Pope Francis and Donald Trump: When Popes Play Politics It Isn’t Pretty

By John Zmirak Published on February 18, 2016

The Internet might explode today as Americans react to Pope Francis’ off-the-cuff statement about Donald Trump and immigration. Before I comment on a story that has already morphed into hundreds of bleeding headlines, let me reproduce in full the exchange between Pope Francis and a Reuters reporter on an airplane — where the pope, it must be made clear, spoke only as an individual Argentinian bishop, with zero papal authority:

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?

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.

If the pope was trying to be Jesuitical here, he failed. He clearly implied that Donald Trump is not a Christian. Worse, he tarred Trump’s supporters and other Republican candidates, such as Ted Cruz, who favor stronger border control in America. Even Marco Rubio, who is the most pro-immigration candidate of the leading GOP three, stepped in to point out the obvious, as TIME’s Zeke Miller reported:

Rubio was smart to distinguish his position from that of Pope Francis, whose statements on immigration have been well to the left of Sen. Bernie Sanders’.

This dispute could release all sorts of suppressed tensions in America. It could fan the last, dying embers of American anti-Catholicism, or stir chauvinistic Catholics into anti-Americanism (two equal, if opposite dangers). It reminds us of attempts in centuries past by popes to intervene directly in politics, listed below alongside their disastrous outcomes for the Church:

  • Pope Boniface VIII demanded that Philip the Fair of France keep its wealthy bishops and clergy immune from taxation and royal control, and finally excommunicated Philip. Philip sent soldiers to kidnap Boniface, who died in custody. The papacy was moved to Avignon, and controlled by France for 70 years, and the attempt to move it back to Rome resulted in a schism with three rival “popes.”
  • Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth I of England for promoting the Reformation and persecuting Catholics, and called on her subjects to overthrow her. They didn’t, but unleashed a savage wave of anti-Catholic violence, which lasted for decades and martyred thousands of priests and laymen.
  • Frightened of centralizing leaders (like Lincoln and Garibaldi) Pope Pius IX sided openly with the South during the U.S. Civil War, holding diplomatic talks with the Confederacy — unrecognized by any other country. After the war, he sent Jefferson Davis a crown of thorns which Pius had woven himself, with a note that Davis was “imprisoned by malefactors.” Catholics in America were denounced by triumphant Republicans as partisans of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.”

The point is, except where popes are forced to condemn obvious, intrinsic evils such as abortion and genocide, it usually doesn’t work out very well for the Church when they cross the line that separates “teaching the eternal moral law” from “applying that law to particular, complex political and economic questions.”

It works out even worse for the Church when a pope’s statements seem to be at odds with the official, timeless teachings of the Catholic Church on those very issues, as Pope Francis’ personal statements sometimes are. Contrast Pope Francis’ rhetoric with the careful, balanced teaching in the Catechism of the Catholic Church on immigration, which reads as follows:

The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.

Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens. (#2241)

I unpack what that statement means, line by line, here. There is nothing in that paragraph that Ted Cruz or even Donald Trump (in a lucid moment) couldn’t sign on with.

Pope John Paul II wrote eloquently in his book Memory and Identity that nations have the right to preserve their own cultures and independence — remembering how German immigration subjected his homeland to oppression and invasion. Now millions of Americans of every race feel that their own beloved country faces similar dangers — not to mention Europeans who are dealing with the more than 1 million Muslim colonists Pope Francis told Europe to welcome.

Pope Francis has a romantic, emotive and frankly utopian notion of what Christian love amounts to and demands. In the 2,000 years that the Church has passed on the “deposit of faith” that Jesus taught the apostles, it has never taught that nations must open their borders without regard for their own well-being. The Church does not have a secret line to God, through which it can receive transmissions of new doctrines that are now binding on every Christian. Catholics from peasant to pope are bound by what bishops and popes have taught in the past, and they never taught that we must welcome every stranger. So no pope can teach that now. To quote Pope Francis, “This is not in the Gospel.”

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