So Pope Francis was asked a question about Donald Trump. He was actually asked about a whole host of issues that are of much more consequence, but I want this article to get lots of clicks, so we’ll only focus on the part that concerns Trump.
This particular question was in response to something Francis said earlier, when the GOP frontrunner learned the spiritual head of the planet’s billion-odd Catholics would be visiting the border between Mexico and the United States. Here’s the question:
Phil Pullella, Reuters: Today, you spoke very eloquently about the problems of immigration. On the other side of the border, there is a very tough electoral battle. One of the candidates for the White House, Republican Donald Trump, in an interview recently said that you are a political man and he even said that you are a pawn, an instrument of the Mexican government for migration politics. Trump said that if he’s elected, he wants to build 2,500 kilometers of wall along the border. He wants to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, separating families, etcetera. I would like to ask you, what do you think of these accusations against you and if a North American Catholic can vote for a person like this?
Let’s break this down before we get into the pope’s response, which you may think you understand because someone at Breitbart tweeted a picture of the Vatican Museum (hur hur it’s a wall around the Vatican).
Trump’s initial characterization of the pope that prompted this question, in Trump’s typical fashion, was misleading and stupid. Proceeding from that, the questioner accurately describes what Trump’s immigration “plan” would do, then asks the pope a) what he thinks about what Trump said about him, and b) whether an American Catholic could in good conscience vote for someone who would seriously propose that nonsense.
Here’s what Pope Francis answered. Now remember, we’re going to try thinking before we react this time:
Pope Francis: Thank God he said I was a politician because Aristotle defined the human person as ‘animal politicus.’ At least I am a human person. As to whether I am a pawn, well, maybe, I don’t know. I’ll leave that up to your judgment and that of the people. And then, a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel. As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.
First, he brushes off the somewhat insulting notion that the Vicar of Christ is a tool of the Mexican government. Dignum et justum est, because the comment is unworthy of response. If only everyone could so easily disregard the meandering, half-informed (Half! See how charitable I am!) fantasies of a senescent, ochre-faced billionaire.
Then he goes on to speak about the moral aspect of immigration policy, in that annoying way popes have of not tailoring their message to suit the biases of the American political commentator. It was a very brief point, about building only walls and not building bridges. Let me walk you through this. The thing about this kind of talk is that it’s not entirely literal and not entirely figurative. There are layers to it.
The Church and State Aren’t the Same Thing
The first layer is alluding to the effect of Trump’s wall and proposal to deport 11 million human beings. Remember when you were a kid and they told you that Jesus loves everyone? That included Mexicans. It even included Donald Trump.
Inconveniently for him, Christians are encouraged to imitate Christ by doing loser things called corporal works of mercy—stuff like feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, comforting the imprisoned, and tending the sick. This is irrespective of their country’s laws or policies. Christians are compelled to treat their fellow man with the dignity inherent to every child of God.
Yeah, that’s a toughie, but it actually does not conflict with enforcing immigration policy, no matter how loudly Ann Coulter might have squawked. Not only must immigration policy be feasible (a test Trump’s “plan” fails) it must also be just. Brainless, ill-considered sound-bites such as 35 percent of the Republican primary electorate seem to favor will yield a policy that promotes human suffering. This is not just, and Christians ought to withhold their support for it.
The second layer I see is a broader point about Christianity as a religion. Did Jesus say, “suffer the little children to come unto me,” or was it “if these kids weren’t born in Galilee they should go back to Judea, and we’ll let the good ones come back unto me?” Again, there’s nothing particularly unjust about enforcing immigration laws, but Christianity has been an outward-facing religion for quite a while. Take it up with Paul, if you don’t like it.
We should “build walls” to guard against being victimized and taken advantage of, but Christianity should not be primarily about building walls. The church is called to reach out to others, whether it’s with the Good News, our material wealth, or just a kind word. That extends down to the individual Christian. A self-professed Christian who only “builds walls” is doing it wrong. The pope, more than most people, is qualified to sound off on that.
The Pope’s Humility in the Face of Arrogance
Lastly, let’s consider how completely mild Pope Francis was in this statement people are spending so much time arguing about. Can American Catholics vote for Trump? “I am not going to get involved in that.” Is Trump a Christian? “…this man is not a Christian if he has said things like that. We must see if he said things in that way, and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.”
This is not exactly the Inquisition, folks. You need not be offended on Trump’s behalf. Where a Christian sees his brother in error, he is bound to offer charitable correction—which the pope did, while acknowledging that he may not know the full truth. If it’s a chastisement, I think it a very humble one.
Well, the pope can be humble if he wants. I am not thus encumbered. Since I seem to know more about Donald Trump than His Holiness does, I will speak more forcefully. Trump’s immigration policies replace Christian values with the visceral satisfaction of revenge, and fear of God with fear of the foreigner. Francis said nothing so bold, and if his anodyne comments made you defensive, I suggest you examine your internal disposition. Perhaps what you really felt was the pricking of your own conscience.