Pope Francis addresses the US Congress in 2014. In his latest encyclical, the pontiff takes aim at populism and ‘extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism’
Pope Francis addresses the US Congress in 2014. In his latest encyclical, the pontiff takes aim at populism and ‘extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism’ © Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty

It is hard to think of two world figures more unalike and antithetical than Pope Francis and President Donald Trump. The former reality show star worships the rich and disdains the poor. The Argentine Jesuit calls capitalism “the worship of the ancient golden calf . . . returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose”.

They have clashed before. In the run-up to the 2016 election, Pope Francis said Mr Trump was “not Christian” in his hostility to immigrants and goal of building a wall to divide the US from Mexico. Is the Pope now trying to nudge November’s presidential election away from Mr Trump towards Joe Biden, his Democrat challenger, who would be the first Catholic president since John F Kennedy?

In 2016, Mr Trump won a majority of white Catholic votes against Hillary Clinton (who won Hispanic Catholics). That support is now falling — and it may be that the Pope is trying to get it down further.

Pope Francis has just published an encyclical, the highest expression of papal teaching, addressed to the world’s notional 1.3bn Catholics — including American Catholics, nearly a quarter of US voters. Titled Fratelli Tutti (All Brothers), he continues to lambast policies that are failing the poor, but takes aim at populism and “extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism”. It was released on the feast day of St Francis of Assisi, from whom Jorge Mario Bergoglio took his papal name.

The Vatican tries to avoid politically partisan and electoral pronouncements. But the timing of the encyclical’s release may not be entirely innocent. His previous encyclical appeared ahead of the 2015 UN climate summit in Paris. It enjoined Catholics to renounce a consumerist culture fuelling environmental degradation that disproportionately hits the poor and vulnerable. It also endorsed the scientific evidence for man-made climate change — a Chinese hoax, according to Mr Trump.

Some of the Pope’s most sulphurous critics, such as Carlo Maria Viganò, former Vatican envoy to Washington, who launched an extraordinary attack on Francis in 2018, have come out for Mr Trump, who has tweeted approvingly of the controversial Italian archbishop’s conspiracy theories about a “deep church” peopled by the “children of darkness”. Cardinal Raymond Burke, another critic, calls the Democrats the “party of death”, because it backs legal abortion, which the late Pope John Paul II equated to genocide.

Swamp notes

In the countdown to the 2020 election, stay on top of the big campaign issues with our newsletter on US power and politics with columnists Rana Foroohar and Edward Luce. Sign up here

Neither this Pope nor any other would ever change Church teaching on abortion. But he does prioritise. In a 2013 interview he compared the Church to a “field hospital after a battle” where doctors obsessed about cholesterol levels. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” he said.

The Pope’s commitment to the fight for social justice against poverty and inequality aligns with Mr Biden, an Irish Catholic with a rosary in his pocket. In August in Ohio, where the two candidates are running neck and neck, Mr Trump said of his challenger: “He’s against God. He’s against guns.”

Lots but not all white and conservative Catholics see themselves in the ostensibly absolutist dogma of the culture warriors around Mr Trump — from attorney-general William Barr to his new Supreme Court pick, Amy Coney Barrett, who would reinforce a sort of Catholic ascendancy of 6-3 in the nation’s highest court. These voters mattered in swing states in 2016, and may do again.

Mr Biden is not Hillary Clinton. His speeches often echo scripture — a bit like the Pope. Last month, Mr Biden called America under Mr Trump “a nation in the wilderness”. He does not need to fake it.

Mr Biden’s former boss, Barack Obama, won a Catholic majority. Yet when, in 2009, he was invited to give the commencement speech at Notre Dame University, a bastion of Catholicism in Indiana, there was a conservative backlash. The university’s president, Father John Jenkins, has just been in hot water again for attending the White House ceremony for Judge Barrett — who teaches at Notre Dame — without a mask and then testing positive for Covid-19. It is worth remembering, though, that a campus poll showed Notre Dame students voted heavily for Mr Obama.

david.gardner@ft.com

Trump vs Biden: who is leading the 2020 election polls?

Use the FT’s interactive calculator to see which states matter most in winning the presidency

Get alerts on Pope Francis when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article