After meeting with Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia and visiting Judaism’s holiest prayer site in Jerusalem, President Donald Trump finally met Pope Francis. It was expected to be, as described by a papal associate, “a meeting without walls.”
But as cameras clicked away, Pope Francis’ dour face in the presence of President Trump said it all: sinner. Not a good Christian. Builder of walls, not bridges. I don’t approve of you.
The only light moment came when the pontiff shook Melania Trump’s hand and asked in Spanish through a translator if she was feeding the president potica, a hearty Slovenian strudel. She smiled, enthusiastically answering, “Yes!” It’s awkward, by American standards, to hear a pope fat-shaming a president, but such banter isn’t taken seriously in the Latin American world from which Francis hails and the Italian culture he’s made his own. And Francis doesn’t exactly look like he holds the moral high ground on the issue of weight.
It was a joke — and it was all the public warmth the pope offered the Trumps.
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Francis couldn’t hide his contempt for the man who launched his campaign calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, a president who has made deporting undocumented immigrants, including non-criminal mothers and fathers of U.S.-born children, a top priority of his administration.
President Trump got what he deserved: the cold shoulder and a copy of the papal encyclical document on the environment, Laudato Si (Praise Be to You), which says man is responsible for the state of the earth. Quite the gift for the man who called climate change “a Chinese hoax” and wants to gut the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy.
Some of us, Americans who’ve been critical of Trump’s scandal-ridden leadership, especially reveled in the moment when the pope, known for his charismatic demeanor, stood for protocol pictures with Trump and his black-dressed, black-veiled family and made his displeasure known to the world with stoic facial features.
But, after the moment of guilty pleasure, all I could think about was this: If only Pope Francis had treated dictators Raúl and Fidel Castro with the same disdain in Cuba.
If only Pope Francis had gifted President Nicolás Maduro an annotated copy of the Venezuelan constitution, and pressured him to restore democracy and end the killing and violence against protesters.
I like Pope Francis, but when it comes to strongmen, he plays the hypocrite card.
No matter how much I dislike President Trump, no matter how inept, ruthless and scandal-ridden his administration, he was democratically elected. The Pope ridicules Trump, but he paid a friendly visit to the aging Fidel Castro, a dictator who left this world with blood on his hands. In pictures that Castro’s son Alex took of their meeting and circulated for the world to see the respect with which Francis treated his father, the two are seen amiably talking, holding hands at one point as Francis appears to be in prayer.
Likewise, Raúl Castro got a smiling handshake from Francis — and no dour face as Raúl shadowed the pope throughout his visit to the island in 2015.
While others in Miami harshly criticized Francis for his failure to meet with dissidents and his friendly demeanor toward the Castro brothers, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I felt he gifted the Cuban people, for decades exposed to the Castro’s militancy, a kinder vocabulary of inclusion and guidance. He gave young people a platform to speak of their dreams for a better future, and from the moment he set foot in Cuba, Pope Francis was inclusive of the diaspora in his homilies.
I dismissed his smiling face and handshakes with the elderly comandantes as par for the course of official visits, especially when a head of state like the pope is hoping to broker peace and change.
But, after his obvious contempt for Trump, I’m not sure what to think.
Here’s why: In another three-plus years — or, given his legal troubles and the Russia connection, maybe earlier in this nation of laws and due process — the people of the United States get to boot Trump out of office. Whether by impeachment or by vote, by 2020 we should be rid of Trump.
We don’t need Pope Francis to negotiate our democracy.
But the Cuban and Venezuelan people desperately need his moral authority. It’s been 58 years, and Cubans have yet to vote on the rule of the Castro brothers, and Raúl Castro has continued to crack down without mercy on any dissent. Pope Francis’ warmth toward the Castros, seen under the light of the Trump scorn, sends a message to the world that their rule is acceptable.
Faith, like trust, is an easy thing to lose.