Trumping Up a Dispute With Pope Francis

Pope Francis aboard the papal flight from Mexico to Rome, Italy on February 17, 2016.
Pope Francis aboard the papal flight from Mexico to Rome, Italy on February 17, 2016. (photo: Alan Holdren / CNA/EWTN News)

When I returned home from work a few days ago, I received a number of emails, notes and other messages expressing confusion, perplexity and even anger in relation to a statement Pope Francis had reportedly just made about Donald Trump and immigration.  This statement has gotten a remarkable amount of media attention and has generally been characterized with headlines such as “Pope Francis says Donald Trump is ‘not Christian’.”  I’ve seen numerous expressions of outrage on the political right from people like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and glee on the political left from networks like MSNBC regarding what Pope Francis supposedly said about Trump.

But has the media fairly characterized what the Holy Father actually said?  After looking more closely at the full context, it seems that this is another example of why it's so important not to uncritically accept controversial accounts from secular news sources – particularly when the Church is involved.

Respectfully, both political sides have gotten it wrong.

Particularly in such heated circumstances, it’s important to take the time to find and consider the actual words spoken in their full context. In this case, the Pope was asked by a reporter what he thought about Donald Trump after Trump first called the Pope very “political” and a pawn of the Mexican government. As such, the Pope's statement was solicited in response to things Trump first said about him. In other words, the Holy Father was not seeking an opportunity to express his opinions about Donald Trump. And this is what the Pope replied to the questions that were put to him:

Thank God [Trump] said I am a political man. Because Aristotle defines a human being as a political animal. So at least I am a human being. And am I a pawn [of the Mexican government]? Well, maybe. I will leave that up to your judgment. But a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not of building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel. As far as what you said about whether to vote or not to vote…I’m not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that. But we must see if he said things in that way…and I will give him the benefit of the doubt.

Contrary to the beliefs of many on the political left and the political right, neither the Church nor Pope Francis is teaching – or will ever teach – that our country must have open borders and that we have no right to control immigration (click here for a statement on immigration by Pope Benedict XVI and here for a useful resource from the USCCB). Pope Francis stated that it is wrong to deal with the problem of immigration by "only" (key word) thinking about building walls. This is certainly true. As Christians, we are called to care about all those in need and not view them merely as “problems” to be kept at bay.

And then the Pope stated something omitted in most media accounts. He said that he would give Trump the benefit of the doubt – in the hopes that his position has been misunderstood or mischaracterized.  In this, the Holy Father faithfully reflected the teaching of the founder of his Jesuit order as quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:  “Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another's statement than to condemn it.”

If only Trump had first done likewise with the Pope.

Whether one supports or does not support Donald Trump, it seems hard to dispute that he has said a number of inflammatory things about immigrants that have lacked proper distinctions – sometimes broad-brushing them in dehumanizing ways (click here for example). Only after receiving heavy criticism did he offer further clarifications that made somewhat better distinctions. Often the media has not given these clarifications much coverage, perhaps because they have an agenda and/or because they doubted Trump's sincerity. Regardless, the Pope can certainly be forgiven for wondering about where Trump stands on this issue – particularly considering the fact that Trump started the dispute by making uncharitable criticisms of the Pope.

There is only one thing Pope Francis said in this off-the-cuff answer to a reporter that concerned me, but it was apparently an issue of translational nuance. It would not have been proper to say that Trump or anyone is "not a Christian" for holding such views about immigrants. A person does not cease being a Christian for having less than charitable ideas or because of behaving in less than Christian ways. Were that the case, none of us could be called "Christians".

But Fr. Angel Sotelo has offered the following helpful clarification:

The words would be translated to say one's ideas and attitude are antithetical to the Gospel. The meaning is not that a person is outside the membership of the baptized. The equivalent in English would be when we say a person is "unAmerican" but we do not mean they are an illegal alien.

Perhaps further clarification from the Vatican will be forthcoming. But in the mean time, hopefully all sides will step back, take a deep breath and start to charitably give each other the benefit of the doubt. Thankfully, it seems that is already starting to happen. And for those of us who are Catholic, I particularly hope and pray we never tire of giving our father in the faith – Pope Francis – the filial charity, respect and deference that he is due and that we always remain more ready give a favorable interpretation to his statements than to condemn them.