It would seem that between the American president-elect and the Pope there is a chasm, the former representing a triumph for those values most antithetical to the preaching of Pope Francis. That is largely true, but what fascinates is their similarities.

Earlier this year Pope Francis remarked that, on account of his plan to build a wall on the Mexican border, Donald Trump was “not a Christian”. The New York Times’s Ross Douthat, one of America’s most astute religious commentators, wrote of this “clash of the populists”:

“For all the ways in which Francis and Trump differ, as figures on the global stage they’re also strangely alike – in the forces that they’re channelling, their style of public salesmanship, and their relationship to the institutions they either head or aspire to lead. [They express] the same exhaustion with institutions, the same desire to somehow ‘make a mess’ (as Francis likes to put it) and start anew.

“This mirroring extends to their rhetoric, where both men have a fondness for, well, name-calling that’s rare among presidential candidates and popes. The insults differ: Trump calls people ‘low energy’, ‘liar’ and ‘loser’, while Francis prefers ‘Pharisee’ and ‘self-absorbed Promethean neo-Pelagian’ (though he’s not above ‘whiner’ and ‘sourpuss’ as well). But their pungent language reflects a shared mastery of the contemporary media environment, in which controversy and unpredictability are the great currencies, and having people constantly asking ‘Did he really just say that?’ is the surest ticket to the world’s attention.”

“Did he really just say that?” has been the unofficial motto of an exuberant Vatican press corps since March 2013. Every time the Vicar of Christ on Earth gets airborne, reporters know that their editors will be hungrily awaiting clickbait for a thousand news sites worldwide.

Last August I wrote in these pages that Pope Francis does not use theological terms in their traditional meanings, so he has to be understood in a different way. When the Holy Father uses “grace”, “conscience”, “absolute” or “heresy”, he does not mean what the theological tradition means by them.

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