Quite the contretemps between Pope Francis and Donald Trump splayed out across media platforms for a day or two last week, but then it was gone nearly as fast as it erupted, displaced by the South Carolina Caucus results, the battle over the nomination of a replacement for Justice Scalia, and a host of new shiny objects of media fascination (Jeb Bush departing the presidential race, Apple rejecting an FBI request, and Oscar night approaching…)
But before the real meaning of the moment is lost in the dregs of this ugly presidential campaign season’s backwash, it’s worth a few more minutes to contemplate the real issue at stake in the Pope’s comments about The Wall and Mr. Trump. In a press conference on the airplane flying back from his trip to Mexico, Pope Francis responded to a reporter’s question about Mr. Trump’s criticism of the Pope for celebrating Mass at the Mexican border, saying that the Pope was a “pawn” of the Mexican government and did not really understand the politics of immigration (obviously, Mr. Trump did not follow the Pope’s actual comments about conditions in Mexico).
Pope Francis responded, in part, “…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.”
Immediately, Mr. Trump released a statement saying it was “disgraceful” for a religious leader to question someone’s faith, and that the Pope had better hope that Mr. Trump gets elected since, according to Mr. Trump, ISIS is planning to go after the Vatican.
Well! Mr. Trump clearly did not attend Catholic school, where he would have learned that questioning the sincerity of our faith is part of the test of true fidelity. Popes and priests regularly call us to fidelity to the faith — and so do ministers of other religions with their own flocks. If Mr. Trump were more familiar with religious practices, perhaps he would have responded with more humility and respect for the pastor’s challenge and with less flippant outrage, which seems to be the only speed his anger-o-meter has. And making a snide statement about ISIS targeting the Vatican is utterly irresponsible, the last kind of provocation a person who wants to be president should be displaying.
But all of that aside, let’s not allow the hateful rhetoric get in the way of the Pope’s real message: he was absolutely right in the essence of his comment, namely, that Christians do not build walls to prevent other human beings from reaching a place of security, peace and freedom. Our job as faithful Christians, as the Pope said so plainly, is to build bridges so that the neediest of our brothers and sisters can cross to a place of safety.
Ironically, some of the very people who vilify immigrants and trash the Pope for having the courage to stand up for human rights are more than happy to cloak themselves in a religious mantle and claim to speak for the right to life in other circumstances. Indeed, some in the past were all too eager to snag photo ops with the current or former Popes as a way to get Catholic votes.
But what the politicians repeatedly fail to understand is that Catholicism is not a political party, nor is being faithfully Catholic about just one issue. The consistent ethic of life, the foundation of the Church’s social teaching, is about justice and dignity for all human life — including the lives of immigrants fleeing from horrific conditions in this hemisphere.
The Pope and U.S. Bishops have spoken out very clearly on these issues. The Pope was also clear that he is not telling people how to vote. Instead, “faithful citizenship” requires Catholics to make their own political decisions fully informed by the moral and ethical dimensions of the positions of each candidate.
Building a wall to keep people out is not a good political, social or moral solution to the crises that drive women, children and families to seek refuge in the United States. In the same way, audaciously announcing plans to deport undocumented immigrants or Muslims or other people who the leader finds undesirable betrays the values of this nation founded as a haven for people seeking refuge from the very kind of oppression some candidates now say they would impose. Xenophobia is a shameful trait in anyone who purports to be ready for national leadership.
The Pope was absolutely right to call out the fundamental lack of moral grounding in any plan to build a wall. He knows from Christians! That’s what Popes do, and thank goodness he had the nerve to call it as he sees it.