Washington Post, May 21, 2017
If anyone ever needed a conversion experience — and fast — it is President Trump. The issue here is not switching religions. What he could use is an honest examination of his conscience, his attitude toward himself and others, and his approach to what it means to be a leader.
Even to suggest such a possibility seems absurd, more an inspiration for a “Saturday Night Live” sketch than a serious prospect. Moving an incorrigible narcissist toward self-criticism is as likely as changing the course of a river or the trajectory of the Earth’s rotation around the sun.
But some people believe in miracles. One of them is Pope Francis, with whom Trump will be meeting on Wednesday. Might this compassionate Jesuit who preaches a God of mercy and the power of humility abandon his diplomatic role to engage in a pastoral intervention with a man whose soul (like all of our souls) could use some saving?
We’re unlikely to know if the pope even tries. Communiques on papal meetings with heads of state are usually opaque. At worst, the encounter may be blandly described as “a full and frank exchange.” The Vatican knows that a lot of American Catholics voted for Trump, and the Catholic Church hasn’t survived all these centuries by ignoring realpolitik.
Those of us who are critics of the president are hoping for something more: a stern talking-to from a religious leader who stands passionately on the opposite side of Trump on so many questions.
Francis, after all, has explicitly condemned “trickle-down” economics as a system that “has never been confirmed by the facts” and “expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.” Capitalism, as he sees it, “tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits.” He added that “whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market.”
The pope wrote an encyclical stating emphatically that a “very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system,” that “things are now reaching a breaking point” and that greenhouse gases are “released mainly as a result of human activity.” To protect the planet, Francis called for “changes of lifestyle, production and consumption.”
The president and the pope have already tangled on immigration. During the 2016 campaign, the pope labeled Trump’s Mexican wall “not Christian,” comments Trump called “disgraceful.” The contrast between the two men on immigrants and refugees could not be starker. “We must make our immigrant brothers and sisters feel that they are citizens, that they are like us, children of God,” Francis has said, pleading for compassion toward “the stranger in our midst.”
It’s hard to imagine Francis remaining silent on these questions when he talks with Trump. But the pope also believes in our capacity to transform ourselves and in an Almighty willing to forgive our sins. So he might well take on one of the toughest counseling jobs of his life by urging Trump to consider the value of thinking beyond the self.
Was the pope preparing for this moment in a surprise talk he filmed for the TED2017 conference late last month? “Please, allow me to say it loud and clear,” he declared. “The more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people, the more responsible you are to act humbly. If you don’t, your power will ruin you, and you will ruin the other.
“There is a saying in Argentina,” Francis continued. “’Power is like drinking gin on an empty stomach.’ You feel dizzy, you get drunk, you lose your balance, and you will end up hurting yourself and those around you.” I hope Francis conveys something like that to our president. Trump could profit from it right now.
Trump enjoys mocking “losers,” so he might pay heed to Francis’s injunction that when the fortunate encounter those who are not, they should ask themselves, “Why them and not me?” Francis’s answer was different from the one Trump would likely give. “I could have very well ended up among today’s ‘discarded’ people,” the pope said.
Trump has recently been portrayed as being in a dark and sour mood, and the disclosures over the past few days could hardly have improved his disposition. This just might make him open to a pastor who teaches: “We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it.”
Mr. President, what do you have to lose?
This op-ed was originally published in the Washington Post.