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Pope Francis wants President Trump to expand his definition of ‘pro-life’ to include protecting DACA recipients

Pope Francis talks to journalists during a news conference aboard a plane flight to Rome at the end of his visit to Colombia, September 11, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Medichini/Pool

President Trump isn't as pro-life as he says he is if he doesn't protect young immigrants from deportation, Pope Francis said on Monday.

Trump decided last week to phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, giving Congress six months to determine the futures for about 690,000 people who arrived in the U.S. as minors.

But Pope Francis is urging the president to rethink a decision that the religious leader fears could tear families apart.

“If he is a good pro-life believer, he must understand that family is the cradle of life and one must defend its unity,” Francis said during an in-flight news conference en route to the Vatican from Colombia.

Removing children from families “isn’t something that bears fruit for either the youngsters or their families.”

“I hope they rethink it a bit,” the pope said. “Because I heard the U.S. president speak: He presents himself as a person who is pro-life.”

During the 2016 presidential campaign and before it, Trump's position on abortion wasn't always clear — especially during a period when he appeared to give conflicting answers to questions about the issue over a three-day period.

But since entering the White House, Trump has repeatedly shared his support for the cause of antiabortion activists. And his position is consistent with the majority of those in his party. Most Republicans — 65 percent — say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, according to the Pew Research Center.

Francis has become known, and praised among liberals, for consistent calls to expand what it means to be “pro-life,” a phrase usually applied narrowly to mean antiabortion. But it doesn't appear as if the president will include protecting undocumented youth from being deported to countries that their advocates say could put them in harm's way in his definition of “pro-life.”

The day after his DACA decision, Trump said he had “no second thoughts.”

Several religious leaders have spoken out against the Trump administration's decision, including leadership of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“The cancellation of the DACA program is reprehensible,” they wrote. “It causes unnecessary fear for DACA youth and their families. These youth entered the U.S. as minors and often know America as their only home.”

“The Catholic Church has long watched with pride and admiration as DACA youth live out their daily lives with hope and a determination to flourish and contribute to society: continuing to work and provide for their families, continuing to serve in the military, and continuing to receive an education,” the leaders added. “Now, after months of anxiety and fear about their futures, these brave young people face deportation. This decision is unacceptable and does not reflect who we are as Americans.”

That pushback from Catholic leaders is understandable in part given the increased prominence of Latino immigrants in the U.S. Catholic church.

But not all American Catholics view that as a good thing — and some think the church is worried that Trump's DACA decision would stem that growth, including former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.

The Catholic Church has been “unable to really, to come to grips with the problems in the church. They need illegal aliens. They need illegal aliens to fill the churches,” Bannon said in a "60 Minutes” interview that aired Sunday.

Latinos have represented most of the country's Catholic population growth in recent years, with immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean reshaping the picture of Catholicism in the United States, according to Hosffman Ospino, assistant professor of theology and religious education at Boston College's School of Theology and Ministry.

Bannon thinks the Catholic church's support for them is rooted in financial interest.

“They have — they have an economic interest. They have an economic interest in unlimited immigration, unlimited illegal immigration,” he said.

While most Americans support DACA, most white Catholics share Bannon's negative view of undocumented immigrants. Only 44 percent of white Catholics believe immigrants strengthen the country, according to a 2015 Public Religion Research Institute poll. The same survey found that more than 4 in 10 white Catholics say immigrants threaten traditional American customs and values. Perhaps these views are why Trump won the Catholic vote after the group chose the Democratic candidate in the two previous presidential elections.

While the pope may think he's putting Trump in a predicament where he has to choose between being “pro-life” and anti-DACA, it appears that many of these Catholics are like Bannon in that they don't look to the pope to shape their views on immigration or even abortion issues.

After all, more than half of American Catholics wouldn't be “pro-life” to the pope, given their belief that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to the Pew Research Center, a position that is actually at odds with the Catholic church.