The pope steps up

This story appears in the Trump Abroad feature series. View the full series.

by Ken Briggs

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The pope didn't flinch. He maintained a somber composure that was cordial but void of phony mutual admiration characteristic of diplomatic occasions.

Unlike other leaders who have greeted President Donald Trump, the pope wanted no deals and hankered for no mutual admiration spotlight. He welcomed the president graciously as a voice of conscience who offered him not flattery or honors, but a contrary message of the spirit. It wasn't a judgment but a call to conversion. Nothing like it on Trump's whirlwind trip would so challenge Trump or refrain so totally from playing to his worst instincts.

Pope Francis placed an alternative reality in Trump's path. One in which the earth was destroying itself, the engines of greed were crushing billions underneath them, strangers were denied sanctuary and survival. The pope met the moment with dignity, courage and aplomb. I say that as one who has been critical of Francis for refraining from putting his powerful prophetic words into action. He has revived the cause of poverty, underscored the painful excesses of capitalism and grandly woven the calamities of climate change into the fabric of faith.

Rightly or wrongly, I haven't seen these ethical appeals carried out in the church. So far as I know, major Catholic resources have not been recently deployed in an anti-poverty movement, bishops haven't been encouraged to implement economic reforms such as explored in pastoral letters such as "Freedom and Justice for All," and, in the U.S. at least, action on climate change has been non-existent within parishes.

My reservations are on hold in light of the pope's "Martin Lutherizing" of Trump. He became an exemplary, fearless, evangelist under enormous pressures to play nice. The pope was nice but he wasn't disingenuous. He enacted what we casually refer to as "speaking truth to power." He gave him a copy of Laudato Si', his opus on the connection between environmentalism and everything else, and seemed to pay no attention to Trump's ritual attempts at buffoonery. It's too bad the Vatican doesn't have an "action adventure" video version of the encyclical; the president might actually be exposed to it that way. But you can't please a guest's every quirk.

Wouldn't it have been nice if something similar had been done to Vice President Mike Pence when he was honored at Notre Dame last weekend? Suppose the top clerics there had a session with Pence to urge upon him tenets of Catholic Social Teaching that carry with them the most profound Christian witness. Those tenets that oppose key political objectives of Republicans that Pence, as Trump's mouthpiece, has championed. Deprivation of health care. Slashing social services. And so on.

But Pence was free to give his spiel without any such challenge. Tradition was served and Catholic conscience was quiet. The pope's allies there, I'd suspect, were those brave students who walked out during Pence's speech.

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