The President of the United States will soon continue a now well-established practice of meeting the leader of Roman Catholicism at his magnificent world headquarters, Vatican City. The eyes of the world’s press will be watching closely, because on the surface at least, the two leaders appear to have little in common—religiously, politically, or personally. There will be a certain soap opera appeal to at least some observers. A brash, outspoken, even belligerent American President will meet a gentle pontiff who visits the poor in their homes and calls for peace and unity.
Kelsey Dallas, a religious reporter for Deseret News, a Mormon-owned newspaper in Salt Lake City, writes of the complex history between the United States and the Vatican. Her article of May 18, 2017, “Trump’s Upcoming Trip,” emphasizes the mutual needs of the two superpowers, each with important strengths that the other needs and uses. Dallas notes the diplomatic and intelligence abilities of the Vatican. One source says, “The Vatican has sources of information that the CIA would kill to get.”
The Vatican’s Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy trains its own diplomats who then serve the church as a “global network of priests.” Thomas Reese, a Catholic author with close ties to the Vatican, says the church is able to uncover facts of an unfolding crises in many places in the world, while the United States can often only helplessly watch from afar. Reese says, “The Vatican could call the bishop and the bishop could then call a pastor in [a] village and see what’s going on” (qtd. by Dallas).
The United States and the Vatican are now “parallel empires” (Dallas). Over the last one hundred years, they have worked closely together in spite of resistance from American politicians and people leery of engaging with Catholicism. America has, after all, been a bastion of Protestantism for most of its history.
That resistance is no longer present. Since 1984, American Presidents have exchanged official diplomats with the Vatican. Presidents have sought good relations with the Vatican. The moral superiority of the pope is now an assumed fact of American politics on both the right and the left. Barack Obama said, in 2014, “I want to thank His Holiness, whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is” (qtd. by Dallas).
What To Look For
On his current trip to Saudi Arabia, Trump has spoken for peace and good business deals. He has softened his campaign rhetoric, which previously appeared anti-Muslim, and moved toward language appealing for unity against Muslim extremism and peace with Israel. An interesting contrast on the trip will be the language he uses with other sovereign states and the language he uses with the pope, the leader of a superstate that lacks a standing army. He may tell Arabs and Israelis some plain truths about what they ought to be doing in terms of justice and fairness, but will he lecture the Pope?
America has moved into a position of non-criticism of the Vatican. Neither atheists nor Protestants have much stomach for sharp critiques, other than condemnation of the church’s history of sexual abuse. The world accepts the Vatican as an outstanding force for morality. What is astonishing is that the recognition of widespread abuse by priests has failed to fundamentally touch the positive influence of the church. The church has apologized away its sins and mistakes to great effect. This fact points up the tremendous power of the church to endure, and the high probability that it will continue to grow in strength. If a church institution can survive the facts of its own child sexual abuse, what can’t it survive?
Pope Francis and Trump may have their differences, but the Pope has reserved judgment of Trump until he meets him. The Pope has said that the key for him is not prejudging Trump as a person, but finding common ground on which to move forward together, “step by step” (cited by “Search for Common Ground,” Catholic News Service, May 19, 2017). From Trump’s perspective, the fact that he’s going to Rome makes it clear that he would like to show himself as much a peacemaker as the pope. Donald Trump is not a person to be outdone. With his approval ratings and reputation slipping in the United States, it would not surprise anyone if the trip to the Vatican were highly successful and led to greater cooperation between the United States and the Vatican.
Implications for Seventh-day Adventists
Seventh-day Adventists have been predicting a growing connection between Rome and the United States for a long time. Nothing about the upcoming visit goes against that long-accepted view. In fact, current events suggest the validity of the Adventist view, a view not held by any other group in the world. Adventists can with confidence continue preaching the three angels’ messages. The warning for the world, given by the prophesied Remnant (Zeph. 3:13; Rev. 12:17), remains the same: Watch out for lambs that speak like dragons. There is something rational to fear in the close cooperation of the world’s two leading empires.
Marcus Sheffield is a professor of English at Southern Adventist University.