When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro, and this election cycle is nothing if not weird. Now, Pope Francis has waded into the U.S. elections, commenting on a question posed to him about Donald Trump during the press conference on the flight back from Mexico to Rome.
Let’s read the text from the official transcript:
Q: Today you spoke a lot and eloquently about the problem of immigrants. On the other side of the border there is an electoral campaign that is rather hard. One of the candidates for the White House, Donald Trump, in a recent interview said that you are a political man, and indeed perhaps a pawn of the Mexican Government when it comes to the policy of immigration. He said that if he were elected president he would build a 2,500-km wall along the border. He wants to deport 11 million illegal immigrants and, in that way separating families and so on. I would therefore like to ask, first of all, what you think of those charges against you, and if an American Catholic could vote for a person like this?
A: Thank God he said I am a politician because Aristotle defined the human person as an 'animal politicus' [a political animal]. So 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 judgement 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 says things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.
First, the pope is clear that he is not telling people for whom they should vote. He is, however, defending the Christian Gospel which, as he says, urges us to build bridges not walls. Pope Francis is also highlighting in this answer something he spoke about at greater length in his sermons in Mexico, and in his many allocutions since he was elected pope almost three years ago: The human person is prior to the political if by political we mean partisan. Ideology cannot blind us to the sufferings of others, including the ideology of nationalism.
Second, the pope’s words are jarring only because, in the U.S. at least, the politicians most likely to wrap themselves in religion have been on the right, not the left. Alongside this political fact is a related religious one: Too often, too many religious leaders have made it seem like the only true test of a candidate’s Christian bona fides is their stance on abortion or same-sex marriage. Pope Francis has made it clear, even in his choice of name, that he was going to hold up and celebrate the social doctrine of the Catholic Church.
Third, it should be clear that, if he were asked, Pope Francis would agree with the argument made by Bishop Robert McElroy in his recent article at America that in politics, it is the gravity of an evil, and not only whether or not it is intrinsic, that is important. By definition, a broken immigration system is not an intrinsic evil, but it is a grave evil and it warrants a sense of moral urgency and prioritization on account of that gravity. It may make our Republican Catholic friends squirm, because the intrinsic category lined up much more neatly with their political priorities, but it was always a misuse of a highly technical theological term for political ends.
Fourth, I would note that whenever a liberal Catholic would differ from the Church on an issue like abortion or gay rights, we would be treated to a litany about all that has gone wrong in the culture and in the Church these past fifty years, the lack of catechesis, the secularization of the culture, the disregard for the family, etc. I have consistently said that our conservative friends have a point: Catechesis really did get weak in the years after the Council, the secularization of the culture is a problem, albeit a more complex problem than most conservatives allow, and the plight of the family threatens human happiness and societal stability. But, let’s be clear: Pope Francis is right. A properly catechized Christian would not be advocating the harsh immigration policies Mr. Trump and the other GOP candidates are advocating, nor would a Christian use the xenophobic and often racist language that comes so naturally to Mr. Trump. Perhaps it would have been better if Pope Francis has said that such policies and such language are not Christian, but I will cut him some slack.
Besides, you have only to listen to Trump for five minutes to know that, irrespective of his hateful immigration stance, his dividing the world into “winners” and “losers,” his celebration of spread eagle capitalism, and the man’s sheer pridefulness raise questions about whatever Christian piety truly exists in his heart. It is perhaps telling that Trump’s favorite adjectives for the things he likes are “huge” and “great” and that the only time I recall hearing him use the adjective “little” was when he referred to Holy Communion as a “little cracker.” I am sure that for Mr. Trump, the doctrine of a crucified God is a difficult thing to wrap his head around, although I suspect the thought does not keep him awake at night.
What most interested me was Mr. Trump’s response. He said it was “disgraceful” of the pope to question another person’s faith, although the pope was questioning his words. But, in a prepared statement, Trump said this:
If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’s ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been President because this would not have happened. ISIS would have been eradicated unlike what is happening now with our all talk, no action politicians.
Trump runs, as he does in articulating his immigration policy, to fear. The opposite of faith is sometimes unbelief, but as often as not, the opposite of faith is fear. I am sure that those “Prosperity Gospel” preachers who have endorsed him and, in a sense, have paved the way for some evangelicals to embrace Trump, have preached plenty of times on the Parable of the Talents and have discerned in that parable a biblical justification for capitalism. I confess I have heard less coarse, but equally earnest, misuse of that parable in Catholic pulpits too. But, that parable is about fear, not investment strategies. Trump is not the good and faithful servant in that parable, but the wretched servant whose fear kept him from trusting in the Master.
Yesterday, reflecting on the pope’s three talks in Juarez, I thought twice before entitling my post “Pope Francis v. GOP.” After all, for the pope, politics is derivative, real but derivative. I stuck with the original title because it seemed to me that in all three of his talks, he really was challenging essential parts of the current Republican party’s worldview. I had no idea at the time that he would so forcefully challenge that party’s frontrunner on the plane ride home. I do not believe for a minute that any Catholic needs to justify their vote for or against Mr. Trump based on what the pope said, or about the Church’s teaching on the rights of migrants more generally. But, I also don’t think a Catholic needs to cast their ballot simply based on what the Church teaches about abortion. There are a range of issues that must be considered, and it is also fair to consider a candidate’s temperament, how realistic their proposals are, if they have a resume that demonstrates a certain competence, etc. Insofar as the last couple of decades the Church in this country has too often looked like an arm of the GOP, I welcome the pope’s comments about Trump’s immigration stance. It balances the ledger, it widens the debate, and it should make the bishops and Catholic institutions re-think their “No Democrats Allowed” policies.
Finally, Pontifex means bridge builder, not wall builder, and Francis is the Pontiff. He is not wrong to point out that Christians are called to build bridges not walls, and that a Christian who only advocates the building of walls is not, in that instance, speaking as a Christian. You may ask: “What happened to the guy who said ‘Who am I to judge?’” Pope Francis said that when asked not about a billionaire, but about a priest who struggles with his homosexuality. And there is the difference. Pope Francis has no problem bringing comfort to the afflicted. And he has no problem afflicting the comfortable. In this, he is following in the footsteps of the Master. Just as, in his insistence on a humane immigration policy, Pope Francis is speaking the biblical truth: You shall not wrong or oppress the stranger, for you too were a stranger in the land of Egypt.”