The White House says it will be seeking a meeting between Donald Trump and Pope Francis after senior Republican figures lobbied for a papal audience to take place when the US President is in Italy next month.
"We will be reaching out to the Vatican to see if an audience with the pope can be accommodated," White House press secretary Sean Spicer said during a press briefing. "We would be honoured to have an audience with his holiness.”
A Holy See spokesman said that the Pope would welcome a meeting with the President and they would work to accommodate it, adding that he did not anticipate any timetable clashes. "As of the end of last week we had not had an official request for an audience but for sure we would welcome it,” Greg Burke told AFP news agency.
The Vatican normally grants all requests from world leaders for papal audiences, although normally notification is given several months in advance. As he is a new incumbent to office, however, the Holy See is likely to do all it can to accommodate Trump, who will be in Sicily for a G7 meeting of world leaders on 26-27 May. Prior to travelling to Italy, Trump is expected to be at a Nato summit in Brussels.
There had been reports that the President would not seek out the Pope during his visit to Italy due to logistical reasons and that no one among his staff was able to sufficiently brief Trump on a papal meeting. But Spicer’s comments mean that a visit is now looking more likely, and diplomatic sources pointed out that an audience makes “domestic political sense” given that Catholics make up the largest faith group in the United States.
It is also understood that Catholic Republican figures have urged the White House to include a visit to the Pope in the president’s Italy schedule. These include Speaker Paul Ryan, Jim Nicholson, former Republican Party Chairman, and Congressman Francis Rooney: both Nicholson and Rooney are former US ambassadors to the Holy See.
Over the last 75 years, US presidents have used trips to Italy to have papal audiences, and both Barack Obama and George W. Bush used G8 gatherings in the country as ways to have their first meetings with pontiffs. A Trump-Francis meeting was first reported in The Tablet in February with a diplomatic source saying that the G7 summit offered the perfect opportunity for an audience.
“If he came to Italy without seeing Francis it would be seen as a snub, particularly given their earlier clashes over migration. Trump also sees that wherever you sit on the political spectrum attacking the papacy isn’t wise.”
The ceremonial grandeur of a papal audience is likely to impress President Trump, particularly if it takes place in the state rooms of the apostolic palace. The real estate magnate, whose apartment in Trump Tower is inspired by the Palace of Versailles, will be shown through a series of rooms with dizzyingly beautiful frescoes.
This ritual will help give some historical perspective to the simmering political tensions between the Pope an the President who have already had a public row over immigration. Last year Francis said the Republican candidate was “not Christian” for planning to build a wall along the US border with Mexico while in a recent interview the Pope warned against populist saviours that can result in Hitler-like dictators.
While the Pope has become a figurehead for a compassionate, person-centred global order standing up for the post-War consensus while Trump is a more unpredictable leader who has struck both a nationalist “America first” tone while recently launching air strikes in Syria. Commentators have, however, pointed out that both the Pope and Trump are populist figures who take their respective - contrasting - messages directly to the people.
The politics of the audience is also likely to be complicated by the Vatican links of Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, the man credited with drafting the president’s controversial immigration travel ban. The founder of the far-right Breitbart News had a “meeting of hearts” with Pope-critic Cardinal Raymond Burke in Rome in 2014, the man who arranged it told The New York Times back in February. Benjamin Harnwell, who runs the Dignitatis Humanae Institute in Rome, also arranged for Mr Bannon to speak at one of his group’s conferences where, via video link, the Trump adviser railed against Islam and secularism, and on another occasion labelled the Pope a “communist/socialist”.
The tensions between the Pope and Trump will need to be addressed by the next US Ambassador to the Holy See although Trump's administration has yet to appoint anyone. The latest name to be put forward is Callista Gingrich, the wife of former speaker, Newt Gingrich.