Yesterday, Pope Francis was drawn, through no fault of his own, into American politics.
When asked whether an American Catholic could vote for “a person like” Donald Trump, the pope answered: 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 says things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.”
The pope’s words were clear, but his remarks have already been misinterpreted. So let’s add some light rather than heat to the discussion.
First, here are a few things to bear in mind, so as not to exaggerate his words:
- Pope Francis was responding to a question in an in-flight press conference, during the return leg of a papal trip, when reporters usually focus on the neuralgic issues associated with the recently concluded voyage. In other words, the pope didn’t raise the topic himself; nor did he mention Trump’s name in his answer. So the notion that he was going out of his way to “attack” Trump is ridiculous. Rather, the pope was answering a question put to him by a journalist as sincerely as he could. (Also, he assiduously reminded people that he was not telling them who to vote for. He couldn’t have been any clearer about that in his brief answer.)
- The pope seemed not to have known exactly what Trump said, and was reluctant to pass judgment on the man. He said explicitly, “If he said things in that way.” Besides, this is the man who asked, “Who am I to judge?”
- Like any good Jesuit, who knows that this rule is ingrained in the thinking of Saint Ignatius Loyola, the Jesuit founder, the pope says that he is giving Trump the “benefit of the doubt.” As Saint Ignatius wrote in the “Spiritual Exercises,” “it is necessary to suppose that every good Christian is more ready to put a good interpretation on another’s statement than to condemn it as false.” That is, one should always assume the best possible interpretation of a person’s words and deeds. So the pope’s response was couched in explicit terms of “if he said this” and with an implicit “perhaps I’ve misunderstood him.”
But in many ways, the pope’s words are being interpreted correctly. Here are a few things to remember, so as not to water down what he said:
- Pope Francis is correct. Any person who consistently speaks of excluding people, who trumpets his desire to (literally) build more walls between communities, and who manifests a desire to increase division, is not walking the Christian way. For the desire for unity, for oneness, for community, is an essential part of the Christian worldview. Indeed, this is the concept that lies behind “reconciliation,” of reuniting a person with God and with the larger community. It’s no surprise that one of the pope’s traditional titles is “Pontifex Maximus,” the Great Bridge Builder. More basically, for the Christian there is no “other.” Jesus demonstrates this repeatedly in the Gospels, as he continually reaches out to those on the margins, and even prays in the Gospel of John, “That they may be one.” For the Christian there is no “us” and “them.” There is only “we.”
- Pope Francis is correct in another way as well. While the pope didn’t address this aspect of Trump’s candidacy, the billionaire businessman has directed hatred against a great many people — migrants of course, but also Mexicans, women, his fellow presidential candidates and on and on. This, too, is not of God. The kind of hatred that issues from Trump’s mouth —from anyone’s mouth — is not motivated by God. Hatred of this sort is motivated by evil; so is contempt for the poor. “Love your neighbor” is not a bumper sticker slogan; it’s an absolute requirement of the Christian life.
- The pope speaks with authority. If anyone has the right to pronounce on such matters, it is Pope Francis. Learned, prayerful and humble, Francis is someone whom the world has rightly come to trust. As much as we would listen to the Dalai Lama when it comes to Buddhist practice, we would listen to Pope Francis when it comes to Christian teachings. And though people may be more accustomed to hear popes talk about other issues, like matters of sexual morality, Pope Francis reminds us that abortion is not the only issue that matters to the Catholic church. Issues surrounding migration, human trafficking, and more broadly the poor, also matter to the Christian person.
Trump has responded to Pope Francis with a hateful comment about the Islamic State bombing the Vatican. His belligerent tone stands in contrast to the pope’s nuanced, even reluctant, comments, where he phrases things subtly, never uses Trump’s name and ends by giving him the benefit of the doubt. When it comes to these two competing versions of Christianity — one of exclusion and hatred and contempt, and one of inclusion and love and good wishes — I know which one I’d vote for.