By now, you’ve heard and read everywhere that Pope Francis criticized Donald Trump on Thursday during a visit to Mexico. Here’s how the pontiff’s remarks have been characterized in the mainstream media:
In a remarkable dispute just two days before a pivotal Republican primary, Pope Francis said Donald Trump's plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border is un-Christian, prompting Trump to respond that it was "disgraceful" for the pope to question his religion. (USA Today)
Pope Francis said on Thursday that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border is "not Christian." (Huffinton Post)
Hours after praying for Mexican migrants who died trying to reach the United States, Pope Francis singled out Donald Trump, telling reporters aboard the papal plane that anybody who wants to build border walls "is not Christian." (The Washington Post)
Thrusting himself into the combative 2016 presidential campaign, Pope Francis said Thursday that GOP front-runner Donald Trump "is not Christian" if he calls for the deportation of undocumented immigrants and pledges to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. (CNN)
An extraordinary dispute between Pope Francis and Donald Trump broke out Thursday after the pontiff said the Republican presidential candidate’s immigration stands make him “not Christian,” prompting Mr. Trump to retort that questioning his personal faith was “disgraceful.” (Wall Street Journal)
Maybe Francis really does think Trump’s border wall is a terrible idea. And maybe, if Trump actually wins the election and builds the thing, the pope will tell some Mexican named Joshua to march along the wall for seven days and then yell until it falls down. (That’s a Bible joke that Trump apparently wouldn’t get.)
But it seems pretty clear, upon a close reading of the pope’s comments, that he is much more concerned about what is in Trump’s heart — and whether it aligns with Christian virtue — than with the physical act of constructing a wall.
This is the key sentence: “A person who thinks only about building walls — wherever they may be — and not building bridges is not Christian.”
Francis’s critique centered on Trump’s thinking. I don’t get the sense that all will be fine, in the pope’s book, if Trump ultimately doesn’t succeed in building the border wall. What matters — regardless of the outcome — is his mindset. It’s the thought that counts, in other words.
The pope seemed particularly distressed that Trump thinks only about building walls — that it’s all-consuming for him. The billionaire’s campaign correctly pointed out that the Vatican City is surrounded by a wall in an attempt to paint Francis as a hypocrite. But that’s not really the point. The point is that walls dominate Trump’s thinking and his political brand.
Notice, too, that the pope said “walls” (plural), as if he were talking about more than just Trump’s plan for the Southern border. Might “building walls” be a metaphor for the divisive, jingoistic rhetoric Francis has observed more generally in Trump’s campaign? It sure seems like it — especially since the pope emphasized that he was talking about walls “wherever they may be” and followed up with classic “building bridges” imagery.
He wasn’t suggesting a physical bridge between the United States and Mexico, obviously; he was talking about a spirit of outreach and understanding that he finds lacking in the Republican presidential front-runner.
The press, as it often does on religious issues, got stuck on a literal, oversimplified interpretation of the pope’s words. Francis doesn't like what he has heard from Trump. That much is true. But to say that he called the specific act of constructing a wall on the Southern border un-Christian is to miss the full meaning of his rebuke.