Pope Francis was on a visit to Mexico and not the United States. Yet the impact of his visit was felt on both sides of the border. It was Donald Trump who dragged the Pope into the raging controversy and the consequential war of words. He termed Pope Francis’ decision to visit Cuidad Juarez, “political.” Mr. Trump called the Pope a “very political person.” If the issue was settled there, I would not be writing this article. On his flight back to the Vatican, the Pope chose to comment on the “wall” that has become the signature symbol of the Trump campaign. The Pope said: "A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel.” The Pope did not name Mr. Trump, but the reference was more than obvious. Mr. Trump retorted by calling the pope’s comments “disgraceful.” The same night, however, Mr. Trump heaped praised on Pope Francis at at town hall debate. It is my thinking that Mr. Trump was not left with many options.
The controversy has subsided for now. However, in spite of Mr. Trumps wealth, power and influence, Pope Francis trumped Mr. Trump. Here is how and why:
1. The Primacy of the Gospel. In the statement that Pope Francis made about “walls,” the pope gave his rationale for the observation. “This is not the gospel,” he said. And “the gospel” is precisely the pope’s first trump card. Pope Francis did not name Mr. Trump and did not at any time suggest that he has a personal issue with Mr. Trump. Rather, the Pope was suggesting that for someone who claims to be Christian, the true measure of public policy is the gospel of Jesus Christ. If Christ built bridges his followers cannot built walls. Pope Francis is not Mr. Trumps critique; the gospel of Jesus Christ is the true critique of Mr. Trump’s divisive and exclusionary public policy. In other words, Mr. Trump is not answerable to the Pope, but rather, the gospel. The Vatican’s clarification about the Pope’s statement is significant. It said, “The Pope said what we already know, if we followed his teaching and positions: we shouldn’t build walls, but bridges. It’s his generic view, coherent with the nature of solidarity from the gospel.” Trump’s fight is not with the Pope. Mr. Trump’s fight is with the gospel. With the gospel as the reference point, Pope Francis left Mr. Trump with no cards to play. Mr. Trump’s retort calling Pope Francis’s comments “disgraceful” rung hollow.
2. “Location, Location, Location.” Both the Pope and Mr. Trump are passionate about borders. It is their perception about the border that separates the two. One talks about “walls” the other talks about “bridges.” More importantly, though, it is the location that is the pope’s second trump card. This pope is called the Pope of the peripheries. He always goes where others dread to go. Cuidad Juvarez is one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Yet that is were the Pope chose to be found on the last day of his visit. He located himself at the peripheries of two nations to celebrate the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the most compelling symbol of global unity. At the celebration of the Eucharist, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28). In similar vain, on the 16th of February 2016, at the border of two conflicting nations, there was neither Mexican nor American, but only one people united by the body of Christ. Every border, every difference, every conflict had faded into the distance. Trump stands at a very different place. His exclusionary politics, which reminds one of the mid twentieth century fascism, centers around walls and ethnic databases that highlight divisions. His possible nomination of the Republican Party or election as the President of the United States will not come from the people who live on the borders but from altars raised at the centers of wealth, power and glory - the very temptations that Christ rejected in the desert. Mr. Trump’s struggle is not with the Pope. His fight is with Christ. Christ rejected the very places Mr. Trump loves to tread. Pope Francis, on the contrary, speaks from where Christ spoke - the peripheries.
3. A “Very Political Person.” Secular America’s suspicion of Roman influence on American Catholics is not new. American Catholics’ fidelity to the Constitution was always questioned. This suspicion took concrete shape when Kennedy was elected president. He was asked about his relationship with Rome. He replied, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.” When Donald Trump called the Pope “very political,” it is the separation of Church and State that he had in mind. After all, what does the pope have to do with American public policy? Perhaps Mr. Trumps observation that Pope Francis is a “very political person” is true. However, it is only true to the extent that both domestic global issues cannot be put into neat religious, moral, economic or political categories. One only needs to scratch the surface of the present presidential campaign to realize that the corridors of religion and politics intersect more often that not. After all, Roe versus Wade, and opposition or support of it is not merely political, is it? On the contrary, domestic and global issues are moral, economic, and political all at the same time. It is Mr. Trump’s inability to deal with such complexities that ends up in him calling the Pope a “very political person.” That the gospel of Jesus Christ has social implications is beyond Mr. Trump’s comprehension. A visit to Mexico, without addressing what the pontiff termed a “human tragedy” and “humanitarian crisis.” created by “forced immigration” would be morally, socially, economically and politically irresponsible. immigration is an economic, social and political issue. However, the response to it has moral implications. History bears witness that public policy devoid of moral implications lead to Nazisim. Perhaps, it is not Pope Francis who needs to be less political but Mr. Trump’s who needs to be more moral.
However, it is my suspicion that his cards are simply not stacked with those cards.
Fr. Satish Joseph