In this corner, Pope Francis; in that corner…Donald Trump?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 22, 2016

As I mentioned in last week’s more serious piece on the question of contraception (Responding to the papal interview as if truth matters), “We may wish at some point to discuss the Pope’s incautious moral characterization of Donald Trump.” Loath as I am to defend Trump, who started this whole charade by accusing the Pope of political meddling, I do wish to discuss it, and I wish to do so now.

Perhaps I should mention that we will find two of my prior theses to be as good as proven by the very fact that this discussion has arisen. The first thesis (advanced in my two part “Politics Is Dead” series) is that our culture has degenerated to the point that it is no longer capable of sustaining a moral politics (or even an effective politics, by any rational definition of the term).

When the best political cheer the opponents of secular humanism can contrive is “Don, Don, he’s our man. If Don can’t trump, nobody can”, then the writing really is on the wall. See Daniel, chapter 5.

The second thesis (advanced in my commentary on the papal interview) affirms “the constant difficulty that Pope Francis has in speaking clearly and precisely off-the-cuff in response to any question.” Here is the relevant text:

Phil Pullella, Reuters: Today, you spoke very eloquently about the problems of immigration. On the other side of the border, there is a very tough electoral battle. One of the candidates for the White House, Republican Donald Trump, in an interview recently said that you are a political man and he even said that you are a pawn, an instrument of the Mexican government for migration politics. Trump said that if he’s elected, he wants to build 2,500 kilometers of wall along the border. He wants to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, separating families, etcetera. I would like to ask you, what do you think of these accusations against you and if a North American Catholic can vote for a person like this?
Pope Francis: Thank God he said I was a politician because Aristotle defined the human person as animal politicus. At least I am a human person! As to whether I am a pawn, well, maybe, I don't know. I'll leave that up to your judgment and that of the people. And then, 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 has said things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.

In one sense, this response passes a certain basic test. By the slimmest of margins, it avoids condemning Trump personally; it seeks to focus on the ideas expressed. But we may legitimately ask what Christian principle is clarified by the statement that “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.” If we are speaking metaphorically, I suppose this statement is true as it stands. But the question was not metaphorical; it concerned a particular wall in a particular place, for a particular purpose, and at a particular time.

Idiocy and Christianity

I happen to think it is the grossest idiocy to attempt to solve conflicts among peoples, or even to protect American security, by building a 1500-mile wall. I admit that one survey has placed the length of the Great Wall of China, with all its branches, at over 13,000 miles. But history records that the Great Wall did relatively little good. A more modest effort, Hadrian’s wall in Britain, stretched a relatively laughable 73 miles. It didn’t do much good either. Nonetheless, it seems only fair to assess the wisdom and goodness of building a wall on prudential grounds.

Indeed, there is no Christian teaching against walls. A well-ordered vineyard is supposed to have them (see, for example, Isaiah 5) and in St. John’s vision the heavenly Jerusalem has a wall (Rev 21). As papal critics gleefully pointed out, the Vatican itself is mostly surrounded by walls—real walls, still used for the practical purpose of controlling access. As a metaphor, building a wall does mean hardening one’s heart. But the moral meaning of a literal wall is determined by its purposes, its proposed manner of use, its likelihood of success, and of course its costs.

A wise pope will not be drawn into this sort of discussion. Nor will he rise to the bait of commenting publicly on the remarks of others who have commented on him. If he actually knows something about the particular question at hand, he might wish to offer his own opinion as his own opinion, and it will always be worthwhile to examine the reasons he gives for that opinion. He ought certainly to raise searching moral questions to which all of us must seek answers in our policy evaluations. But if the Pope is to call somebody out, it ought to be for proposing, approving, promoting and doing things that are intrinsically evil, or at least clearly, demonstrably evil. Prudential policy differences are not the province of the Church.

More dangerous still, the primary result of papal censure in the United States is generally to provide publicity and an improved outlook for the one who is censured. As a colleague asked me in a phone discussion, “Does Pope Francis really want Trump to win?” Anyway, the Pope is more than capable of speaking privately with most American presidential candidates, should he choose to do so. It’s a much more effective way to learn a person’s position, and to shape it.

Years ago, in the founding and initial administration of Christendom College, I learned an extraordinarily valuable spiritual lesson. If a chaplain involves himself in politics, constantly throwing his weight behind one side or the other, he exacerbates divisions—and he can no longer be an effective chaplain to the party he opposes. In the normal course of expressing opinions in wide-ranging discussions, some “miffing” of others is bound to occur—inadvertently, unavoidably. But to offend in this way carelessly (or, God forbid, deliberately) is a kind of spiritual idiocy.

The Pope is, in a very real sense, the chaplain to the world. His task is to call everyone to pay strict attention to the moral and spiritual principles that ought to guide their lives, including their politics. But unless a particular policy is intrinsically evil (and there are plenty of those), he must leave scope for legitimate discussion. Like the rest of us, he will see a great many stupid policies enacted, through which considerable harm will be done. But that is not his brief. The first rule is that the Pope may have no horse in the race but God’s—unless he wants to be chaplain to a far smaller group.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Feb. 23, 2016 5:20 PM ET USA

    It appears that I am not the only one to object to utterances of both men for pretty much the same reasons. Both of them pop off, cause a ruckus, and then have to have someone clean up after them.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Feb. 23, 2016 4:28 PM ET USA

    "Do you love me?.... Feed my sheep.". The Good Lord provides His Church with a Vicar. All the baptized look to Rome. Indeed all the the world looks to Rome...to Peter. Even today. The Pope must be convinced of this. This is a sacred office. Where Peter is, there is the Church. Our Lord told Peter : I have prayed for thee...". We can do no less.

  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Feb. 23, 2016 12:13 PM ET USA

    Perfectly stated. What are the odds of this message getting through to Pope Francis?

  • Posted by: alexanderh167577 - Feb. 23, 2016 2:31 AM ET USA

    Maybe Trump’s views aren’t intrinsically immoral, but they certainly are piggishly and obstinately uncharitable. If Francis breaks character a bit to call out Trump’s foolishness I just have a hard time seeing that as an act of spiritual idiocy. But perhaps I’m just as recklessly imprudent and spiritually immature as the Pope.