an apparent contradiction. Their publications reflect this view: Tempi, for instance, has both campaigned against open borders and praised Pope Francis.What’s happening, Tempi’s chief editor Alessandro Giuli told me, is that politically conservative Catholics are separating abstract values from what they believe is actually feasible: “When he preaches about welcoming migrants, the pope is doing his job. He is spreading the Catholic doctrine, which implies the indiscriminate acceptance [of foreigners].”Even for practicing Catholics, however, real-world policies are a different matter: “Policies are based on what is sustainable, not just on ideals, and many Catholics are realizing that with fewer jobs around, it’s harder to integrate new immigrants,” Giuli said.Both in Italy and in the U.S., Trump’s popularity among conservative Catholics, a group whose values he does not seem to share, isn’t so bizarre if one thinks of the precedents. In Italy, some Catholics supported Berlusconi for decades despite his sex scandals, because of his conservative-oriented family policies. Similarly, in the U.S., Trump, a twice-divorced unapologetic womanizer, was able to win the evangelical vote partly because of his efforts to curb access to abortion and family planning. Although some saw evangelicals’ support for Trump as being in contradiction with their stated religious values, evangelicals themselves seemed willing to turn a blind eye to his poor personal record on “family values” out of a pragmatic regard for the policies he’d enact as president. As one religious Trump supporter famously said on CNN, “God could use Trump like he used harlots in the Bible.”Most importantly, as Sarah Posner has noted in the New Republic, right-wing American Christians view Trump as a protector of their traditional way of life. Similarly, Italian Catholic populists are nostalgic for a time when Europe had a strong Christian identity that served as an unquestioned moral compass—a time when borders were clear and indisputable, when women used to be women and men used to be men. They see Trump as a defender of a cherished order, which they believe is threatened by immigration and changing gender roles.Given these premises, it is perhaps not so surprising that they see Trump as a torchbearer for their cause—and may see themselves reflected more in the American president than in their own pope.
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