There was once a time when talk about the supposed influence of the Pope was a staple of American politics. In the 19th century, anti-Catholic rhetoric was commonplace, notably when in 1884 when Republican presidential candidate James G. Blaine labeled the Democrats as the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion,” because of the alliance of immigrants, Catholics, and former Confederates that supported it. As late as 1960, John F. Kennedy, who was bidding to be the first Catholic to be elected president, made it clear that he wouldn’t be taking orders from the head of his church. This is ancient history to contemporary Americans but, thanks to Pope Francis, the church has reinserted itself into the hurly burly of U.S. politics.
Today in a press conference held on board the plane after concluding his visit to Mexico, Pope Francis said the following when asked to comment about Donald Trump:
A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.
When pressed with a follow-up about whether he was asking Catholics not to vote for Trump, the pontiff said he “wasn’t going to get involved with that,” but then repeated his criticism.
This is deeply unfortunate.
Let’s specify that a Pope’s opinion about who is or is not a Christian carry a lot of weight. Indeed, as a Jew, I have no standing to weigh in on Christian theology or whether anyone is entitled to consider themselves a member of any of the faith groups that call themselves Christians.
But when a foreign leader — even one that symbolizes the faith of a billion Christians — starts giving opinions about the religious beliefs of American presidential candidates, they have crossed a line that should never even have been approached.
I am, to put it mildly, no fan of Donald Trump (see here and here just from today). His extreme position on illegal immigration doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. His vow to deport all 12 million illegals currently in the United States is not doable and would require a massive expansion of federal power and expenditures to accomplish even if it were. His talk of forcing Mexico to pay for a wall along its border with the United States is absurd. And his comments about most Mexican migrants being drug dealers and rapists were offensive.
But for the Pope to denounce Trump for speaking about building walls at all is simply inappropriate.
Pope Francis is well within his rights to ask Americans to view immigrants — whether legal or illegal — with compassion. He should advocate, as he has done, for alleviating the suffering of migrants that are often exploited by criminals when they seek to cross into the United States without permission. His sermons about loving our neighbors are very much to the point.
But it was wrong for him to say Trump is not a Christian.
Let’s be clear about this. No matter how much we might like or admire the Pope, the head of the Roman Catholic Church should not be expressing opinions of acting in a way to vet U.S. candidates for office, no matter what the issue might be. That’s not because Americans need to be defended from the opinions of the Pope. We are long past the days when Catholics are viewed with suspicion because of their faith (think of what many of the Founding Fathers would have thought about U.S. Supreme Court whose membership consisted of six Catholics, three Jews and no Protestants at the time of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death). But when the Pope seeks to brand any American candidate as not being Christian, he is politicizing Christianity in a way that does that great faith no service, no matter whether we think he is right or wrong on the issue in question.
As much as Trump’s stands on immigration are worthy of criticism, the Pope’s focus on building walls along the border is also particularly wrongheaded if not downright offensive.
As some of Trump’s Republican rivals have already pointed out, there is nothing wrong, let alone immoral, about the U.S. defending its borders and, if it is deemed necessary, building barriers that render illegal crossings more difficult. Every nation has the right to do that, including the city-state over which the Pope rules.
Moreover, criticism of Washington’s immigration policy from the Pope is particularly ill-considered when you take into account that no country lets in as many legal immigrants — up to one million a year — as the United States. All nations, including Mexico and others that have egged on the Pope on this issue, try to control their borders and reserve the right to say who has the right to enter its territory. To say, as some advocates for illegal immigrants do and as the Pope appears to be implying, that the U.S. — alone among the nations — has no such right is simply outrageous. That is especially true at a time when international terrorism is on the rise from Islamist forces that, among other things, particularly target Christians, as well as Jews and fellow Muslims, for slaughter. No matter who might pay for such a wall, the American government has every right to build a wall on the Rio Grande if it deems it appropriate or necessary to defend the security of its people
If as was said of one of Francis’s predecessors that the Pope’s “divisions” are mightier than many armies because of his spiritual stature, that moral strength is undermined by the Pope’s foolish attempt to influence American voters. Love Trump or despise him, but the power of papal “divisions” end at the U.S. border and that is as it should be. That is not because Francis is considered a “liberal” pope but because no pope or foreign leader should be mixing in American politics. If anything, the pope’s foolish remark will help Trump’s campaign rather than hurt it.
While faithful Catholics consider the Pope to be infallible on theological matters, the Christian bona fides of controversial American presidential candidates ought not to fit into that category. Indeed, that topic or anything to do with the candidates and their stands on enforcing America’s immigration laws should be out of bounds for the Pope. The pontiff needs to walk back this ill-considered intervention in American politics as soon as possible. There are plenty of reasons why Americans should consider not voting for Donald Trump. The Pope’s opinion about his Christianity is not one of them.