This week marks a year since we saw the (first) media-facilitated row between Donald Trump and Pope Francis. The context, as many will recall, was the pope’s visit to the US-Mexican border – a symbolic and substantive critique those in the United States (including, but not only, Trump) who demonized immigrants and called to build walls. Speaking to reporters, the pontiff (a title related to his role as a bridge builder) drew from Catholic-Biblical tradition to highlight the moral obligation of all Christians, including political leaders, to welcome the stranger:
“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not of building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel…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 I will give him the benefit of the doubt,
While he did not mention Trump by name and prefaced his informal comments with “a wait and see attitude,” the message was clear and the “build the wall” candidate responded by questioning the pope’s authority and calling his comments “disgraceful.”
See the videos of the comments of both men here.
A clash between Donald Trump and Pope Francis is not all that surprising. Indeed, in terms of style, two human beings could be farther apart. While one has shunned the elaborate trappings of the papacy, the other has been the poster boy for decadence, glamor and excess. In terms of public policy, the gulf between the two is even wider. Many of Trump’s policy issues stand in sharp opposition to Pope Francis’s policy priorities, including US-Cuba reconciliation, nuclear disarmament, support for the United Nations, the status of Palestine, climate change, the dignity of Muslim citizens, and economic inequality.
While it is tempting to set Donald Trump up as being the as the Anti-Pope Francis, such a view is both simplistic and dangerous for several reasons. First, such a binary (which might conjure up notions of a marvel superhero and his nemesis) reduces the pope’s message only to him. While fans of Pope Francis might welcome this and speak about him as an innovative prophetic reformer, detractors can easily use the same logic to make him an outlier, someone that could be ignored until the next pope comes along.
Clearly, this pope’s style is special and unique, but the content of his social teachings is squarely in line not only with both the Biblical tradition and with both Pope Benedict XVI and Saint John Paul II, heroes of many in the religious right. The continuity of Pope Francis with the Bible and his predecessors, on issues such as immigration, economic justice, and ecological sustainability, ought to make many in the Trump uncomfortable.
Second, if we reduce concern for economic and environmental justice only to Pope Francis, we will lose sight of realities of the global church. The average Christian and the average Catholic in the world are non-whites, non-Americans, and people who live below or close to the poverty line. In the game of globalization, most Catholics in the world are not on the “winning” side (if you count winning in terms of power and money). Most Christian are people that Trump might consider “losers,” men, women and children who will never know what it’s like to play golf or stay in glittering hotels.
Finally, by constructing a Pope Francis-Donald Trump binary we overlook the many other people who are actively or passively supporting Trump’s policies of exclusion and building walls. This includes the leadership of the Democratic party who have not exactly been builders of bridges in recent decades. Catholics have a tremendous power in Washington on both sides of the isle, including Speaker Ryan and Vice President Pence (who describes himself as a Catholic Evangelical). We must avoid any temptation to think that anything good or bad is the result of one person. Most of us, to some degree, are complicit.
Jesus “the Loser”
Focusing too much on the person of Pope Francis also distracts us from his message, the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ. We cannot and must not forget that the person at the heart of Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth, was himself a loser (according to the logic of power). He was a homeless refugee as an infant and a criminal as an adult. The power of the incarnate God is found not in power and force, but in humility and service. This reality of God’s incarnation and Jesus’ profound embodiment of love is far more antithetical to the recent political displays power and exclusion than any one person–even if that person is Pope Francis.
It’s been a year since Pope Francis’ visit to the US-Mexican border and the fears of many are being realized. Many of Trump’s executive orders are indeed worrisome. Given the number of Catholics who supported the president and continue to do so (including Pence and Ryan), it’s time to re-frame the debate in light of the Word of God and the depth of the Catholic tradition. This is not an easy task–to reconnect Catholics to core dimensions of their faith. Such a pedagogical and a pastoral task is not easy, and it will require both courage and humility. Thankfully, however, that is exactly what the Holy Spirit offers us in our journey ahead if only we are open to receive it.