Michael W. Higgins is distinguished professor of Catholic Thought at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.
It was U.S. President Ronald Reagan who got serious about the Holy See. Persuaded, like his admiring ally British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, that the papacy of John Paul II was going to be critical to the dismantling of Soviet hegemony, he upgraded the status of the U.S. representative to the Vatican to full ambassadorial status.
This was a bold move for a country with a long enduring strain of resistance to, and deep suspicion of, papal intentions. But, by God, it was smart and strategically perfect.
Every president since Mr. Reagan has understood the papacy as a partner of shared values rather than as a museum piece redolent of the old European order.
President Donald Trump is, however, a political and spiritual outlier, minimally conversant with any ideology or theology that respects layered meaning and complexity, and not inclined to sustained interaction with the ideas of others. Pope Francis is not a natural soulmate for him.
Whereas Francis opens his heart to immigrants, Mr. Trump views them as a threat; whereas Francis has advanced Christian-Muslim dialogue to a hitherto unimaginable level of trust and respect, Mr. Trump has fuelled anti-Muslim fears; whereas Francis celebrates globalism, if not globalization, Mr. Trump is protectionist and nativist by temperament; whereas Francis goes to the "peripheries" for his consultants and advisers on governance, as is evidenced by his recent creation of five new cardinals drawn from distant lands – including Mali and Laos – Mr. Trump's cabinet and inner circle are arresting examples of the Family Compact.
Although the Trump-Francis chat was undoubtedly cordial – Mr. Trump neither averted his glance nor declined to shake hands as he did with German Chancellor Angela Merkel – and although the diplomatic choreography was executed with the courtly precision normative in Vatican state visits, it is hard to imagine two more dissimilar leaders. Francis arrived in his blue Ford Focus and Mr. Trump with a 62-car motorcade; Francis's informal gait juxtaposed with Mr. Trump's swagger is the stuff of Italian comedy.
In any event, the more political discussions were reserved for the seasoned Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin and his associate in charge of the office of Relations with States, the affable Liverpudlian Archbishop Paul Gallagher.
The nomination for U.S. ambassador to the Vatican of Callista Gingrich is a clear indication of the Trump approach to the papacy.
Ms. Gingrich is the president of Gingrich Productions and the current wife of former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich. Together they have made a number of political and religious documentaries that are distinguished by their technical skills and by their polemical and hagiographical narratives, fully concordant with the Trump era – easy on the historical nuance, propagandistic in tone, self-assured and cocky.
Having a Gingrich near the Apostolic Palace may prove an ideal conduit of information and potential influence for those anti-Francis prelates who pepper the U.S. episcopate.
Diplomatic niceties prevailed during the Trump-Francis visit, however ephemeral in nature, and there were no publicly egregious displays of poor judgment. The President gave the Pope a collection of the works of Martin Luther King, Jr. (an adroit move given Francis's public identification of Mr. King as a prophetic moral figure in his address to the Joint Session of Congress), and the Pope gave the President several of his encyclicals, including his exhortative and multipage reflection on the environment, Laudato, si (a provocative move given Mr. Trump's indifference to climate change and reading). But the long-term prospects of a flourishing Trump-Francis alliance are very dim.
Mr. Trump may have sweet-talked his other hosts – the Royal House of Saud and the government of Israel – but Francis knows where he stands – outside the Trumpian orbit.